The virtual paralegal or V-Paralegal will take the center stage in the post-COVID law firm (Dahlquist and Shelton, 2020). As the demand for remote legal services increases, graduates of Online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies are more equipped to navigate the remote work landscape.
The American Bar Association (ABA) predicts more legal work for solo practitioners, small law offices, legal/paralegal association networks, and non-profit/volunteer organizations. Typically, it takes 18-24 months to finish an Online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies which is half the time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. One particular trend in this field is the outsourcing of paralegal work.
In 2019 there are roughly 428,000 paralegals in the United States workforce (BLS, 2021). Most law firms nowadays outsource the services of paralegal and legal assistants to support various staffing requirements. This means that for paralegals, there is an opportunity to take on multiple work assignments through remote work. Paralegals and legal assistants provide support to legal teams through research, interviewing, administration, and preparation. An online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies provides a broad foundation for both general education subjects and legal systems. There are many schools offering a fully-online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies, which is ideal for working students and also for those who want the flexibility of completing coursework at their own convenient time.
This article provides information on the admission requirements and coursework involved in an online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies. Factors such as cost and course requirements are discussed, including the differences between online paralegal associate degrees and traditional on-campus coursework.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all schools have migrated online. Fully online degree programs, however, have long been offered by institutions even before the current health crisis broke out. ABA-approved paralegal degree programs are widely known among legal professionals and employers as having the highest standards in both paralegal and legal education. To date, however, ABA has not accredited any fully online paralegal program. ABA requires that a minimum of program credits be completed on campus in a traditional classroom format.
In the paralegal profession, graduates do not need to be licensed or certified to be able to practice. Many states, however, offer certifications through state bar associations. The online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies program meets all the requirements of these associations because the programs are accredited by the same organizations that issue the certifications. What employers primarily look for are organizational skills, research skills, and communication skills. In addition, employers prefer someone who is comfortable using online tools in the new legal landscape.
The responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants are more specialized than administrative assistants but are less specialized than those of attorneys. Employing paralegals allows legal firms to efficiently manage time and talent (Ahmed, 2020). In view of the pandemic, an increasing number of employers in the field of legal services are looking for paralegal graduates that can effectively navigate the virtual landscape. This gives a graduate of online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies a significant advantage. COVID-19 has forced big law firms out of office, and to continue their operations, these companies are hiring entry-level paralegals that are highly experienced in remote work.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
As with any online and traditional course, accreditation is the primary determinant of an online program’s credibility. In the U.S., the American Bar Association (ABA) is a leading legal organization that accredits paralegal education programs. Since 1923, ABA has been awarding accreditation to law schools in the U.S. ABA’s stamp of approval means that your paralegal studies program has passed the strict education standards of both paralegal organizations and potential employers. The ABA approval means that the institution’s paralegal studies curriculum ensures professional competence. It is important to note that you will not find a fully online ABA-approved paralegal degree because paralegal studies require an internship, which is usually facilitated onsite to provide the paralegal student with authentic training as opposed to simulations.
The traditional Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies is a two-year course. The online paralegal associate degree takes 18-24 months to complete for full-time programs, plus, the internship. In the U.S., there are approximately 268 paralegal programs approved by the ABA. The curriculum consists of general education requirements that can be credited once the students decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
A comparative study by Farmer et al. (2021) on “Paralegal Students’ and Paralegal Instructors’ Perceptions of Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Paralegal Course Effectiveness” discovered that “both students and instructors perceive online synchronous paralegal courses as effective on the basis of universal design, online instructional design, and course content. Paralegal students reported higher perceptions of asynchronous online paralegal course effectiveness regarding universal design than paralegal instructors. No statistically significant differences existed between paralegal students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of synchronous and asynchronous online
Published in the International Journal for the Educational and Vocational Studies, the research by Farmer et al. (2021) established that (1) delivery and content-wise, there is no difference between the traditional and online paralegal studies degree programs, and (2) there is a wide acceptance of online paralegal degrees. Online degree courses in paralegal studies can provide advantages as it offers the online student flexibility, affordability, proficiency in technology, and increased learning engagement.
Perhaps the top advantage of taking an online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies is the extent of control that you have in terms of managing your schedule. Compared to taking courses on-campus, online programs are designed for students that have multiple responsibilities but still desire to pursue post-secondary education. Since online degree programs are offered in synchronous and asynchronous formats, the online student is given a degree of control over the learning process.
But more than the time and space concept of flexibility, Daniel (2010) identified a deeper meaning of flexibility that online education offers. In traditional education, the ‘iron triangle’ of access, quality, and cost represents the education ministers’ dilemma—it shows that although classroom teaching may be flexible, an attempt to increase one side of the triangle would always compromise the other two. In online learning, however, access, quality, and cost can be achieved all at the same time through the use of technology.
Increased engagement leads to deeper learning. There are five elements of engagement for teaching in the online space—social engagement, cognitive engagement, behavioral engagement, collaborative engagement, and emotional engagement (Redmond et al., 2018). Studies have shown that the use of online learning tools enhances the quality of online learning. Higher levels of experience with online learning lead to more favorable perceptions of online courses (Astani et al., 2010).
The overall cost of an online degree is lower than the traditional degree because you will be studying remotely, which means that compared to an on-campus student, you will be able to save on room and board. An online associate degree in paralegal studies requires at least 90 credit hours, at roughly $371 per credit hour. If you will be taking the course on campus, room and board would cost you an additional $9,976. Earning your degree online will also translate to additional savings on transportation costs and other costs associated with on-campus study.
While an online degree is able to eliminate the cost of room and board and other on-campus expenses compared to traditional learning, your total expenses would still depend on your ability to complete the online associate paralegal studies degree on time. Taking the course full-time will cost less than taking your course part-time because there are fixed registration costs per semester. As with other courses, request a breakdown of costs from the institution so you could effectively plan how you can earn your associate degree program online without incurring additional costs. Most schools require students to finish the associate degree program within five years of the start date.
An online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies is as good as the degree offered on campus. The National Federation of Paralegals Associations (NFPA), an organization that works toward the establishment of common standards of certification of paralegals across the U.S., asserts that distance programs are viable alternatives, especially for self-motivated individuals. These organizations, along with other state-based legal organizations and the ABA ensure that accreditation will be the determining factor of paralegal education quality.
There are many factors that influence the cost of an online paralegal studies degree. An associate degree is a two-year program that requires a smaller number of credits, thus it is less expensive than a four-year bachelor’s degree. State residency is one important consideration. Most institutions charge higher tuition for out-of-state students, so it would be wise to choose a college or university within your state if you want to avail of lower per credit hour cost. Some schools, however, charge a flat rate for online students regardless of residency. The median in-state public tuition for an associate paralegal degree is $4,916, while the median out-of-state private tuition is $27,400. The cost per credit hour ranges from $135 to $390, and students should expect to pay between $8,100 and $26,000 in total tuition. Online students should take note that there are applicable technology fees in online learning.
There is a high demand for paralegals and legal assistants not just in the U.S. but worldwide. The opportunity is also promising for paralegals that are comfortable with technology. Among the highest paying industry for paralegals is the scientific and research development services. The average salary of paralegals and legal assistants is $51,982 with estimated job growth of 10.4%, significantly higher than the 3.71% average national growth rate (BLS, 2021). Paralegals and legal assistants are usually employed by organizations providing legal services, justice, public order and safety activities, and insurance carriers. Paralegals play a significant role in legal proceedings. They conduct essential research, interview clients, and prepare court documents. Experienced paralegals and legal assistants can proceed to take on jobs in government agencies, real estate companies, and corporate law firms.
The ABA (2021) refers to paralegals as those who “perform specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Degrees in paralegal studies, both online and traditional, are highly regulated due to the responsibility that it entails. An online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies requires 60 to 90 credits of coursework. Full-time students can expect to complete their degree in two years. To answer the query—can you become a paralegal with an associate degree?—would largely depend if you can meet the following requirements.
A high school diploma or its equivalent is the minimum admission requirement for paralegal associate programs. Applicants are usually required to submit high school transcripts, application forms, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation from teachers or employers. If you have previously completed general or paralegal coursework in another institution, you may apply for transfer credits. Grade point average (GPA) requirement varies for each institution but some schools may require a minimum GPA of 3.0. Once you are admitted to the online paralegal associate degree program, a minimum GPA is required per semester until the program is completed.
Compared to traditional learning, online learning requires time management skills and self-discipline. The student should also be self-motivated because learning will depend on your pacing. Communication and reading comprehension skills are crucial as most courses will require lengthy analysis. Both the synchronous and asynchronous format would also require different collaboration strategies, and will necessitate familiarity with online tools. To ensure effective participation in online learning, you must have a defined schedule, a dedicated workspace, and an adaptive mindset.
Your chosen online learning device—laptop or desktop—as well as your online tools, play an important role in your online learning. Choose a device that can accommodate all the apps that you will be required to use. Your device should have a camera and microphone. The college or university usually provides a list of minimum or recommended system requirements, including the required hardware and software. Once you have been informed of the learning management system and the other platforms that will be used for the semester, make it a point to check the minimum system requirements of each software to ensure compatibility with your device.
The courses offered in online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies vary per institution, but most programs need foundational general education subjects, such as Math or Science, English, and Communications to comply with general university degree requirements. Paralegal topics in most associate degree programs include an introduction to law, legal research and writing, civil litigation, and legal ethics. The elective courses, on the other hand, allow the student to focus on a particular interest, which can be in the area of criminal, environmental, employment, or tax law, and domestic relations.
Some examples of required courses in paralegal associate degree programs are:
Legal Research and Writing. This course teaches the basic techniques of legal research through federal and state case law, encyclopedias, statutes, administrative material, Shepards, and other sources. It includes extensive hands-on exercises, which also prepare students planning to attend law school. In addition, students are also provided training on legal writing with more in-depth research using Westlaw.
Litigation. The introductory litigation course includes the initial phases of the litigation process in state and federal courts, including proceedings in administrative agencies. Conducting client interviews, pre-litigation investigations, drafting of pleadings, and initiating lawsuits are among the learning outcomes of this course that simulate pre-trial proceedings. The advanced litigation course continues the litigation process onto discovery, trial, and post-trial stages. Evidentiary issues, organization of case files, settlement negotiations, trial preparation, document control systems, trial procedure, and post-trial proceedings are also discussed, including alternative dispute resolution and administrative hearings.
Law, Ethics and Society. For students interested in pursuing a legal career, this is a preparatory course that provides practical and universal content on the study of law and the legal system. Gives an overview of the courts, torts, contracts, property law, civil and criminal procedure, and the individual’s rights. Also introduces case law, analysis, and ethical considerations.
Contracts and Commercial Transactions. This course provides a general introduction to the more technical side of paralegal study, which includes the basic legal principles of contracts, including those that involve modern business transactions, the rights of debtors and creditors—the uniform commercial code, sale, negotiable instruments, and secured transactions.
Theories of Liability. This course discusses the liability of persons who commit civil wrongs, including tort law basics.
Paralegal Internship. Under the supervision of a lawyer, the student participates in an internship program for a minimum of 150 hours. The internship may be scheduled as a summer program or as a part-time field experience during the year. This field experience is complemented with classroom work in the form of weekly seminars. Moreover, students will be exposed to work-specific practices and build skills in various areas such as evidence management.
Students of online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies may choose a concentration or specialty, just as lawyers choose an area of law in which to practice. Some of the most common specialties for paralegals are litigation, real estate, intellectual property, immigration, family law, corporate and estate planning, and probate.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
The American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) describes paralegals as those that “perform substantive and procedural legal work as authorized by law, whose work, in the absence of the paralegal, would be performed by an attorney. Paralegals have knowledge of the law gained through education, or education and work experience, which qualifies them to perform legal work. Paralegals adhere to recognized ethical standards and rules of professional responsibility.”(AAfPE, 2021). As the description states, the role of a paralegal entails upholding professional and ethical standards. Thus, in choosing an institution that offers an online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies program, you have to carefully evaluate the program’s accreditation, the program content and design, the school’s reputation and faculty, including the services provided to online students.
When choosing an online paralegal studies school, accreditation should be on top of the factors that you need to consider. Look for an ABA-approved program. While there are no ABA-approved fully online paralegal degrees, the organization recognizes that a portion of paralegal courses can be taken online. ABA accreditation means the program meets the standards for high-quality paralegal education. Earning an associate degree in paralegal studies that carries the ABA stamp of approval declares that you have received high-quality paralegal training. Since ABA is a widely recognized institution, law firms and organizations requiring legal services hire paralegals from ABA-accredited universities and colleges.
Cognitive presence is key to critical thinking. According to the AAfPE’s “Paralegal Core Competencies” (2013), critical thinking is the highest core competency in a paralegal education curriculum. Logical argument and higher levels of thinking are components of cognitive development and constructivism, and as such, form a foundation for paralegal education and online paralegal courses. Look for a program that provides the necessary training for a paralegal in the area of research and writing. You should also check if you can use the credits you have earned to continue your education towards a four-year degree.
The usual time that it takes to complete an online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies is two years. Look for an associate degree program that will allow you to tailor the coursework requirements to your busy schedule. You may choose to take the accelerated associate degree programs offered by some institutions, but you have to be ready to tackle more coursework per week. Always check each course length as well as the requirements so you can plan accordingly.
The school’s track record in providing paralegal education is also an important factor as well as the faculty members that deliver instruction. The best teachers for paralegal studies would be the actual practitioners, either lawyers or paralegals that have extensive experience from large or specialized firms, corporations, and government agencies. These teachers will not only impart valuable insights and experience but can also add value to your network after graduation.
As a remote student, you will need a college or university that provides important services. There are institutions that provide 24/7 support, while some have dedicated communication lines for online students. Aside from the standard student services, some schools also offer counseling and assistance with internship and paralegal career placement. You may also look for the school’s career placement record to see where graduates have found employment. Check with the school what are the available services for students.
Source: The Census Bureau
An online Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies delivers the same standards as a traditional paralegal education. This two-year associate program with online degree courses in paralegal studies requires the completion of 60-90 credit hours, with some courses required to be taken on-campus if you will choose the ABA-approved programs. With the rise of virtual paralegal offices at the onset of the pandemic, virtual paralegal education has become essential. Online paralegal education is a remote study option that could open a number of opportunities once earned. In today’s changing legal services market, having a formal paralegal education is an advantage. While TV legal dramas have the tendency to paint the picture of a law firm as stressful and intense, the challenges in paralegal work provide significant training that can pave the way to greater opportunities.
Paralegal education programs are available online, and institutions are adjusting their curricula to meet the needs of students in the context of COVID-19. The AAfPE is also working with paralegal educators to be able to deliver high-quality paralegal education. Access to continuing legal education seminars and free paralegal student memberships are also offered by national and state paralegal associations, including the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS,) and the NFPA. The demand for legal services from the public and legal organizations has increased, and paralegals will continue to play a crucial role in delivering efficient legal services to businesses and communities.