Do I Need a Paralegal Bachelor's Degree? Clarifying Your Paralegal Career Path
By Brianna Flavin on 10/14/2019
You’ve been wondering about becoming a paralegal for a while now. When you research the job, you think it could be perfect for you—stable, interesting and right in the thick of the legal field. But the required credentials for landing some paralegal jobs can get a little confusing.
You may have noticed that some job postings for paralegals are seeking applicants with a Bachelor’s degree—yet most of the paralegal programs you’ve seen are only offered at an Associate’s degree level. What’s going on with that? Can you get a paralegal Bachelor’s degree? Do you need one?
To help you get to the bottom of it and make sense of a paralegal career path, we combined expert insight with some research in this field. Read on to find out what you need to progress on the paralegal path.
So what do you really need for a paralegal education?
As of 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that most paralegals hold an Associate’s degree in paralegal studies or a Bachelor's degree in another field combined with a certificate in paralegal studies.1 That said, the BLS also notes that some firms may also hire candidates with a Bachelor’s degree who have no formal paralegal training or experience and train them in-house.1 As you can see, there are quite a few paths toward potentially landing a paralegal job, and requirements may vary quite a bit depending on the employer and the job market near where you live.
But what kinds of education expectations are our experts seeing from their experience?
Aileen Requejado, public finance paralegal at Greenberg Traurig, says a Bachelor’s degree is a common requirement these days, though it does not have to be in paralegal studies. Requejado says many employers are primarily concerned with wanting to see the cognitive skills expected of students in college.
“Some firms look for paralegals with paralegal certificates,” says Jessica Menjivar of Goldstein Immigration Lawyers. “But we seek out recent grads who have little or no experience, but who come from a liberal arts background emphasizing writing and critical thinking.” Menjivar adds that her firm looks for candidates with strong academic records.
Teresa Flores, lead paralegal at Stewart J. Guss, Attorney At Law, says that while having a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice or a related subject will always be helpful and make you more competitive, many paralegals are able to find work without it.
To decide which paralegal education path you should pursue, Flores recommends reflecting on how long you hope to be in the field. “Depending on whether you're looking for a short-term job versus making a career in Law, your priority on a Bachelor’s degree will vary,” she says.
Completing a Paralegal Associate’s degree program certainly signals to employers that you’re serious about the profession, but completing a Paralegal Certificate program if you already possess an bachelor’s or associate’s degree in an unrelated field can obviously send a strong signal.
“I am a huge advocate for education,” Requejado says. “I believe you can never learn too much.”
What skills do paralegals need?
As you can see, there’s not exactly a “one true path” into a paralegal career when it comes to education. Employers certainly like to see candidates with specific paralegal training, but they also place plenty of value on the skills and competencies a candidate possesses. So what skills do paralegals need?
“You need to type well,” Requejado says. “You will be required to produce work at a fast pace.”
Since intense amounts of paperwork and legal documentation are one of the reasons law firms have paralegals in the first place, you want to make sure your written and oral communication skills are sharp.
If you need constant direction, you might not be a great fit for the role. Attorney Susan Williams says that as a criminal defense lawyer, she cares most about paralegals being able to work independently without being micromanaged.
“My paralegal takes the initiative to follow up and be proactive, getting tasks completed before I even request them to be done. I have so much confidence in my paralegal that I don’t have to stress about reminding her to do things. She is self-motivated and goal oriented.”
“Besides the tangible skills, a paralegal needs strong emotional intelligence,” Menjivar says. Her role as an immigration paralegal especially emphasizes this need. “A client’s life in the United States depends on their immigration case, so understanding their emotions and anxieties is critical to building that client relationship and trust.”
No matter the legal focus area, the stakes are often high when legal representation is required. Having a sense for this and navigating potentially charged situations with tact is a valuable ability.
Honesty and integrity
Williams says her paralegal’s honesty is extremely important. In a field where confidentiality and privacy is so important, you need to be both honest and careful. Attorneys don’t want to spend time and energy worrying about whether or not you’ve done what you’ve said you’ll do. “Being able to trust my paralegal 100 percent makes everything so much better when managing my law firm,” Williams says.
Paralegals are an extension of the attorneys they work for—and in a field where reputation matters you’ll need to present yourself well.
“In interviewing paralegals, I was shocked that candidates would show up for an interview late, inappropriately dressed and not familiar with what the law firm does,” Williams says. “Being able to manage tasks independently and having a strong work ethic are some of the most important factors to me.”
Customer service skills
You might not think previous work as a restaurant host or retail cashier could apply to this career, but Flores says customer service skills are enormously helpful for paralegals. “Having experience dealing with people in a service environment is essentially the nuts and bolts of entry-level paralegal work.”
Flores explains that all the ins and outs of the job will come as you gain experience, but right at the beginning, your conduct towards clients is what matters most. “You just have to be good at speaking with a variety of clientele who are in unique circumstances where they're often vulnerable and need support.”
Paralegal job search advice
When you have the skills and education needed for the job checked off, all that remains is finding a job! In many cases, your paralegal program might be a great resource. The networks you build, internship opportunities and career development offices can all assist you in finding a job.
“Be involved in extracurricular groups or do summer internships related to the field of law you are interested in,” Menjivar advises. “This will show employers that you have an interest in the position and have some background knowledge that may be helpful in the learning process.”
“Get your foot in the door, and learn as much as you can,” Flores says, adding that many employers prioritize paralegal applicants who have some experience on their resume. Finding work for a year or two, even if it isn’t your ideal situation, can give you a huge leg up into other job opportunities.
As for the job postings that say they’re seeking paralegal candidates with a Bachelor’s degree—don’t let that hold you back from applying if you have a Paralegal Associate’s degree. Remember a job posting can sometimes end up like an employer’s wish list, not a true minimum requirement. Think of it in terms of a negotiation. If they set out asking for more than they really need from a candidate and get it they’ll be thrilled, but in all likelihood there’s a range of qualifications they’ll be satisfied with. A candidate with an Associate’s degree focused on developing important paralegal skills is likely to fit the bill.
Find the right paralegal degree path for you
These days, there are quite a few ways to become a paralegal—with or without a Bachelor’s degree. Whether you already have a degree or not, you have a few choices on how you want to proceed.
“It is not just about graduating with a degree; it is about using that degree to push forward and becoming the best you,” Requejado says. “The way I see it—if an attorney needs a degree to practice law; then, as paralegals, we should have a degree as well. After all, we are their right hand.”
So it’s time to investigate which paralegal education option is right for you! Whether you’re looking for online or traditional programs, a specialized Paralegal Associate’s degree or a certificate program to help bolster an existing college education, check out the Rasmussen College Paralegal program page to learn more about your options.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed September, 2019] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.