When is a Paralegal Certificate Better Than a JD Degree?

When is a Paralegal Certificate Better Than a JD Degree?


When is a Paralegal certificate better than a JD degree?


For some people, maybe now. It depends on where you went to school. How well you did in school. Whether you have practical experience or specific skills that law firms need.

For example, if you have a JD degree and you haven’t been able to find a legitimate legal job in the past year, but the same law firms that reject you for an Associate position happen to be hiring one or two Paralegals as a way to cut costs, the salary from a Paralegal is much higher than unemployment benefits for a laid off attorney. Much higher than a zero salary – if you have no job.

In recent years, big law firms have gone through a bloodbath. Across the country, they’ve laid off thousands of highly-qualified attorneys – some of these from “top 20” law schools. Many legal observers have called the present job market for attorneys the worst they’ve seen in 30 or 40 years.

Big law firms are the “900 pound gorilla” in the room. When they slash payroll to the bone, smaller firms and new law graduates feel the direct impact.

In a career sense, this job cutback by the big law firms has had a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” impact on recent graduates of law schools, especially those from the weaker Tier 3 and Tier 4 law schools.

According to the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of law schools, tuition in the top law schools exceeds $40,000 per year. In some cases, it’s approaching $50,000. Although financial aid is available, for many students in even the best schools it translates to a student debt of between $100,000 to $150,000. Some of these “best and brightest” students were part of the bloodbath and lost their jobs. Their student loans didn’t go away, so they are motivated to find employment.


More to the point, in the Tier 3 and Tier 4 law schools, it’s not unusual to find annual tuition costs above $30,000. In today’s job market, when thousands of graduates of top law schools have lost their jobs and can’t find another job at anything like the same salary, this means that MOST of the graduates of the lower Tier students will have great difficulty finding ANY legal job. There are only so many jobs to go around.

Big law firms have also delayed hiring top graduates, offering them a loan to tide them over until a hiring date many months after they graduate. These deferrals of hiring dates also act as a “plug in the pipeline” for law school graduates the next year. In terms of improving cash flow within the law firm, if the purpose of delaying the hire date by months was to avoid paying the $10,000 or so monthly salary per Associate for 6 or 8 months to preserve the firm’s cash flow, the odds that the firm will be flush with cash and prepared to offer May 1st jobs to new Associates in the coming year doesn’t look promising. This thing will take awhile to correct.


For the thousands of young attorneys with one to five years of experience who lost their high-paying Associate jobs in a big law firm, it is not unusual for them to still have over $100,000 of school debt to repay. It’s not a problem – if the attorney keeps his high-paying job. That’s a big IF, when you are suddenly laid off.

Since school debt is not usually erased under bankruptcy law, that means that thousands of highly-qualified attorneys have been forced to fill jobs that used to be filled by the graduates of medium- or lower-Tier law schools. In competing for the few available jobs, the “big fish eat the little fish.”


For students still in pre-law programs in college, Paralegal training could be a realistic “plan B” – particularly for students who are accepted ONLY by the Tier 3 or Tier 4 law schools. The American Bar Association publishes a state-by-state map of all approved Paralegal programs, often at an affordable community college:


Some of these programs offer a one-year Paralegal certificate for students who already have an Associate’s degree in another field. Most offer a two-year Associate’s Paralegal degree.

Obviously, no one can predict the future job market.

For present and future law students who finish in the top 20% of “top 20” law schools, they probably won’t have trouble finding a job – although some of those have been surprised by layoffs or deferred hiring dates.

The real crisis ahead looms for those graduates of Tier 3 and Tier 4 law schools, who themselves may run up close to $100,000 in student debt and yet have no legitimate legal job waiting for them when they graduate – at least not at the beginning salary levels one would expect for an attorney.

Top students will eventually find work, maybe at a lower-than-expected salary. For other students, the future is bleak.

Which brings the discussion back to Paralegal training.

Some of the graduating law students from weaker law schools – if they can find a legitimate legal job offer at all – are being offered starting salaries that are not that much higher than the starting salaries for top Paralegals.


Since no one can predict if or when the job market may turn around, some pre-law college students are considering opting for a Paralegal certificate or Associate’s degree as a lower-cost way to “get one’s foot in the door.” They understand that many partners in law firms worked in another field before going to law school (e.g. nursing or accounting) and look with favor on such experience. A few got their start as a Paralegal.

One thing is for sure: if the economy goes south again, the $900 per hour partners that run the big law firms will tighten the firms’ belt, and balance the firms’ books on the backs of the “smaller fish” in the firm.

If a law firm’s costs continue to outstrip its revenues, sooner or later expensive Associate positions will be put on the chopping block. During such cost-cutting, a quality lower-cost Paralegal might be spared the layoff when an Associate (who may be twice or three times as expensive to the firm) is shown the door.

If you look at the web sites or brochures of the Tier 3 and Tier 4 law schools, you’ll rarely find a warning that the school’s graduates had great difficulty in the most recent job downturn, or that few summer internships were available.

If a Tier 3 or Tier 4 law school charges $30,000 tuition per year with 400 students enrolled, that’s a revenue stream of $12,000,000 per year that will pay a lot of high salaries at the school. That revenue stream, and the continued prosperity of the school, would be jeopardized if the school couldn’t fill their entering class with lower-scoring LSAT/GPA students willing to take on some $100,000 in student debt, with faint chance of landing a high-paying job.

Looked at with the cold eye of realism, students who are accepted ONLY by Tier 3 or Tier 4 law schools may want to look at Paralegal studies, or some other field. Incur less debt. Have a better chance of finding a job in an adverse job market.