Undergraduate law studies are designed for both aspiring lawyers and those who are seeking legal careers but aren't interested in attending law school. Read on to learn about education programs, topics of study, job outlook and salary estimates.
Undergraduate law studies can prepare you for work as a paralegal or provide a foundation for going to law school and eventually becoming a lawyer. Undergraduate law studies include paralegal training programs and pre-law programs. Many paralegals work for law firms, but there are other employment options. You might work for prosecutors or public defenders in the courts system. You could also get hired by corporations, legal aid groups or government agencies.
As a paralegal, also called a legal assistant, you'd work under the supervision of a lawyer or lawyers, helping them provide legal services. Some paralegals specialize in specific aspects of the legal field, including criminal or corporate law. You'd perform many of the same functions as a lawyer, although you couldn't offer legal advice or represent clients in court. Your responsibilities might include writing contracts and legal documents, doing research, interviewing witnesses or helping lawyers at trials. You might even manage an attorney's office.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that jobs for paralegals would increase 17% between 2012 and 2022, about as fast as average for all jobs. This increase is in part due to a trend for law firms to reduce costs by hiring paralegals instead of additional attorneys. Paralegals earned a median yearly salary of $47,570 as of 2013, the BLS said, while lawyers received $114,300 during the same period. Job opportunities for lawyers could rise ten percent - slower than for paralegals but still an average growth rate - during the 2012-2022 decade.
Most paralegals have an associate's degree in paralegal studies, although bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies are also available. If you've previously earned an associate's or bachelor's degree in another major, you could pursue a certificate from a paralegal program. Studies focus on teaching you how to perform legal research, prepare court documents and understand legal terminology. You'd learn about law specializations as well, including criminal, real estate and probate law. Programs also include courses in corporate regulations, computer science and business, as well as courses that help instill analytical thinking abilities and communications skills, such as professional ethics, English, civil rights and public speaking. Some programs include internships.
To enter law school, you'd need a bachelor's degree. Pre-law programs offer mentoring and advice on law school admission requirements, along with guidance on what studies provide the skills needed to succeed in law school. The American Bar Association (ABA) doesn't endorse specific programs, but it suggests choosing thought-provoking bachelor's degree majors that sharpen writing, analytical thinking, research and communication skills (www.americanbar.org). Good choices could be sociology, philosophy, criminal justice, business, political science, education and music. Pre-law programs can include internships and workshops on law subjects.
If you want to be a lawyer, your undergraduate studies would be followed by three years at an ABA-accredited law school to earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. During the first year, you'd study different areas of law, such as criminal, property, constitutional, comparative, tort and civil procedure. Advanced studies are more tailored to your specific law interests, such as environmental or criminal law, and may include a heavy emphasis on writing and public service legal work at a law clinic or law firm. Once you receive your degree, you'd prepare for and take your state's licensing exam, called a bar exam, to become a practicing lawyer.