Two-Year Paralegal Degree

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Even though two-year associate’s degree paralegal programs are considered the norm, it’s good to consider the options.

For one, most law firms prefer to hire those with a bachelor’s degree as well as a certificate course from an ABA-approved school—especially if you’re planning to work in a large metropolitan city such as Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. But in some parts of the country an associate’s degree is sufficient for hiring. This means it’s a good idea to look at your two-year paralegal degree as an entry-level stepping stone to enter the field, with the long term goal of continuing your education to earn your bachelor’s after you’ve been in the field as a working paralegal.

Here are some pros and cons of becoming a paralegal with either a certificate program or a two-year paralegal associate’s degree

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Certificate Program

Pros:

  • A certificate program’s biggest advantage is the length: most programs can be completed in under a year.
  • Because it is so much shorter, a certificate program is less expensive than a two-year degree.
  • If you already have a two or four-year degree, a certificate program may be the perfect solution to specialize as a paralegal.
  • A certificate program will teach you with an end goal of helping your prep for and pass national paralegal certification, which is highly regarded by attorneys who hire paralegals.

Cons:

  • Only 12 percent of working paralegals have less than a two-year degree.
  • Some certificate programs have a minimum prerequisite of an associate’s degree.
  • Many attorneys require applicants to hold at minimum an associate’s degree.
  • Some computer programs commonly used by attorneys may not be taught in a certificate program.
  • Since attorneys specialize in a specific niche of law, a certificate program may not be comprehensive enough for an entry-level position.
  • A certificate program may not prepare you sufficiently to pass the professional certification exam.
  • Some certificate programs are not approved by the American Bar Association (ABA).
  • Some certificate programs are not accredited, so the credits can’t be used towards a future degree.

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Two-Year Associate’s Degree

Pros:

  • A two year associate’s degree has more class options, so you can focus on the type of law you want to work in.
  • Many attorneys prefer to hire those who hold a degree as it shows you are able to complete an extended course of study and are committed to the field.
  • Two year degrees offer many more courses in legal technology, which is rapidly evolving due to advances in computer programs created specifically for the practice of law.
  • A two-year degree is more versatile if you decide to change professions at a later date.
  • An associate’s degree from an accredited school can be applied to a bachelor’s degree if you decide to continue your education.
  • Some paralegal organizations require a degree for membership.
  • One-third of all employed paralegals hold an associate’s degree, compared to only 12 percent who have completed only a certificate program.

Cons:

  • An associate’s degree takes two years to complete, so you have to be able to dedicate the time period to learning. Online associate’s degree programs may be more flexible.
  • The more credit hours required, the more tuition to pay: the cost for a degree is more than the cost for a certificate.
  • Not all schools offer a paralegal program that is ABA approved, and that is a requirement to take the national certification exam.

All in all, the choice between pursuing a paralegal certificate program or an associate’s degree depends on you and your personal circumstances. If you already have a degree and wish to change careers to become a paralegal, a certificate program may be the perfect solution since it is shorter and most likely will not be as expensive. Some use this as a route to law school, as they can find employment as a paralegal while finishing their education.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a career change, an associate’s degree may make more sense as it will give you a more rounded education and you can take more classes specific to the specialty of law in which you want to work. The main thing to keep in mind is do your homework first. Make sure the program you choose is accredited and will be accepted when you take the national paralegal exam, then research law firms in your area to see the requirements they prefer when hiring paralegals.

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