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My Opinion

Playing It Smart

Make an informed choice about your paralegal education.

By Celia C. Elwell, RP

 

As more state legislatures, bar associations and paralegal associations look for ways to define a paralegal and decide what qualifies someone to be a paralegal, education is one of the major elements considered.

Therefore, choosing a legal assistant program isn’t a decision to be made lightly. A diploma from a fly-by-night paralegal program simply isn’t going to cut it.

Too often, people choose a paralegal program based solely on one factor, such as cost or the short length of the program. Regrettably, some are persuaded by television and print advertisements from schools that offer a diploma in everything from paralegal studies to welding. I hope to convince you there are many important issues to consider before choosing the paralegal school that is right for you. It isn’t a decision that should be made by looking only at brochures or Web sites, either. I recommend you put time and effort into investigating your options. In any situation, knowledge is power. It makes sense to make an informed choice about your paralegal education.

Paralegal programs come in different shapes and sizes — certificate programs, two-year associate degree programs, four-year bachelor degree programs and diploma programs. I have divided paralegal schools into three rough categories for further review: American Bar Association (ABA)-approved programs, programs in ABA compliance and proprietary schools.

ABA-Approved Programs

ABA-approved programs must adhere to certain qualifications and requirements to maintain ABA approval. All ABA-approved schools are re-evaluated on a regular basis to maintain the school’s quality.

To obtain ABA approval, the paralegal school must (1) be post-secondary (college) level of instruction; (2) require at least 60 semester hours, including general education and legal specialty courses; and (3) be properly accredited. Other standards have included on-site requirements such as an adequate law library.

The ABA’s standards and its publications, including its definition of a legal assistant, are available on the organization’s Web site, located at: www.abanet.org/legalservices/paralegals/ directory/home.html.

Programs in ABA Compliance

The second category is schools which, although they have not obtained ABA-approval, are in substantial compliance with ABA guidelines. Substantial compliance is subjective.

To me, it means the paralegal program already complies with ABA guidelines but, for whatever reason, has chosen not to seek ABA approval. In other words, if the school applied for ABA approval, it would pass.

Proprietary Schools

Some proprietary schools are ABA-approved; others are not. Proprietary schools that are not ABA-approved should be properly accredited.

Proprietary schools tend to make me jumpy because their standards are not consistent from school to school. Therefore, you should conduct a more in-depth investigation using the suggestions below before signing up.

Distance learning programs are also proprietary schools. Two types of distance learning include online classes and correspondence courses. In most online classes, the student and professor communicate in what is known as real-time. Real-time means there is no lag from when one person types or speaks until a message is received. A distance learning program should also be properly accredited.

When checking out a distance education program, be sure you will have real-time access to your instructor. Make sure your instructor will be available at convenient times to answer questions and give help when needed. You should also have access to other students. If these things are not available, keep looking. Since distance learning depends on the Internet, you will need a computer that has adequate power, memory and Internet access.

With correspondence schools (I would advise against enrolling in such schools), the teacher sends material to the student, the student does the work, and then sends the material back to the teacher. Quality distance learning programs don’t work that way. There should be quality interaction between student and instructor, and the student should have Internet access to other students in his or her class.

Choosing the Right School

First, locate your local or national paralegal associations.

There are two major national paralegal associations: the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).

Visit each organization’s site and click on membership information. Each paralegal organization has affiliates across the country, so you should have no problem locating the association affiliates closest to you.

Talk with the president and members of your preferred association. Ask for their advice as to which paralegal school(s) in the area they recommend and why. What are the preferred qualifications by paralegal employers in your area? Pick their brains. Bond with these people. Find out what it takes to join as a student member. These professionals may become your mentors, friends and peers.

Second, gather all the information you can about paralegal education options. Today, the paralegal profession and employers stress having more education, not less. To many, this means graduation from a quality paralegal program plus obtaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Many paralegal programs have articulation agreements with two-year and four-year colleges and universities for this reason.

Fortunately, there are abundant sources on paralegal education and the profession. At their respective Web sites, both NFPA (www.paralegals.org) and NALA (www.nala.org) have articles about what a paralegal is and how to choose a paralegal school. Also, the ABA (www.abanet.org) and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) (www.aafpe.org) have similar articles and information. Gather information at each source.

Compare the Schools

Your local paralegal association contacts will provide you with names of reputable paralegal schools in your area. To be more thorough, use AAfPE’s Web site to find paralegal programs that are AAfPE members. (AAfPE member schools are generally ABA-approved.) I advise against “missile-locking” on the first school you visit and ignoring the other possibilities. Gather information from all likely prospects. Tour the schools; talk to the director, faculty and students if you can. Then sit down with all the information you have gathered and do a comparison. Don’t base your decision solely on costs.

More Warning Signs

Does the school insist you sign a contract or note binding you to pay for the entire program, regardless of whether you finish or before you can graduate? If so, walk away. Most schools, just like state universities and colleges, allow you to pay as you go. You may decide at some point that the paralegal profession isn’t for you. Make sure you can walk away without paying for the remaining cost of the program because you signed a contract or a student loan for the entire amount. If anyone at the school pressures you to sign such a contract or student loan, my recommendation is to get out of there.

Admission Criteria

The ABA guidelines require paralegal applicants be high school graduates or have successfully completed the GED, together with other criteria used for selecting students whose success as a paralegal can be reasonably inferred. Many ABA-approved schools use a student’s SAT or ACT score to meet the probability of success requirement. You are seeking an education to join a profession, not a trade. Programs with low entrance criteria should raise a red flag. Also, make sure the school requires general education courses. Remember, the preference is more education, not less.

ABA-approved programs take about two years to complete the required 60 semester hours. Many four-year baccalaureate paralegal programs also have ABA approval. But, what if the school is not ABA approved? Programs that are in substantial compliance with ABA requirements will likely have about 60 semester hours in accordance with ABA guidelines. If the school doesn’t provide a degree upon completion, be sure to find out what kind of articulation agreement the program has with the local two-year or four-year colleges. Obviously, courses from diploma schools will not likely transfer to post-secondary schools.

Pay attention to the program’s length. Some paralegal schools last only six weeks, some just six months, or some are a year or more. To determine whether a shorter program is for you, do a comparison of curriculum, etc., with schools of longer length. This should help you decide whether you will receive a quality education. Does the school require general education courses? What do you get when you graduate? Who teaches the courses? What kind of success rate does the school have in finding jobs for its graduates? What do local paralegals and employers have to say about this program?

What You Should Learn

Paralegal education is different from what is taught at law school. Law students are taught predominantly legal theory; paralegal students are taught a combination of legal theory and practical skills — what I like to call the nuts and bolts. For example, you should not only learn civil procedure, but also be taught how to draft the pleadings, summons, subpoenas, motions, etc.

Avoid paralegal schools that overemphasize clerical skills. Almost all paralegals and attorneys now have a computer on their desks. So naturally, computer skills are a must. Look for schools that teach computer science, word processing or other types of software, such as PowerPoint, Corel Presentation and litigation support software. Question an overemphasis in time-keeping and accounting software and basic typing skills because those skills are more clerical in nature. Also avoid schools that teach you legal writing by having you fill in blanks in boilerplate legal forms.

Faculty

Any paralegal instructor should have proper credentials, but there are different theories as to what those credentials should be.

I personally would want an instructor who has experience working with paralegals. Is the instructor capable of teaching me what I need to know to work as a paralegal in a specific area of the law? Has the instructor actually worked in this area, or is he or she just going by what was learned in law school or paralegal school?

Attorneys, paralegals and other people who are experts in their areas should teach legal assistant classes. Look out for an instructor who teaches classes on a subject without expertise in it. Look for instructors who know where the rubber meets the road.

A poor paralegal education will be a major roadblock to success in a paralegal career. Programs that look like a quick fix are often anything but. The more education you have, the better off you will be. Educate yourself before choosing a paralegal school to attend. Never forget that knowledge is power. Play it smart!

 


 

Celia C. Elwell, RP, has been a paralegal since 1984. She received her legal assistant certificate from the University of Oklahoma in 1986. Elwell has taught at the University of Oklahoma’s American Bar Association-approved paralegal program since 1986. She co-authored “Practical Legal Writing for Legal Assistants” (West 1996) and the PACE study manual. She is a member of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Legal Assistant Services Committee and chairwoman of its Definitions/Qualifications Subcommittee.

 

 

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