You assumed your career trajectory was set, but then life happened. That job you thought you’d love turned out to be a bust. It didn’t pay well, it didn’t challenge you, it didn’t make you want to get out of bed in the morning.
But the law has always interested you. You’ve always fancied yourself an organizational whiz, and the fast pace of the legal profession is right up your alley. You’re always up for a challenge, and heading back to school to develop new knowledge to prepare for a career in an area that you find fascinating is not only something you can handle, it’s something that wakes up the butterflies in your stomach – in a good way.
Life is short and you owe it to yourself to dedicate your days to doing the kind of work that puts your best natural talents to work and earns you the respect and money you deserve.
Maybe it’s time to make the leap and become a paralegal.
Career changers represent a distinct and growing group of professionals from countless other fields – from customer service to HR to healthcare to teaching – who already hold a degree or some college education and who are prepared to do an about-face and become a paralegal.
Profile of a Paralegal Career Changer
What’s a career changer have over other paralegal students?
Experience—of the life, education, and professional varieties. Your background has made you a well-rounded student who is ready and able to tackle the challenges of a rigorous paralegal program. You have a pretty good idea how the world works, what it takes to be successful, and the work required to see a professional program through to completion.
We talked to a paralegal by the name of Angela who fit the classic profile of a career changer. Now that she’s been doing what she loves and earning what she deserves as a successful paralegal for 11-years, she looks back on the time she made the decision to leave her teaching career behind and enroll in a paralegal studies program. After earning a bachelor’s and master’s in education, she began working at an after-school program. Like so many other paralegal career changers, she made the decision to leave education because, as she puts it, “it just wasn’t cutting it for me financially.”
Her decision was based on simple dollars and cents. In the real world with kids and mortgage payments, a career change isn’t about finding your bliss– it’s about doing what you gotta do. For most of us, at the end of the day the final call on where we want our careers to take us lies with our bank balance. If we can enjoy the work and get some well-earned respect, well that’s just icing on the cake.
“The paralegal profession simply paid much better than any job I could get in education at the time. It was a no-brainer,” said Angela. Now, eleven years later, she has focused her paralegal career on contract administration where she earns a good paycheck putting her love of the law to good use. As she puts it, “It’s always something different every day. I am always learning something new, which is what I love.”
And Angela says her story isn’t all too different from what her colleagues in the legal field experienced, saying:
“Nearly every paralegal I know earned a degree in another field before going back to school to become a paralegal.”
You Current Degree and Professional Background Are Assets That Will Set You Apart From The Crowd
Consider this: You earned an undergraduate or even a graduate degree in business administration, finance, human resources, healthcare, computer science—you name it—and now it’s time to consider how you can build off that degree. A degree or certificate in paralegal studies may be the perfect companion to a degree in another field. In fact, having a background in another field could be the very thing that separates you from the stack of paralegal resumes on an employer’s desk.
Law firms and corporate legal departments are always interested in bringing on professionals who have a background in the type of business or industry sector that aligns with the area of law they specialize in…
Have a degree in business or finance? You may be the ideal candidate for a paralegal job in a corporate legal department as a contract administrator…
Have a degree in criminal justice? You could work in prosecution for your local Attorney General’s office or be the perfect paralegal for a law firm specializing in criminal defense…
Have experience working in an HR department? Build on that by focusing your paralegal studies on employment and labor law…
Worked as a nursing assistant or in another healthcare role? You could go on to work in a hospital legal department or with a firm that specializes in medical malpractice…
Have a background in computer science? You might want to work for a software company’s legal department in intellectual property licensing…
And on and on.
According to Rose Turzak, a retired paralegal-turned-attorney who practiced in both Ohio and Pennsylvania, paralegals with backgrounds in economics, finance, or business were always highly valued in the firm she worked in. As she put it:
“Attorneys always kept an eye out for paralegals with degrees in other areas because of what they could bring to their job.”
The Career Changer: There’s a Degree for That
Lucky you, there are paralegal degree and certificate programs designed specifically for the career changer. Thanks to your educational background, you likely already squared away your general undergraduate courses, so you can now enter a paralegal degree or certificate program and concentrate solely on courses in law and the paralegal profession.
The American Bar Association, NALS: The Association for Legal Professionals, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) all recommend that paralegals have a solid and well-rounded college education that includes the social sciences, humanities, mathematics, the natural sciences, and English. Well, with the undergraduate degree that you completed in your last life, you can just check all that off the list and focus solely on legal studies now.
While a number of different programs provide an education in paralegal studies designed to prepare you to join the field as an entry-level paralegal, your professional and personal goals will dictate which option is best for you.
Though entry-level certificate and degree programs are designed to provide a general education in paralegal studies that will familiarize you with several common areas of law and how they intersect with one another, these programs do allow you to select elective courses in different areas of law, which gives you the ability to customize your program to align with your career goals. Many programs do the course selection work for you, putting together a series of electives to create a focus in a particular field of law whether family, employment and labor, trademark, contract, or regulatory law, among others.
Make a Career Change with a Post-Associate’s or Post-Bachelor’s Certificate in Paralegal Studies
Moving from another professional field into the paralegal profession has become so common that schools now frequently offer either post-associate’s or post-bachelor’s certificate programs specifically designed for career changers.
These specialized certificate programs are unique in that they are designed specifically for students who have already graduated from an associate, bachelor’s, or even master’s degree program and are heading back to school to complete a highly focused course of study so they can join the legal field as paralegals.
There are a variety of undergraduate paralegal certificate programs (designed for students without any college education) that you can also consider as a career changer; however, post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s programs are more specifically tailored to mid-career professionals with existing basic computer and office skills. These programs are more likely to offer courses that teach legal software and law office technology and take full advantage of the knowledge and skills you likely already have.
Post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s paralegal certificate programs usually consist of between 21-30. Because they are designed for the career changer, they often offer scheduling designed specifically to accommodate working students. Some on-campus programs meet on Saturdays and evenings, while many programs are offered either through a partially or fully online format.
Many career changers—even those who already hold graduate degrees in another field—often choose post-associate’s and post-bachelor’s certificate programs in paralegal studies over lengthier degree programs because they offer a concentrated program of study that can be completed in just about a year, even when taking classes part time.
If you want to become a paralegal and have no further educational plans, an advanced certificate in paralegal studies is right for you.
Post-degree certificate programs often culminate in an internship or field experience.
What’s the Difference Between Post-Baccalaureate Certificates and Graduate Certificates in Paralegal Studies?
In many cases, there is no difference between a post-bachelor’s certificate (sometimes called post-baccalaureate) and a graduate certificate. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably, and depending on the school, the difference may be in name alone.
When a distinction is made, there is usually one major characteristic that sets them apart:
- Schools that offer a graduate certificate also usually offer a master’s degree in paralegal studies and credits earned in the graduate certificate program can be easily transferred to a master’s degree later on.
- A post-bachelor’s/post-baccalaureate certificate, on the other hand, is often offered through a four-year school, mirroring many courses in the bachelor’s degree or minor concentration in paralegal studies the school offers. In this case, the credits may be transferred toward a bachelor’s degree, though, more often, a post-bachelor’s certificate is thought of as the final educational step a paralegal student plans to take. In most cases, the credits earned would not be easily transferrable to a master’s degree program later.
This is something worth keeping in mind if you want to leave the door open to being able to more seamlessly transfer credits toward earning a master’s in paralegal studies, Master of Legal Studies (MLS) or similar degree down the road.
Change Careers with an Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- For the career changer that likes the convenience and affordability of an associate’s degree program and may have future education plans.
- Credits from an associate’s degree program can be transferred to a higher degree program later.
- Credits in general undergraduate courses from an existing degree in another field can be transferred in to an associate’s degree program.
- Programs can be customized through electives to focus on a particular area of law.
Associate’s degrees are usually thought of as nothing more than an entry-level degree for recent high school grads, but this really isn’t the case at all anymore. Many mid-career professionals in their 30’s, 40s and even older who hold an associate’s, bachelor’s, or even an MBA or master’s degree in everything from business to nursing, make the transition by earning an associate’s degree in paralegal studies.
A 2015 University of Texas study showed that about 6% of students enrolling in community college associate’s degree programs already held a bachelor’s degree. This small segment of non-traditional students is growing, however, as more people are making late-stage career changes and exploring the most economic way to get the education they need.
Associate’s degrees offer a convenient alternative to post-associate’s or post-bachelor’s certificates since they’re available through community colleges. This means that may be more affordable than the colleges and university graduate schools that offer post-associates and post-bachelor’s certificate programs.
Community colleges and four-year schools are also a lot easier to get into, with no entrance exams and more relaxed grade point minimums, and you can forget about submitting a statement of intent, sitting for an interview, or having letters of reference. These things might be necessary when enrolling in a graduate program, but it is unheard of if you’re going back for a second associate’s degree.
Further, you may have better luck transferring in the courses you’ve already taken for the associate’s or bachelor’s degree you already have. In fact, some schools allow you to transfer in as many as 45 credits. When you consider an associate’s degree will involve about 60 total credits, this means you could earn an AS or AAS (Associate of Applied Science) in Paralegal Studies by taking just 25 credits of core and legal specialty courses and be ready for your new career in about a year. In this instance, an associate’s degree acts much like a post-degree paralegal certificate.
Associate’s programs often culminate in an internship or field experience.
Make a Career Change by Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- For the career changer who holds an associate’s degree in another field.
- Credits from an associate’s degree program can be transferred in, allowing students to earn a BA or BS in about two years.
- For the career changer with no existing college education.
- Offers a competitive edge over most other paralegals.
- Offers more opportunities for in-depth specialization.
- This career changer may also have future plans to study at the graduate level.
- Can serve as a pre-law major in preparation for law school.
A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies/legal studies is a competitive qualification that paralegal professional associations often recommend, and that many employers now prefer.
Of course, if you have no college credit under your belt, you can enroll in a full four-year bachelor’s program.
General education courses earned through an associate’s degree would be applied toward the 120 credits required to earn a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. In fact, as many as 90 credit hours can be transferred in, which would allow you to earn a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts in Legal Studies in as little as 18-24 months. Many programs will only transfer those courses in which you earned a 3.0 GPA or above.
Many of these programs allow students to focus their course of study on a specific area of law that complements their previous degree program.
You may also complete a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies if you have future graduate school plans since these credits easily transfer to master’s programs.
Bachelor’s programs include more elective courses than are usually found in associates and post-degree certificate programs. This gives students even more opportunities to focus in on particular areas of law to better prepare themselves with more highly specialized niche expertise that law firms and corporate legal departments often look for. Selecting elective courses in particular areas of law allows you to customize your program to align your education with your career plans – whether this means focusing on family law and child welfare, or business and contract law.
One of the most noteworthy things about studying at the bachelor’s level is that in many cases it can serve as a pre-law major that would prepare students for law school.
Bachelor’s programs almost always culminate in an internship or field experience.
Transition to the Paralegal Profession with a Master’s Degree in Legal Studies
- For career changers that hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university
- Often highly customizable through electives or otherwise offers several specific concentrations designed to prepare graduates to work in a specialized area of law.
- Garners unparalleled respect from employers, court systems and colleagues.
The Master of Legal Studies is, in fact, more geared toward current paralegals looking to advance and professionals in other fields looking to develop a deeper understanding of the law as it pertains to the field they work in, but the degree can feasibly function as a transitional degree for career changers. There are also some similarly titled and functionally identical programs designed as MPS (Master of Professional Studies) programs in Paralegal Studies.
The MLS, known also as a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) or Master of Science in Law, offers courses that are often the same as those taken by first-year law students, but to be very clear, the degree is designed for non-lawyers and will not qualify you to sit for your state bar exam.
A master’s degree in legal studies offers the ideal opportunity to study a specific area of law that compliments your background and undergraduate degree while teaching you the nuances of the paralegal profession. For example, if you have a bachelor’s degree in healthcare administration, you might choose an MLS track in healthcare law. Experience in a particular field and a mater’s degree with an aligned focus is a very powerful combination that both law firms and corporate legal departments place a high value on.
Master’s degrees in legal studies have the same rigorous admission requirements as graduate certificate programs, with most requiring a GPA of 3.0 in their undergraduate studies. Some schools require entrance examinations for admission, while many require admissions essays, letters of recommendation, and professional experience.
These programs consist of between 32-36 credits and take about 12-18 months to complete.