Paralegals are legal secretaries or legal assistants who conduct research and assist attorneys and judges. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of new jobs for paralegals is expected to grow by 28 percent from 2008 to 2018. There are multiple paths to becoming a paralegal. Two of the most common are to pursue a paralegal diploma or to pursue an associate or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies.
One of the primary differences between a paralegal diploma and a paralegal degree is the fact that the paralegal diploma will not generally require all of the additional general education requirements that are required by degree programs. On the other hand, an associate or bachelor's degree in paralegal studies will require a minimum number of general education courses. For an associate degree, the aspiring paralegal can expect to complete at least one year of general education studies in areas like English, speech and communication, and history, among others. The same is true of students pursuing bachelor's degrees, except that they can expect to take two years of these courses.
One of the advantages of a diploma program over a degree program is the length of time it takes to earn it. The diploma is more advantageous to someone who already has a degree and does not necessarily want to go back to school to complete an additional degree program. Diploma programs can take about one year to complete, as opposed to two or four years for a degree. In some cases, they can take even less time; some accredited paralegal schools offer online diplomas that can be completed as quickly as the student can move through each curriculum lesson.
Even though the length of time is generally longer when getting a degree to become a paralegal, advantages exist for going this route. Those who have no postsecondary education need to complete many of the general education classes included as part of the degree program because employers tend to prefer applicants with the skills learned in these courses. For instance, courses in speech and communication provide paralegal students with the necessary interpersonal skills needed to work in this field, while courses in history and statistics provide some of the necessary research skills. Candidates with a degree are more likely to get the nod over someone without one.
Which route you go to become a paralegal ultimately depends upon your own specific situation: your funds, time frame and the level of education you already have. Those without a degree should certainly consider obtaining one. A bachelor's degree will afford the most comprehensive coverage of the paralegal field, and can also provide you with additional opportunities to specialize. Schools that offer a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies sometimes offer postbaccalaureate certificates as well. These certificates can allow you to gain additional specialized training and greater recognition among employers.