Best Online Bachelor Degree Programs in Legal Studies

Oct 19, 2021

What is an Online Bachelor's Degree in Legal Studies?

Legal studies is a field designed for those interested in a career inside or adjacent to the legal system. Bachelor's degrees in this discipline cover legal history, legal theory, research best practices, legal writing, and other areas pertinent to carrying out the law. Bachelor of Science (BS) in Legal Studies is the most common degree title for bachelor's programs, though Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Legal Studies programs also exist. Broadly speaking, the differences between these two types of programs are minor, with BA's usually requiring students to take more humanities courses for electives or core courses.

While a BS or BA in legal studies can benefit prospective lawyers and judges, these professions are not the only one's key to the maintenance of peoples' rights or the rules and regulations that govern them. In terms of education, lawyers and judges in the United States require a law degree. Whether one intends to pursue a Juris Doctor or wishes to work using their bachelor's degree in legal studies, the field offers a valuable foundation. Beyond preparation for graduate degrees dealing with the law, online bachelor's programs in legal studies allow degree holders to work as paralegals, legal assistants, court clerks, and real estate agents among other things.

Legal Studies Specializations/Concentrations

Online bachelor's degrees in legal studies are often wide-ranging in their curricula, though some do offer a few specializations. When it comes to studying law, academic concentrations align with the field's professional specializations. In both universities and the courts, specializations come down to different areas of the law, such as business law, criminal law, contract law, family law, or international law. In other instances, concentrations might be oriented toward a certain type of job environment such as government work or politics. Most undergraduate legal studies programs are practical primers for certain jobs and educational stepping stones for others, though programs with stated concentrations allow students to become experts in specific areas or types of work.

Curriculum/Coursework for a Legal Studies Degree

Given that the field of legal studies concerns systems of rules and how people interact with and are impacted by said rules, it should come as no surprise that coursework in the discipline reflects this. Core courses examine specific areas of the law, such as the constitution or the criminal justice system. They may also cover day-to-day legal matters, like how courts function or how to conduct research. Since laws do not exist in a vacuum, general courses, or electives depending on the program, often center around communication classes and social sciences like sociology and psychology. Bettering students' understanding of other people can also improve career outcomes in various legal fields.

In some cases, electives focus on specialized topics like courts, family law, or bankruptcy. These courses introduce students to new topics and can help guide them down specific legal paths. A few common legal studies courses include:

  • Legal Writing
  • Administrative Law and Policy
  • Criminal Law
  • Legal Research

How Long Does it Take to Get an Online Bachelor's in Legal Studies?

The majority of online bachelor's degrees in legal studies consist of 120 credit hours. Traditionally, programs like these take students four years to earn their degrees. While most online legal studies programs are offered fully remote, they are also generally taught synchronously, and thus do not offer accelerated learning. Online bachelor's degrees in legal studies are typically taught in cohorts with students progressing through each school year at the same rate.

How to Choose a Legal Studies School & Program

While accreditation is important to keep in mind when searching for the right university, prospective students should also look into a few other areas. Whether online or in-person, a program's faculty is key to its quality. Universities with online legal studies programs that are confident in their instructors should provide their names so that students can appraise their professional and educational backgrounds. Instructors who have achieved more in the past have a higher chance of being able to impart knowledge that can do the same for their students.

One might also want to look into opportunities for internships. Such experiences are more common in campus-based programs, though as with any degree, real world experience can give students a leg up during their job hunts.

Online legal studies programs can come with unique challenges, due to both their subject matter and format. Instructors that hold in-person classes usually have office hours where students can visit them if they need assistance beyond class hours. Law codes can be lengthy, complicated texts, and thus if one anticipates they might want help outside of classes they should check if their online program's instructors have office hours. Most of the time this information is not listed online. In these cases, prospective students will have to call or email the registrar of the program they are interested in to find out.

Accreditation for Online Bachelor's in Legal Studies Degrees

Accreditation is vital when selecting a degree program for two reasons. Agencies with the ability to accredit are outside authorities that help ensure the quality standards of education for their specific fields. Accreditation agencies allow students to know they are making a sound investment when choosing a degree program. This assurance is also important because it is usually necessary when applying for student aid, whether at the federal, state, or local level. Just as individuals wish to be reassured that their education is proven, so do organizations and foundations that help students with tuition.

When looking at online degrees in general the Distance Education Accrediting Commission is a good resource for finding accredited programs. The commission reviews a variety of online programs and universities and is not limited to any one discipline. If one wants more specific guarantees of quality, they could turn to the Law School Admissions Council. This organization accredits universities with worthwhile law degrees and related programs. Another authority in this area is the American Bar Association, which maintains a list of accredited law schools, some of which offer legal studies degrees. Beyond these, one can also look to regional accreditation agencies like the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Legal Studies Licensure & Certification

Most of the jobs one can attain with a legal studies degree do not require licensure. Certification is also largely optional, though there is an exception for legal interpreters in the majority of states. Legal interpreters translate what is being said in courts and other legal settings for those who do not speak English or who communicate primarily through some form of sign language so that they can understand what is going on and be dealt with justly. Given the importance of this profession, it makes sense to both regulate it and offer multiple options to receive certification.

There are organizations that cater to the professional development of legal studies graduates and others in related fields. For example, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations has two credentialing exams that paralegals and legal assistants can take to make themselves stand out to prospective employers. The National Association for Legal Secretaries provides another option for legal secretaries seeking to earn their certification.

Legal Studies Career Information

Graduates with bachelor's degrees in legal studies have several potential career paths. They can apply to become legal researchers, legal administrators, legal consultants, legal secretaries, or paralegals. Beyond immediately joining the workforce, legal studies graduates can also pursue further education. Whether one is looking to practice law or teach it, legal studies is a great pre-law degree that can serve as a springboard for a career at a law firm, in a court, or in academia.

How to Become a Legal Secretary

Legal secretaries perform secretarial work for those in various law professions. Legal secretaries might work for lawyers, legal administrators, or judges, and thus their place of work varies from corporate legal departments to courthouses to law firms. Above all else, the position requires an ability to multitask, proficiency with scheduling software, and people skills. Legal secretaries work adjacent to the law and are crucial to its functioning, and, while not directly involved in things like litigation, they must have some familiarity with legal documentation as certain forms might need to be prepared or forwarded to another party. While some encourage legal secretaries to become certified, it is optional.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), legal secretaries make about $50,040 annually. The BLS also projects that positions for secretaries and administrative assistants are expected to decrease by 9 percent from 2019-2029. For those interested in maximizing their salary, the highest-paying states for legal secretaries are the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, California, New York, and Washington. Legal secretaries can expect above average salaries for jobs in DC given that it is a hotspot for regulatory agencies and law firms.

How to Become a Paralegal

A relevant associate degree will suffice for certain entry level paralegal jobs, but a bachelor's degree in legal studies will open more doors. Paralegals work alongside lawyers, supporting them by doing research, filing with the opposing counsel, and writing reports. Because of this, paralegals need to be familiar with various law codes, be analytically minded, and possess a talent for synthesizing information. Paralegals mainly find employment at law firms, though some will also work for the government. Some private or public sector paralegals will often be tasked with going to court. On average, paralegals make $51,740 per year, according to the BLS, which also projects the field to grow by 10 percent from 2019-2029.

At present, no state in the US requires paralegals to obtain licenses or certificates, though California does have educational standards for paralegals who wish to work in the state. As for the states with the highest average salaries, aspiring paralegals may wish to look for work in the District of Columbia, Colorado, California, Massachusetts, or Washington. DC pays especially well because the competition is fierce for most legal careers in the capital.

Professional Organizations in Legal Studies

  • National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) is a national organization that strives for the professional development of paralegals. The NFPA sees itself and its members as leaders within the profession and as such monitors legislation that impacts paralegals, maintains a code of ethics for its members to follow, and provides two certificate exams: the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam.
  • National Association of Legal Assistants(NALA) is a national organization dedicated to furthering the careers of paralegals. NALA offers online courses and webinars for paralegals and other legal assistants to improve their professional capacities. It also credentials paralegals via the Certified Paralegal program. In addition to all this, NALA boasts a career center that posts job openings and internships.
  • American Bar Association (ABA) is a national organization committed to setting educational and ethical standards for law schools and their graduates. The ABA is most often associated with lawyers, but anyone in a law-related field can become a member. Members receive access to networking opportunities, online courses, and members-only discounts. Law students and employees at certain law firms might qualify for free or reduced membership dues.
  • Academy of Legal Studies in Business (ALSB) is an international organization intended for legal studies instructors at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. ALSB skews toward business universities and programs, which can be seen in its publications, American Business Law Journal and Journal of Legal Studies Education. Mentoring is the other major service provided by the ALSB. Whether a member is already teaching and wants to improve their skills or is looking to transition from practicing the law to teaching it, other ALSB members are there to guide them along.

What Other Kinds of Legal Studies Degrees Are There?

In addition to bachelor's degrees in legal studies, there are also associate, master's, and doctoral degrees. As for online programs, associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees are relatively common, though doctoral programs can be harder to find. Undergraduate legal studies degrees are sufficient for working many of the support and administrative jobs in legal settings, while graduate programs are more so geared toward those looking to teach legal studies. Alternatively, associate and bachelor's degrees can allow students to test the waters of the legal world, and, if they enjoy what they experience, their legal studies degrees can double as pre-law degrees.

Online Associate Degrees in Legal Studies

Most degrees at this level will be an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Legal Studies or Associate of Science (AS) in Legal Studies. AAS programs are designed for students seeking to enter the job market immediately after graduation, while AS degrees cater to both job seekers and those looking to continue their education. As with most other associate degrees, the majority of online AAS and AS legal studies programs consist of 60 credit hours. These programs can typically be completed entirely online, though few offer accelerated learning. Similar to the field's bachelor's programs, associate degrees teach students the basics of various areas of the law, how to conduct legal research, and how to handle and author legal documents.

Online Master's Degrees in Legal Studies

The Master of Legal Studies (MLS) is a degree program for those who either want to teach the discipline or who are interested in higher-level positions dealing with laws and regulations. Online MLS degrees can be between 24-32 credit hours in length and take as little as one year to complete or up to two and a half. Some are fully remote while others are mostly online with certain courses requiring campus visits. Since these are graduate programs, the curriculum places a heavier focus on theory and dives deeper into the minutiae of various areas of the law. Most online MLS degrees allow or require students to select a concentration. These can be in conflict resolution, litigation, business law, or regulatory compliance among other things. Specializations can help job applicants stand out when applying to law firms or corporate legal departments that are looking for experts on certain subjects. Those with an MLS will generally have an easier time landing positions as administrators, consultants, or lobbyists as compared to their undergraduate counterparts.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Legal Studies

Whether online or in-person, the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Legal Studies is a rare degree. Legal studies students who reach this level of educational attainment will generally seek to specialize their knowledge if they are not yet finished with academia. Typical degree fields one might use to augment their legal studies education include law degrees, business degrees, and education degrees. However, for those who wish to pursue a doctorate in legal studies, they will receive a rigorous education in legal theory with an emphasis on how to produce scholarly research on legal matters and how to best teach law as a discipline. Ph.D.'s in this field are aimed at future educators, and as such these programs require students to research and write a dissertation. Some programs are fully online whereas others are mostly on campus. Credit hours between doctoral programs vary, with some requiring as few as 16. However, having fewer credit hours does not always directly translate to the time spent earning a degree, as legal studies PhDs can take around four or five years to earn when not accelerated. Alternatively, self-paced programs can be completed more quickly.

Online Certificates in Legal Studies

Similar to doctorates in legal studies, certificates in legal studies are largely uncommon. Those that do exist at accredited institutions are only offered in-person, and thus at present, there are few if any options for those looking to earn a certificate in legal studies virtually. Like certificates in other fields, legal studies certificates are aimed at those who wish to get a brief background of a discipline for fewer credits than a minor. For instance, an English major might pursue a certificate in legal studies if they have a slight interest in the law but are not yet ready to fully commit to the field.

However, there are several options for online certificates applicable to legal studies majors. Certificates offered by universities can apply to a career, such as paralegal certificates, or to specializations in the law, like data privacy or civil litigation. Course credits for these programs can range from a series of modules to 30 credits hours, which can take weeks, months, or at most a year to complete.

Financial Aid and Scholarship Information for Legal Studies Degrees

One of the best resources for students interested in financial assistance is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students who qualify for federal tuition assistance through FAFSA will receive aid per semester after submitting the proper forms and documentation and getting approved. To be approved for federal student aid, as well as most state and local assistance, students must attend an accredited institution. Beyond governmental departments, private organizations are another route that students, who are in need of financial assistance, can look to. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations is one such organization that grants scholarships to aspiring paralegals, such as the Thomson Reuters Student Scholarship, or those offered by its state-level affiliate organizations.

Legal studies programs do not have many grants or fellowships dedicated to it like some other majors, though students can still search for scholarship assistance by state or within their communities. One of the better tools for this is CareerOneStop's Scholarship Finder, which is an extensive listing of awards where searches can be refined by keywords, degree level, and location.

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