Paralegals and legal assistants are integral to keeping law offices, courts and other types of government offices around the country running smoothly. Law firms in particular often employ paralegals to handle anything from interviewing clients to helping an attorney prepare for trial. Specialization among paralegals and other legal experts is common, and can include real estate, accounting, social services and more.
Most employers prefer an applicant who holds at least an associate degree in paralegal studies, though legal assistants and paralegals are sometimes trained on the job instead. Students who plan to juggle school with a full- or part-time job, or even with family responsibilities, might find an online degree program to be a convenient method to earn an education in the field.
Best Online Colleges for Paralegal Studies in 2018-19
Finding online colleges for paralegal studies isn't difficult… but finding the right one can be. All students have their own individual needs, and they must keep in mind that not every program out there can meet those needs. In order to help future paralegals make this important choice, we've identified a list of the best colleges for paralegal studies. This list was constructed using a proprietary methodology made by OnlineColleges.com (more details at the bottom of this page) and using data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
Kaplan University-Davenport Campus
Eastern Kentucky University
Western Piedmont Community College
Georgia Piedmont Technical College
Mount Wachusett Community College
Clovis Community College
Cerro Coso Community College
Bryant & Stratton College Online
Degree Overview: Paralegal & Legal Services
Although lawyers are the face of a firm, paralegals help ensure a practice runs like a well-oiled machine. This is a big responsibility, and online colleges for paralegal and legal services have a lot to impart to help their students meet this challenge. This page provides a look at what may be taught in these programs and how it might prove useful for graduates looking for their careers.
Online Paralegal and Legal Services Courses
While the coursework that paralegals complete will depend on the specific program they enroll in, the following are examples of common classes students may take while earning their online paralegal and legal services degrees.
- Legal research and writing: These classes are dedicated to interviewing witnesses; using Westlaw and LexisNexis systems; describing rules of evidence and trial procedure; properly formatting legal citations; conducting business and financial searches; writing demand letters and promissory notes; and learning to understand case information and statutes.
- E-discovery: E-discovery is the process where parties of a lawsuit share information electronically. In order to teach students how this process works, a course in this subject may include topics such as internal and external litigation holds, e-discovery plan strategies, metadata and its uses, data preservation and protection methods, and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
- Criminal law: An essential component of this field, criminal law classes explore the role paralegals play when they assist attorneys with criminal cases. Students may be given information on the intake process; what happens during the pre-trial, trial, and post-trail stages of a criminal case; types of charges and defenses; and legal guidelines for obtaining evidence.
- Professional ethics: Just as lawyers are expected to work by an ethical code of conduct, paralegals are expected to adhere to the guidelines of their profession. Courses in ethics might explain conflicts of interest, legal malpractice, the boundaries of the attorney-client relationship, unauthorized practice of law or what kinds of information are considered confidential.
- Law office procedure: This class is designed to familiarize prospective paralegals with the realities of working in a legal environment. Associated subjects include file management, docket control, billing procedures, case management and types of legal office computer programs.
Career-Related Skills to Develop
In order to provide assistance to attorneys, paralegals need a battery of skills. This section provides an overview of some of the skills that student paralegals may want to pay particular attention to during their online courses.
- Writing: Paralegals are responsible for drafting a variety of documents, such as briefs, contracts, wills, pleadings and real estate closing statements. Strong writing skills are required to accurately convey the information needed in these documents.
- Communication: In addition to communicating with attorneys they work for, paralegals also regularly communicate with clients and witnesses. They must have the skills to speak to people in a professional manner to be successful.
- Technology: Budding paralegals can benefit from proficiency in several computer programs, such as LexisNexis CodeMaster, Thomson West ProLaw, LexisNexis CourtLink Strategic Profiles, Thomson Reuters LiveNote Stream, The Sackett Group MacPac for Legal, American LegalNet USCourtForms and ProForce Paralegal Pro-Pack.
- Organization: Law offices are busy, so chances are good that paralegals will be assisting more than one attorney or helping with more than one case at a time. They must be able to juggle several tasks, meet various deadlines and adjust their schedules accordingly as needs change.
Paralegal Studies Specializations
Paralegals are not required to obtain a certification in order to find employment; however, some employers prefer professionals with an industry credential, so earning one can be a wise move. The following associations offer certifications for workers in the field:
- The National Association of Legal Assistants has a certification for those who pass a qualifying examination that covers areas such as legal research, industry ethics, contracts, civil litigation and communication.
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations offers the CRP™ and RP® certifications. In order to earn a CRP™, professionals must pass the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam™ (PCCE™), which is designed for those who are in the early years of their career. More seasoned professionals are eligible for the RP® certification, which requires a passing grade on the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam® (PACE®).
- NALS offers the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and Certified Legal Professional (CLP) designations for those with three years of work experience, as well as the Professional Paralegal (PP) credential for people who have either completed an ABA-approved legal studies or paralegal studies program or have obtained five years of work experience.
Paralegal Studies Career Outlook
Those who pursue paralegal studies might do so in the hopes of becoming a paralegal. This educational path, however, prepares students for several related jobs as well. Here are a few positions a paralegal studies graduate might find intriguing.
Attorneys rely on paralegals and legal assistants to help them organize files, draft documents and conduct legal research. These legal professionals gather the facts of a case, summarize their findings for attorney review, assist in case preparation and obtain affidavits and other documents used in court. They contact those involved in a case to set up appointments, assist attorneys during the trial process and file legal documents on behalf of the attorney.
An associate degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another field as well as a certificate in paralegal studies, is often the minimum acceptable education for paralegal or legal assistant careers. However, those who have strong experience in a technical field useful to the attorney's firm might be hired without these educational requirements.
These individuals must have intense attention to detail and a good eye for research. Title examiners, abstractors and searchers work for real estate companies, financial institutions, insurance companies, attorneys and the like, where they search real estate records, summarize legal or insurance documents, examine titles and explore other documents related to a particular assignment. They are well-versed in searching public and private records to find information pertinent to a specific piece of land and the buildings on it.
Though title examiners, abstractors and searcher careers can start with only a high school diploma, applicants should expect short-term on-the-job training to help them get up to speed with the particulars of searching and understanding their results. Job candidates who have an associate or bachelor's degree in a field that requires strong research skills may find that that background enhances their job prospects.
Secretaries in a legal office handle all the work a secretary is traditionally responsible for — answering calls, taking messages, setting appointments, arranging meetings, handling correspondence and keeping up with a detailed filing system — but they do so in legal offices, where they must have familiarity with the legal world. This knowledge of legal terminology and procedure may also allow the legal secretary to prepare documents under the supervision of an attorney or paralegal. They might also review journals and assist with legal research.
Though most secretaries can begin work without a college degree, legal secretary careers typically require a working knowledge of the legal world. This can often be obtained through on-the-job training. However, those who want to impress at hiring time could take legal-related courses to better understand the terminology and procedures of the court.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we generated a list of colleges and universities that met the following four criteria for the specific subject being ranked:
- Offer a degree or certificate program in that subject, either in an online or hybrid format
- Have at least 1% of students attending some form of distance education
- Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in 2016-17
- Have reported data for all 11 ranking variables listed below
We ranked 1,813 colleges and universities in the United States on 11 criteria, using 2016-17 data from IPEDS:
- Program prominence, based on how many of the degrees and certificates awarded via distance education in 2016-2017 were in this particular subject
- Related subjects, based on the number of similar topics for programs in relevant CIP codes that are offered via distance education at any level
- Ratio of students participating fully or partially in DE to Total Enrollment
- Average in-state tuition for undergraduates
- Graduation rate
- Retention rate
- The availability of any tuition plans (Payment, Prepaid, Guaranteed, Other)
- Services (Academic/Career, Placement for Completers)
- Credit offerings (Dual, Life, AP, Military)
- Percent of undergraduate students awarded federal, state, local, institutional or other sources of grant aid
- Average amount of federal, state, local, institutional, or other sources of grant aid awarded to undergraduate students
All schools were scored on a 10-point scale for each of the points listed above. Individual data point scores were then multiplied by their respective weights, and the scores were added together, for a maximum possible score of 10 points.
NOTE: Schools' tuition amounts are based on 2016-17 undergraduate and graduate data reported to the National Center for Education Statistics. The actual cost of tuition may vary.