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New School of Thought

Online CLE for paralegals makes advances in the profession.

By Nancy Ritter


Continuing legal education helps experienced professionals keep current with changing laws and practices. Not surprisingly, the Internet has brought an entirely new way for paralegals to improve their know-ledge and skills, referred to as “e-learning.” E-learning is education delivered via a computer network, usually — but not necessarily — over the Internet.

With the evolution of e-learning, busy paralegals can continue their education without travel costs or geographical constraints. Instead, with only a computer and an Internet connection, paralegals can take a course in their pajamas at midnight, on their couches on weekends, or even at the beach during a vacation. Course work can be completed at each individual’s own pace, and the 24/7 availability of many CLE programs means access to quick instruction, or what the e-learning gurus call “just-in-time learning.” These attributes are beneficial to many busy paralegals wanting to continue their education while still working full time and caring for family needs.

What is Available?

Many online CLE courses are available for paralegals wanting to stay a step ahead of the rest. Currently, formats for online training run the gamut from analog or digital satellite and legal analysis, broadcasts to CD-ROMs, and from compressed video to streaming audio to text only.

The National Association of Legal Assistants offers CLE through its NALA Campus (www.nala.org/newcampus/Default.htm) in civil litigation, written communications, contracts, intellectual property, judgment and legal analysis, legal ethics, real estate, the American legal system and legal research via written and audio (WAV file) text, as well as slides and interactive tests.

This e-learning format is referred to as “asynchronistic,” meaning it’s not occurring in real-time and, therefore, is accessible to students around the clock.

With the lack of student interaction in online CLE, some educators think this method of learning isn’t as effective as in-classroom work. However, Marge Dover, a Certified Association Executive and NALA’s executive director, said just because there is no “live” professor, doesn’t necessarily mean there is no interaction. She pointed out that all of NALA Campus’ courses have message boards for paralegal students and e-mail links to course authors.

NALA Campus, which has hosted more than 12,000 users to-date, also offers course previews, demonstration modules and course pre-tests. After registering on the site, users can access a message board to see what other professionals have said about the courses.

Charlsye Smith Diaz, a former Texas paralegal who has taken NALA Campus courses, noted one benefit of online education is it can draw in students who might not typically interact in a traditional classroom setting. There is a great side benefit to online CLE, Smith Diaz added. Taking an online course allows students to “meet” others with similar interests from around the country, with whom many might never have interacted if not for the course.

Dover said NALA Campus.com currently is developing live, or “synchronous,” programs that should be launched in mid-2004. Using this type of format, a student participates in a telephone conference call with an instructor and other students, and logs on to a Web site to watch an instructor’s presentation.

Dover said NALA Campus’ 50- to 60-minute synchronous courses will contain a messaging component to facilitate student-teacher communication, and the programs will permit student polling (for example, questions such as, “How many of you prepare courtroom exhibits?” can be polled), with the ability to immediately post the results online.

Bruce Hamm, director of Professional Legal Education at New York’s Syracuse University and a former board member of the American Association for Paralegal Education, noted an increasing number of teaching institutions are offering this type of instruction because of its inherent cost savings. Additional classrooms or “remote locations” can be added, but only one teacher is required. Hence, the teaching method becomes increasingly economical, especially in those locations with small numbers of students. However, he cautioned that depending on the material being taught, online learning is not always more cost effective.

“In those cases where the number of students must be limited — for instance, a writing intensive course with a lot of required feedback — the additional technology and technical support required actually drives up the cost of the course,” he said.

Hamm said, with the right technology, synchronous instruction can allow good interaction between students and instructors. And while certain segments of the population are looking for online learning for one reason or another, alternatively, there are those who will never be comfortable with the new technology. However, more students are coming to expect some technological enhancements in traditional learning.

According to Hamm, a consequence of the online environment has been for programs and instructors (especially with time zone changes and international students) to find themselves in a 24/7 mode of operation. “This expectation creates its own set of difficulties for staffing and technical support. I don’t think all students are choosing programs based on online capacity, but … it does appeal to some based on their own situations and learning styles.”

According to Janice Amato, vice president of professional development for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (www.paralegals.org), this professional organization for paralegals currently offers three avenues for online CLE: short, text-only seminars (an overview of immigration, two levels of computerized litigation support, ethics, trial notebooks and medical records) presented in partnership with West; Computer Mediated Distance Learning in conjunction with the Consortium for Advanced Legal Education, a nonprofit organization providing advanced specialty course work for legal professionals; and a seven-week course, also presented through CALE, for paralegals who are preparing to take NFPA’s Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) to become Registered Paralegals (RP). CALE touts itself as an education marketplace through strategic alliances among educators, publishers, content providers, associations, organizations and legal professionals.

The American Law Network, which is made up of three continuing legal education groups — American Bar Association CLE, American Law Institute/American Bar Association and the Practising Law Institute — uses satellite broadcasting technology particularly well, according to Hamm. This format offers, for example, a panel discussion of experts broadcast to a roomful of people who watch on a large screen.

Generally, Hamm added, this is a fairly one-way interaction, although a question and answer component can be added — with questions submitted via e-mail or fax — to make the training more interactive.

The ABA offers a variety of videoconferencing, teleconferencing and Webcasting courses at www.abanet.org/cle. Of course, there is a cornucopia of online CLE course work designed mostly for attorneys looking to fulfill mandatory CLE credits. Those types of offerings include Lawline.com and CLEonline.com to name a few.

In addition to offering course work, CLEonline.com invites bar associations, legal publishers and professional legal organizations to collaborate in developing online CLE courses. Experts said this type of partnership is likely to grow in the future. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine online CLE providers will be developing course work tailored to a particular law firm or other paralegal employer in the future.

The Technical Side

While the future of online CLE for legal assistants — both the development of course work and the evolution of the technology to deliver it — will depend on what legal assistants want and need, for now, online paralegal CLE requires little more than a computer, an Internet connection and a modem. Providers of online paralegal CLE offer easily downloadable and free software programs to access the course work, and provider Web sites describe in detail the programs and technical features a user must have.

NALA Campus course work, for example, requires the student to use Netscape Navigator 4.0 or Microsoft Explorer 4.0 or higher. A modem connection speed of at least 56k is recommended, but the faster the better. NALA Campus audio files are in WAV format. Internet Explorer users use Windows Media Player for the audio feature, which the NALA Campus site offers as a free download. Netscape users can utilize that browser’s built-in WAV files.

Several of the NALA Campus courses have supplemental material, available in Portable Document Format, and the site provides a free download of Adobe Acrobat Reader for those students who don’t already have the program.

NFPA’s course work also currently requires only an Internet connection and, for some courses, a PC with at least Windows 3.1 or Windows 95 or a Mac, and Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Most of CALE’s offerings also require computer conferencing software, allowing a student to communicate directly with the instructor and other students. That program is provided by CALE as part of the course fees.

Of course, most online CLE providers describe various discretionary customizations available to a user on their individual Web sites — from how to experiment with slide size to how to format the computer screen to accommodate both text and slides. The sites also provide contact information for technical support if a user experiences any problems.

As the need for online paralegal CLE continues to evolve and as more providers enter the field, there is little doubt other types of online formats, such as satellite broadcast or Webcasting, will enter the picture. Much of the CLE course work offered by the ABA, for example, already uses the Webcast format, which is like watching TV on the computer screen.

The Challenges

Learning styles are as different as hair color. So, while online education offers marvelous opportunities, it also presents significant challenges. Some paralegal educators say while there is nothing precisely wrong with online or distance learning, paralegals should use a jaundiced eye when looking for online CLE to enhance their skills.

“I have never seen a system — and I think I have seen most of them — where the quality of education doesn’t suffer from a lack of classroom interaction,” said Paul Guymon, coordinator of the paralegal program at William Rainey Harper College in Illinois, and a former president of AAfPE. While Guymon said he believes online CLE has a role to play as legal assistants grow in their careers, he emphasized the importance of interpersonal communication and online course work.

Guymon noted paralegals constantly are called on to interact with lawyers, clients, witnesses, judges and fellow legal professionals. Law, quite simply, is a social discipline. And it’s this reality that leads many paralegal educators to differentiate between the continuing nature of CLE and initial paralegal training.

Hamm said he agreed, adding that online legal education isn’t very effective for undergraduates and law school students because it requires a foundation of specialized knowledge and skills. He emphasized the need to distinguish between online programs for experienced legal assistants — who presumably have already developed the logic and skills necessary for a successful career — and programs for those studying to become a paralegal.

Put simply, Hamm said, online education holds a certain attraction for people, but it’s not likely to work well with inexperienced paralegal students, and it’s not the best medium to hone their skills.

For more experienced paralegals, some online CLE courses do have an appeal, and many have taken such courses offered by NALA. As part of her doctoral studies, Smith Diaz reported more than half of the site’s users have more than 10 years of experience in the paralegal field. She reported on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the most satisfied), the average satisfaction rating by approximately 400 paralegals who have taken NALA Campus CLE courses is an impressive 4.25.

Guymon said the impact of distance learning goes beyond the educational to the economic. Online CLE is affecting educational institutions, which are finding it difficult to compete with commercial providers.

While the advent of online CLE is too recent to have yielded statistics reflecting the financial impact of commercial CLE providers, which are siphoning paralegals and their dollars from traditional educational institutions, Guymon said this is a concern. Harper College, he noted, offers few paralegal CLE courses because commercial CLE providers use marketing tools to entice students that teaching institutions generally don’t.

How to Pick ‘em

Perhaps the greatest challenge presented by the growth of online CLE is for paralegals to thoroughly investigate a provider’s offerings. A Google search of “continuing legal education” results in literally thousands of hits — and, with more providers seemingly jumping into the arena every day, experts say legal assistants are well advised to ask a lot of questions before putting their (or their employer’s) money down.

When searching for the best online CLE courses, paralegals should look at several key factors, such as:

  • Who is controlling the quality of the CLE course work?
  • Is it sponsored by a bar association or a professional organization?
  • Is the course work created in partnership with a top-notch educational institution or legal-related association?
  • Whose reputation is at stake if the instruction is sub-standard?

In addition, paralegals should talk to their peers, paralegal educators and paralegal organizations for further information and guidance.

And, while asking such quality-control questions might seem like a no-brainer, it might, Guymon added, require special initiative, especially for paralegals whose employers are encouraging and paying for the CLE.

“Anybody can put anything they want on the Internet,” Guymon noted, adding that legal assistants must make sure a flashy Web site, with lots of bells and whistles, is not covering up a lack of substance.

The Future: Regulation and CLE?

There is little doubt the main reason there are far fewer CLE programs tailored for paralegals than for lawyers is because paralegals (apart from on-the-job supervision by lawyers) are not yet regulated. Without delving too far into the contentious regulation debate, it’s nonetheless important to note if the regulation of legal assistants is inevitable — as more than a few believe it will be — with it will come requirements for CLE.

“It’s only a matter of time,” said Hamm, who said he believes the regulation of paralegals is a mere five and certainly no more than 10 years away. “Regulation is going to come on a state-by-state basis, and with that will come mandatory CLE for paralegals.”

Hamm said the driving force behind the inevitable regulation of the paralegal profession (hence, mandatory CLE) is consumer protection. The demand for affordable legal services, he said, is bound to lead to instances of the unauthorized practice of law. “Once people get burned, and they will, you will see regulation,” he added.

Currently, California is the only state requiring the certification of paralegals, although the program is overseen by the paralegals’ supervising attorneys, not by a regulatory body. California requires four hours of CLE in legal ethics every three years, and four hours of general or specialized law every two years for paralegals to maintain certification.

In Florida and Louisiana, the state paralegal organizations oversee a certification program, and many experts believe, whether the move is toward voluntary certification or mandatory licensure, other states will not be very far behind.

Some associations have CLE requirements as well. NFPA requires 12 CLE credits, including one in ethics, within two years of passing the PACE exam to maintain the PACE credential, RP. The same requirement for CLE credits is required every two years thereafter. Likewise, NALA’s CLA credential is valid for a period of five years. To maintain the CLA credential, paralegals must submit proof of participation in 50 hours of qualified CLE programs for each five-year period.

Of course, as in any profession, what the market demands — both the employment market and the market of legal-services consumers — will be key to the growth of paralegal CLE. And, while there is little evidence paralegal employers are requiring CLE as a condition for promotion, that too, could become a factor if the legal assistant field becomes regulated.

Meanwhile, despite the debate over the need for, or the inevitability of, paralegal licensure or certification, no one disputes that CLE is important to the legal assistant profession as a whole.

Employers know they have to keep their paralegals up to speed on changing laws, rules and practice skills. It’s important for law firms, in-house law departments and public agencies to have the best-educated workforce to provide quality legal services. In fact, one confirmation of this is the registration fees for a majority of paralegals who have taken NALA Campus CLE courses have been paid for by the employer, according to Dover.

Ultimately, of course, legal assistants are responsible for their own education and career growth. Experienced paralegals know they must be engaged in ongoing education and training to present the best credentials to current and prospective employers. As Dover said: “The tradition in all professions is for professionals to be involved in continuing and improving.”



Nancy Ritter is a legal editor in Washington, D.C. Before going into legal journalism, she was a paralegal for 22 years in Minnesota, Washington state and New Jersey, where she worked in personal injury, medical malpractice and white-collar criminal defense. As a reporter, Nancy has won numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including first-place prizes in 2001 for investigative reporting, profile-writing and series-writing for her work at New Jersey Lawyer newspaper.



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