A reader already working in the legal field wrote me about her degree dilemma:
Hi, Lynne. I found your blog while doing some research on the paralegal profession. I am wondering if you would mind giving me some feedback. I have been considering going back to school for about six years – I don’t have a degree at all. I have cold feet because I am not sure what I want I want to major in, human resources, health services management or paralegal studies, but something keeps pulling me back to the paralegal profession. I’m over 40 years old and I currently work for the courts, with great benefits and pretty good pay. But I feel like I am just a glorified clerical worker. I am looking for more of a challenge, but am struggling with what type of education to obtain, an online certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Thank you so much for reading my blog and contacting me. It sounds like you have a stable job already, which is good. You and I are close in age, and I don’t think it’s uncommon to be thinking about career changes in your 40s, especially if you’d like more of a professional challenge. The nice aspects of your situation are that you already have a job and legal experience, and can explore your career interests with the security of a paycheck.
You’re right — law firm hiring requirements vary greatly. If you haven’t done it already, I’d research paralegal job openings within driving distance, and get a feel for what kinds of jobs are available and what is required. Many employers require four-year degrees, not surprising given the amount of writing and analysis required to perform paralegal jobs in popular specialty areas, including litigation. Over the years, I’ve worked with a large number of injured clients participating in vocational rehabilitation, and have observed that many human resources and health services jobs require four-year degrees, too.
I believe that a degree can never hurt you, and often opens doors that would otherwise remain closed. I earned my bachelor’s degree in English Literature later in life, but I can’t tell you how rewarding it feels every time I look at that sheepskin. But I also have an associate degree in Paralegal Technology from the local community college. If a four-year degree seems intimidating right now, setting your sights on a two-year degree may seem more attainable. If you love your two-year degree program, you can always continue your education.
Online classes, at least initially, can be intimidating to new students that might benefit from the support of live instructors and similarly-situated classmates. Until you determine what kind of student you are, the structure of a real-time classroom can be helpful. If it were me, I’d try a course or two (part-time) at the local community college, at least at first. If you find that you are extremely self-disciplined and computer-savvy, then an online education may well suit your needs.
Ultimately, I’d look at further education as an enrichment opportunity. Maybe you’ll decide you love your current job, but also love being a student. Maybe you’ll end up using a degree to transition to a more rewarding and challenging position. Maybe you’ll decide that college isn’t for you, and that you’d rather throw pottery or take up weight-lifting in your spare time — but you won’t know until you explore it a bit further.