By, Nola Wright, J.D. and Bryan U Paralegal Studies and Litigation Technologies Program Director
As an attorney who has worked in the educational space for several years, I’ve had many people ask if they can become a paralegal online. The great news is that opportunities for online paralegal education are readily available.
You can become a paralegal online by taking a paralegal course at a college or university at an associate, bachelor’s, or certificate level. Becoming a paralegal online usually means finding a program that meets your schedule and budget and completing your course. Many people choose an associate degree program, some choose a bachelor’s program, and for those with a prior degree, a certificate program often works well. There are no universal requirements to becoming a paralegal, but having a degree is helpful in getting hired.
Finding the right online program that meets your needs can be difficult. To select the program suits you best, there are a few things you need to know.
The Basics of Online Paralegal Programs
Every program is different, but a quality online program should cover all the things you need to know to function properly in your role. Those topics may include:
- Fundamentals of law (business, criminal, family, and contract law)
- Legal office management
- Civil litigation
- Investigative research
- Database management
- Legal technologies
In addition, the program you select should prepare you for real-world paralegal situations. Getting this type of experience in an online program is challenging but possible. More on this later, but first, let’s examine how these online programs are structured. There are 3 basic types of paralegal programs:
- Associate degree programs
- Bachelor’s degree programs
- Certificate programs
The first type of online paralegal program, and among the most common, is an associate degree program through a college or university. These programs focus on the fundamentals above and provide some broader coursework for balance – subjects like math and English.
The second type of paralegal program is a bachelor’s degree, which will provide a wider range of knowledge and take a deeper dive into both legal and general subjects. A bachelor’s degree sometimes holds more weight than an associate degree in the hiring process.
Third, you may opt for an online certificate program. These programs can last as little as 6 months. However, they are often oriented towards students who already have an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some certificate programs do not accept students without a degree, so be sure to check the requirements for admission to these programs. Whatever program you select, be sure you do your homework on how the program is structured.
Online Paralegal Program Structure
The structure of online paralegal programs varies. Some online programs have a traditional structure with semester-long courses. One of the programs I oversee at Bryan University is a 2-year associate degree in Paralegal Studies and Litigation Technologies. That program is run in 8-week modules with weekly live events and assignments. For those who already have a degree, paralegal certificate programs may take only 6 months and be evening and weekend programs.
Keep in mind that selecting an online program doesn’t necessarily mean learning alone or without flexibility. Some programs create opportunities to interact with peers and attend live virtual sessions. The Bryan U program includes individual coaching meetings with instructors, choices of assignments, and some flexibility with due dates. We also support a mastery-based learning environment so that you can easily revisit and retest on the material to improve your grades.
Make sure the program is flexible enough to fit your schedule and keep in mind that online learning requires discipline. Be sure the program is interactive enough to keep you engaged and motivated.
Technology for a Paralegal Program Online
One element that can help you stay engaged is technology. Find out how technology is integrated into the program. Bryan University uses a dynamic experiential learning model (DeXL) that combines industry-specific curriculum combined with computer-based adaptive learning. We also use Cerego, an electronic learning platform that identifies your current knowledge level and helps you focus on the areas that need mastery and more practice.
Some paralegal programs also use technology to provide hands-on learning opportunities. At Bryan U, we use a proprietary ELSSA™ simulation lab (E-Discovery Lab for Software, Simulation & Applications), which challenges our students with real-world scenarios and provides practical experience. Virtual learning tools like this can help you be prepared to handle a variety of cases and improve your skills.
Online learning can be challenging. A program that uses technology to help you learn can provide a richer learning environment, so make sure you ask a lot of questions before you choose to sign up.
What to Look for in a Paralegal Program Online
One harder-to-find feature of online paralegal programs is “on-the-job training.” To provide this type of real-world training at Bryan U, new students who enroll in the paralegal program become a “Paralegal” with “Bryan & Associates,” a hypothetical law firm. Throughout the program, students are referred to as Paralegals and complete assignments that simulate real-world job tasks. In fact, we received one of the first Spotlights on Excellence awards from our accreditor, ACCSC for this unique approach to learning and job preparation.
As you narrow down your list of online paralegal programs, here are some key questions to ask:
- Curriculum – What does the program cover – is it complete?
- Interaction – Will the program give you access to instructors and peers?
- Technology – Does the program offer technology training and tools to help you succeed?
- Time/Flexibility – Does the program work with your busy schedule? How is it structured?
- Preparation – Does the program prepare you with practical experience?
- Career services – Does the program offer services to help you in your job search?
When selecting your program, get answers to all your questions and find out how much hands-on experience you’ll receive. When you come to the end of your program, you’ll want to be confident and job-ready.
Knowledge and Skills to Become a Paralegal
An academic degree such as an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is now preferred by most employers for entry-level paralegals. The curriculum offered by Bryan U involves learning the most common knowledge and skills that employers want such as substantive and procedural law in the U.S., civil procedure, family law, criminal law, torts, business law, and electronic discovery. An academic degree provides a well-rounded education by also including general education classes in communications, psychology, college math, and science.
An associate degree is often sufficient for most paralegals; however, a bachelor’s degree can provide knowledge in more subjects. For instance, in the bachelor’s program at Bryan U, students attend substantive law classes that are more specialized such as bankruptcy, wills/probate, trial preparation, e-discovery analytics, project management, and additional general education classes. These additional skills can increase one’s value to potential employers.
Attorneys, law firms, business legal departments, and government agencies all need paralegals and there are a wide variety of legal topics covered. Generally, the more education, knowledge and training you have as a paralegal, the better candidate you will be for jobs.
Do I Need a License or Certification to Work as a Paralegal?
There is no mandatory certification examination for paralegals anywhere in the U.S.; however, certification exams are available for those who want this extra credential. Certification usually involves passing an exam drawn up by a sponsoring organization and meeting specified educational and/or experiential requirements.
A few states including Washington, Utah, and Arizona have specialized extra training to allow paralegals to work independently of attorney supervision. The paralegal must participate in the state’s training and pass an exam. This route is usually for those already working as a paralegal or who have an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies.
Students at Bryan University also prepare to take the NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) Certified Paralegal (CP) exam when they finish their program. Certification isn’t necessary, but it can give you an edge as a job candidate so it’s worth considering, especially because the university pays for one exam attempt.
Employers that Hire Paralegals
There are many businesses that hire paralegals. Among them are:
- Law firms
- Corporate legal departments
- Finance and insurance firms
- Professional services firms
- Government agencies
Paralegal Job Roles
Some common job roles for paralegals include:
- Litigation, E-discovery, or Corporate Paralegal
- Legal Analyst or Legal Assistant
- Legal Support Specialist
- Litigation Clerk
Your job opportunities may vary based on the type of program completed and the degree that you hold.
Next Steps – Becoming a Paralegal
Once you’ve completed a paralegal program, getting a job is your next task. Choose a program that provides career support and readiness services. For example, at Bryan University, we help our students succeed by offering personalized career services throughout the program and once they graduate.
At Bryan, we pride ourselves on preparing our students to become professional working paralegals equipped with practical knowledge, litigation strategies and technologies related to the job. As you explore programs, we invite you to consider a paralegal degree from Bryan University.