Undergraduate Law Programs Overview
Undergraduate law programs such an associate's degree in paralegal studies or pre-law program offered as part of bachelor's degree can vary in scope and intention. Students may prepare for careers in the legal field or continue their education with enrollment in a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree program at law school.
Associate's Degree in Paralegal Studies
Associate in Arts or Associate of Science in Paralegal Studies degrees are available to undergraduates at 2-year institutions who are interested in working as legal assistants or paralegals. Students are provided with an understanding of the American legal system and how it works. They learn how to conduct legal research and write legal briefs under the direction of a licensed attorney, how to prepare legal documents and how to perform various administrative duties common to working in a law office. An internship is frequently required. Applicants to this program are required to hold at least a high school diploma or its equivalent.
The paralegal studies curriculum is often tightly focused on topics related to the federal, state and local legal system. Students may be required to take the following:
- Interviewing and investigations
- Legal communication
- American law basics
- Legal research
- Law office management
Employment Outlook and Salary Info
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegals and legal assistants could expect to see 28% employment growth between 2008 and 2018 (www.bls.gov). The agency also reported that paralegals could find work at law firms, corporate legal departments, banks, title companies, insurance companies or real estate companies. In May 2010, the BLS reported that paralegals and legal assistants earned a median annual salary of $46,680.
Working paralegals may pursue voluntary professional certification through organizations like the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc., National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS). Each of these organizations offers its own certification credential, which typically requires a minimum of education and work experience and passing an exam. Certification is usually valid for several years and renewal requires continuing education.
Bachelor's Degree with Pre-Law Emphasis
While law schools don't typically require that applicants hold a bachelor's degree in a specific major, many colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree options with a pre-law emphasis for students who want to pursue careers as attorneys. This may be a formal pre-law track within a degree program or simply access to specialized academic advisement. Career preparation programs and services in pre-law programs may include legal workshops, pre-law student organizations or assistance with the law school admissions process, including preparation for the required Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Pre-law advising isn't usually restricted to any specific major course of study; however, several, such as political science, criminal justice, sociology and English, may be recommended, along with course suggestions that stress critical reading, quantitative reasoning, problem solving, independent research, time management and effective writing. Some schools offer a set pre-law curriculum that's flexible enough to be completed as part of a variety of majors. Other schools offer a legal studies minor that includes classes in government, law and politics. Schools that offer bachelor's degree programs with pre-law options typically require applicants hold a high school diploma or the equivalent.
The courses that students in this program take may differ depending on their chosen major. Nonetheless, courses in certain topics that may be particularly beneficial to aspiring law school students. These may include:
- Constitutional law
- Business law
- Philosophy of law
- American history
- Financial accounting
Popular Career Options
While many law school graduates do go on to become licensed, practicing attorneys, others may find employment in other professional settings, working in fields like criminal justice, energy, financial services, human resources, insurance, regulatory affairs, management or real estate. Some careers may require additional training or education. Career options other than attorney may include:
- Estate tax examiner
- Legal investigator
- Law librarian
- Bankruptcy analyst
- Contract negotiator
- Environmental policy analyst
Students who complete a pre-law program may apply to law schools and earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, a first professional degree. This typically takes three years and the curriculum covers contracts, property, torts, litigation, legal research and writing, business law, criminal law and property law. Concentrations are commonly available in areas such as constitutional law, health law, business law and intellectual property law. Upon completion of law school, graduates typically take the required bar exam for the state in which they want to practice law.
Lawyers who'd like to continue their education at the graduate level may earn a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree or Doctor of Science of Law (J.S.D.) degree. Areas of specialization may include international business law, litigation and arbitration, corporate law, information law, taxation, environmental law or legal theory.
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