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The ABCs of Education
What’s needed to get hired in today’s paralegal market?
By Susan Howery

November/December 2000 Issue

One of the most frequently asked questions I answer for prospective students is, (A) “What is the minimum educational requirement I need for entering this field?” A follow-up question is, (B) “What courses do I need to be prepared to work in the paralegal profession?” Finally, the question underlying the previous two is, (C) “What are the expectations of attorneys regarding education and preparation in order to enter this field?”

These are excellent questions, though not easily answered in two or three sentences. I will try to address them in this column.

The Minimum Requirements
There is some dispute about what the “minimum” educational requirement is to work as a paralegal.

A pamphlet entitled “How to Choose a Paralegal Education Program” (hereinafter “brochure”) was developed by influential leaders in the profession: the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), the American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Legal Assistants, the Association of Legal Administrators, the Legal Assistant Management Association, the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. The brochure states that:

“Because of the wide variety in the way in which law firms and other paralegal employers utilize the services of legal assistants and because there is no governmental regulation of legal assistants or mandatory specialized accreditation of paralegal programs, paralegal education is not standardized.”

However, what is not in dispute is that specialized training is required today. The brochure states, in its introduction, that:

“Before 1968 and during the early years of the paralegal profession, most legal assistants were trained on the job. The first paralegal courses in the U.S. [United States] were offered in 1968 and by 1971 only 11 paralegal training programs existed.

“Today, it is estimated that more than 650 programs are operating in the United States. This tremendous increase [in paralegal programs] is the result of the rapid growth in the number of paralegal jobs and the need for well-trained professionals.”

There is, however, a great deal of variety in the types of programs available and the level and quality of instruction provided. The brochure notes that the educational programs are generally two-year community college programs, four-year bachelor degree programs, programs offered by proprietary institutions (usually three to 18 months in length), and post-bachelor’s degree programs (usually about three to 12 months in length).

The brochure authors didn’t comment on the preferability of one program over another, but suggested that prospective students choose carefully and evaluate the options … “in light of your own background and goals.”

So, the answer to the question regarding “minimum” education requirements is, “it depends.” It depends on what your goals are, and it depends on your legal community. If you wish to work in an urban area in a large up-scale law firm, you may need a bachelor’s degree, with a paralegal certificate from an ABA-approved school.

Chere Estrin wrote in her book titled “Paralegal Career Guide, Second Edition,” “Today’s hiring requirements generally lean toward a B.A. degree; B.A./B.S. and graduate degree; or B.A. degree and paralegal certificate, sometimes from an ABA-approved school. Paralegals without [a] legal background or two-year or four-year degree may have a hard time in today’s market.”

However, you may find, particularly in rural areas and in working for sole practitioners, the educational requirements are not as stringent. Also, many fine paralegal programs are not ABA-approved, as seeking the approval is voluntary on the part of the institution. Lawyers do continue to hire graduates from non-ABA approved programs.

Courses Needed to Properly Prepare for the Profession
Because the number of specialty areas of law continues to grow yearly, the number of legal specialty courses which students could potentially take is staggering. I remember a student asking me when I was going to offer the next course in sports law. It was an interesting question, particularly considering I had never offered a course in sports law, nor did I think I ever would. There isn’t much call for a sports law practice in Prescott, Ariz. However, in many urban areas there are attorneys making a lot of money in this practice, and these same attorneys use paralegal services. So, again, you must take the pulse of your legal community to understand what is a hot specialty area, and what is not.

However, there are some courses that are traditionally a part of any legal assistant’s education. According to the brochure:

“Most paralegal programs cover the following subjects in addition to requiring general education either as part of the program or before it. The depth of the coverage of each subject varies according to the structure and length of the program:

  • An introductory paralegal course (an overview of law and the paralegal field)
  • litigation or civil procedure
  • legal research and writing
  • legal ethics
  • specialized courses in one or more areas, such as:
    — real property/real estate transactions
    — wills, trusts and estate planning/probate
    — family law
    — business law.”

There are many more specialty areas which aren’t included in the brochure, but you must research the needs of your region and your local economy to ascertain the benefits of training in those areas. Some examples of hot specialties include litigation (particularly complex civil litigation), transactional law (includes real estate, corporate tax, securities, acquisitions and mergers), corporate law, intellectual property, bankruptcy, employment law and environmental law.

Another critical area of training is in the most current technology. Today’s attorneys have an expectation that students will be able to work in both Microsoft Word and WordPerfect software, that they have some experience with database and spreadsheet software, and that they can conduct research on the Internet and using the fee-based online services.

Also, computer experience in your specialty field will enhance your marketability. If you’re planning on a litigation career, familiarity with courtroom technology, demonstrative evidence software and presentations or complex litigation organization software is a plus on your resume.

Attorneys’ Expectations
My experience in directing paralegal programs in both rural and urban areas is that attorney expectations with respect to education vary widely. Many attorneys in my area (in Yavapai County) don’t have any expectation that students will have earned anything higher than an associate’s degree. However, the attorneys do seem to recognize and value two things: graduation from an ABA-approved program, and if the applicant is a certified legal assistant (CLA). Attorneys in Yavapai County aren’t yet familiar with the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE), so they don’t ask about it. This may be a future expectation.

You may find an entirely different scenario in your town. Research this carefully in order to prepare yourself properly. Check out the ads. Call the local bar association. Make some telephone calls to firms. It makes sense to conduct this research now, rather than to find you have been left behind because of inadequate education.

Susan Howery is the paralegal program coordinator for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. She held the same position at Davenport College in Kalamazoo, Mich., for several years. Howery also taught in both programs. She initiated and advised two student paralegal associations, and has been active in the state and local paralegal associations. Howery is currently on the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) Board of Directors as the representative for associate degree programs. She was the legislative chair of AAfPE and the 1998 annual conference co-host. She also hosted the 1996 regional AAfPE conference in Phoenix.

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