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A Look at Graduate-Level Paralegal Studies

What will your next education move be?

By Rod Hughes

(Originally appeared in print as "Master Plan")

January/February 2006 Table of Contents

 

If ever there has been a profession in which educational standards vary, it’s the paralegal field. Depending on your region or locality, the criteria for experience and education — not to mention the title variations for paralegal positions — run the gamut. Despite more than 30 years of growth and development, access to the profession remains largely at the discretion of hiring managers.

In a profession lacking solid enforcement of educational standards, those who have taken it upon themselves to pursue graduate-level education are, understandably, unique. Some paralegals decide to pursue a master’s degree in legal studies to give them an edge in the marketplace, to increase their marketability and to specialize in specific practice areas. But does having a master’s degree increase the chances of getting a better job and better pay, or can it actually have the opposite effect? Legal Assistant Today talked with educators, placement agency representatives and master’s degree graduates to get their perspectives on these issues.

Setting the Standard

While there isn’t an educational standard in the paralegal field, more and more paralegals are seeing the need for advanced paralegal education. In some areas of the country, it’s becoming common for employers to expect new paralegal hires to have a bachelor’s degree or a paralegal certificate.

“Ultimately, it’s the employment market that determines what the educational requirements are for paralegals who want to enter the profession,” said Terry Hull, director of legal studies at Texas State University, San Marcos. Her program has offered an American Bar Association-approved master’s program in legal studies since 1999.

Ronald Goldfarb, immediate past president of the American Association for Paralegal Education, agreed.

“Thirty years ago, you had high school graduates being hired and trained in-house,” said Goldfarb, vice president of legal and external affairs at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J. “As the function of the legal assistant has expanded, and as they are utilized in more hands-on roles in complex fields, employers are requiring more, and so education is playing a big part in what these employment candidates are capable of as they enter the marketplace.”

Goldfarb said he encourages students who don’t already have a bachelor’s degree to get one. “Now whether you go on for a master’s degree [as a paralegal] is something that requires a definite career strategy and takes some careful consideration,” he added.

Overall, the paralegal job market  still is quite a long way from requiring graduate-level training. “In very niche areas of the law — very technical positions — perhaps there is a need [for graduate-level education]. For most other areas, at this time, no, there isn’t a demand for a master’s degree,” said Alice Rowley, placement director for Kelly Law Registry in Philadelphia.

Gerry Grandzol, placement director for Special Counsel in Phil­a­delphia, agreed, adding that he didn’t see a master’s degree in legal studies, or any other graduate-level area of study as a sure-fire way to career advancement in the legal assistant field. “One thing I have come to learn in this industry is that résumés and education levels are not indicative of a person’s true performance,” Grandzol said, noting experience and quantified work performance often outweigh education credentials in the paralegal employment marketplace.

In a profession lacking an enforceable education standard, why do some paralegals choose to undertake a graduate-level education when there doesn’t seem to be a demand?

Masterminds

LAT spoke with three recent graduates from Texas State who earned their master’s degrees in legal studies in December 2004.

“It’s what separates you from the rest of the crowd,” Toylaine Spencer said about earning a master’s degree. She chose to pursue her graduate education to stand out from other paralegals in the employment market. Spencer was trained in-house and worked as a legal assistant for several years before starting her master’s program more than 10 years ago. She took time off to start a family, then was completing her undergraduate degree in criminal justice when she decided a master’s degree would give her an advantage in the employment market after having been gone for several years. In June 2005, Spencer was hired by Jenkens & Gilchrist in Austin, Texas.

Melissa Pruitt, one of Spencer’s classmates, said she chose to earn her master’s in legal studies as a potential precursor to law school. After receiving her undergraduate degree in government from the University of Texas, she initially thought law school would be in her future, but said she had mixed feelings about it. “I knew I wanted to do something at the graduate level, and I thought I could do this as a transition,” she said.

However, Pruitt’s thoughts of law school now are nearly a faded memory. In February 2005, she was hired by Andrews Kurth, an eight-office international law firm that was looking for a corporate and securities paralegal. Pruitt said after she was hired, she discovered she had competed for the position against legal assistants with bachelor’s degrees and some level of experience, while her main qualifications were an undergraduate degree in government and her master’s in legal studies. “So far, I am fairly happy doing what I am doing, and it’s something I think could be a long-term career,” she said.

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in political science at Texas State, Sharon Murray became interested in the legal field. Some of the law classes she took as an undergraduate piqued her interest, and she decided to pursue her master’s degree in legal studies. It was growing competition, now and in the future, that prompted Murray to enroll in the graduate program.

“I decided to pursue a master’s degree primarily because of the changing job market. Just as there has been a shift away from high school diploma-only job requirements to increased requests for bachelor’s degrees, I anticipate the current job market [will] move away from associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to requiring a higher level of education,” Murray said. “I anticipate being in the workforce for another 25 years, and I believe it’s only to my advantage to have as much of an educational head-start as possible to remain competitive later,” she said.

What is Out There?

Currently, there are five ABA-approved master’s programs in legal studies in the United States. In addition, AAfPE’s online database of member institutions (www.aafpe.org) reveals approximately 10 master’s programs throughout the country offering graduate-level legal education to paralegals.

Beyond AAfPE membership and ABA-approved programs, there also is a variety of graduate schools that offer law-related type programs. Although these are not paralegal-specific academic programs, they might be beneficial to paralegals seeking advanced education. A good resource to discover cursory information on such programs is www.gradschools.com, although it should be used to learn what programs exist and not as a validation of the quality of any particular program.

One reason Goldfarb said there isn’t a wealth of master’s programs specifically for paralegals is because it’s a profession in which a bachelor’s degree coupled with a paralegal certificate and experience as a working legal assistant can take you where you need to go, career wise.

“Now, for someone looking for a career as an academic in the paralegal field or who wants to work in some highly specialized area, such as alternative dispute resolution, pursuing a master’s degree probably makes a good deal of sense,” Goldfarb said. However, he noted that for paralegals looking for a career in small- to mid-sized litigation or transactional law practices, or for many in-house paralegal positions, a master’s degree might not be a career asset. “You have got to have a very specific goal in mind if you are considering a master’s degree as a paralegal rather than just looking at it as the next logical step,” he said.

The legal studies program at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., which is an institutional member of AAfPE and an ABA-approved program, offers a broad education in legal studies for graduate-level students and isn’t specifically designed for paralegals. However, Norma Connolly, chair of the legal studies program at Montclair, estimated approximately 60 percent of the program’s current students are legal assistants, with about 60 students to 80 students enrolled.

The program began in 1995, and through 2004, 57 students have completed the program, with 32 of those graduates having paralegal backgrounds. Connolly said paralegal graduates of Montclair’s master’s program in legal studies, through surveys, reported they sought their degrees for the purposes of career advancement, such as management positions or supervisory roles.

 “Most paralegals who want an advanced degree look for a master’s in legal studies. One education track we offer in the program is legal management in information technology, which is an ideal match for those who wish to use their education in the paralegal profession,” Connolly said.

Students have gone on to work for companies such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Aspen Systems, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Verizon and various law firms, Connolly added.

The master’s in legal studies program at Texas State offers three concentrations in addition to a generalized legal studies program: environmental, legal administration and alternative dispute resolution. The enrollment numbers per year are about 100 students, with between 30 and 40 graduates of the program per year. Hull said while master’s graduates go on to work in traditional law firms, state and federal agencies, and corporations, the difference most often is in their responsibilities in those jobs.

Connolly noted that some paralegals interested in obtaining a master’s degree see it as a stepping stone to law school, particularly those who didn’t do well as undergraduates and see a master’s program as an opportunity to enhance their educational credentials.

Advantages and Disadvantages

When deciding if you should pursue a master’s degree, consider not just your goals, but also those of potential employers for whom you would like to work. Rowley said many of Kelly Law Registry’s clients seeking paralegals to fill temporary and permanent openings require a certain level of experience, a bachelor’s degree and a   paralegal certificate, or some combination thereof. “I have yet to get a specific request from a client requiring [paralegal employment candidates to have master’s degrees],” Rowley said. She said she has placed fewer than 10 paralegals who have master’s degrees in legal assistant positions. None had legal-specific graduate degrees. Those placements primarily were in intellectual property, with a few in real estate and financial services.

Grandzol agreed that paralegals with master’s degrees can find success in highly targeted fields such as intellectual property, certain types of corporate practices and in particular, the life sciences field. “I have seen paralegals with master’s degrees in a variety of academic areas working in the area of pharmaceuticals or in technology-based industries,” Grandzol said. However, like Rowley, he has never had an employer specifically request a paralegal candidate with a graduate degree.

Another potential disadvantage: Rowley said a master’s degree can become a hurdle when you start to discuss salary. “Specifically, it becomes a problem if paralegals with master’s degrees are demanding higher levels of pay than what employers are offering for positions that don’t require that level of education,” Rowley said.

Pruitt said while she believes her advanced education is a tremendous resource, it did present obstacles to her job search. “I do believe it can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it demonstrates hard work, competence and commitment. However, when [potential] employers look at your résumé and see a lot of education, they automatically begin thinking you are out of their price range,” she said. This even applies at her current firm, where she said, “They were impressed enough to hire me and also not sure how to fully compensate me as a result.”

Spencer said while her education was an asset to some employers, her master’s degree might also have been a liability. “Believe me, I applied for a lot of paralegal positions after graduation. I think a lot of employers took one look at my master’s degree and thought I was probably out of their pay range,” she said. “I love my job, and I am fortunate enough to work for an employer that pays paralegals higher than average wages.”

Spencer said she felt the application of her academic achievements in the job market was overall a positive experience. “I would not think pursuing a master’s degree in just anything for the sake of having a master’s would be helpful. However, if you are pursuing a master’s in a certain area of study you enjoy and want to work in, I think it can only be helpful,” she explained, having sought work as an environmental and administrative law paralegal. She did note, however, that because legal assistants holding master’s degrees are the exception rather than the rule, approaching salary issues in the interview process might be complicated, unless you are targeting a particular employer or field of law.

Focusing on the current job market, Spencer said she still believes a master’s degree in any discipline moves you to the top of a potential employer’s “to-hire” list. And, beyond standing out from her peers in the employment market, Spencer felt it was a good fit to pursue a master’s degree in something she enjoyed while also being able to apply that education to her work. “For me, having a master’s [degree] is what got me this job. I replaced a paralegal who had a master’s degree” she said. Although she noted she is the only paralegal of six in her Austin office who has a master’s degree, she said the other paralegals have either an undergraduate degree in the field or more than 20 years of legal experience.

Almost none of the educators and placement professionals interviewed said that a master’s degree can or should act as a stepping stone to management-type positions. The advantages of a master’s degree, according to Rowley, are client-specific. “Some will see it as an advantage, and some will see it as having more dollar signs attached to it than they can reasonably pay,” she said. It all comes back to the employer’s needs and requirements.

Murray took six months off from her job search after she obtained her master’s degree, and now is seeking her first paralegal position. However, she has run into a few stumbling blocks. In the course of her job search in Austin, Murray said a number of employers have required legal assistant candidates to have completed their training through a law school program, rather than a legal studies program.

“I am not sure why that particular requirement is necessary or what possible advantage an employer believes is obtained by going to a law school as opposed to any other school,” Murray said. “The school where I obtained my training is becoming quite well known within the state for the students [it graduates], and yet employers are still asking for students from accredited law schools.” In her case, the advanced education helps, but employers independently set the bar for what they are looking for in paralegal hires.

Murray’s situation is one reason paralegals such as Pruitt advocate moving the profession toward some type of licensure or national regulatory scheme. “There needs to be a set of standards that is universal, especially since we are income producers and the profession continues to take on more advanced legal tasks than our predecessors did maybe 25 years ago,” Pruitt said. Murray said a universal standard would eliminate barriers such as arbitrary educational standards and geographic differences that persist in defining the role of paralegals.

Your Move

Is graduate school the solution to many paralegals’ career issues? Again, it comes back to the profession itself and what employers are seeking in job candidates.

While some paralegals think master’s degrees will become the norm in five to 10 years, others say the days when a paralegal will need the graduate degree are much further in the future. “Master’s degrees will not be the standard in our lifetime. First of all, there are not that many paralegal graduate programs out there,” Spencer said.

Rowley said more and more in firms and even many corporations, paralegals are being used with increasing levels of responsibility in areas where maybe once associates or junior attorneys were handling things. “As paralegal roles continue to expand, [having a master’s degree] would only be more helpful down the road — maybe five to 10 years,” Rowley said.

The decision for a paralegal to pursue a master’s degree is one that, in Hull’s estimation, is and will remain varied, nuanced and particular to the individual. For those willing to accept that they will need to navigate skepticism regarding salary and who are willing to work within the offered salary ranges of the employers they seek out, a master’s degree in any discipline can be an asset if you carefully match your needs with a potential employer’s.

 


 

Rod Hughes is a public relations representative for two East Coast offices of a top 25 international law firm. Most recently he was the proprietor of Hughes Media, specializing in freelance editorial, writing and public relations services. Hughes has served as editor and publisher of LAT and its sister publication, Law Office Computing, as well as editor of three international litigation newsletters published by Mealey Publications Inc., a subsidiary of LexisNexis. He can be reached at rod-3@comcast.net

 

 

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