The ABA is giving a slow nod to distance education as well, though it still
requires 10 semester hours of any legal specialty program to be in a classroom setting.
“The ABA is trying to be flexible by allowing a portion of the program to include
distance education,” said the ABA’s Cannon, “but the technology is so
dynamic that we are reluctant to jump in too soon.”
Cannon said the ABA is particularly concerned with being able to monitor
the number of hours students are in contact with the material. After speaking with
students who have taken online courses, Cannon became concerned that they may not be
putting in as much time as their classroom counterparts.
Questions such as those raised by Cannon and the ABA are
a natural outgrowth of this new technology. Educators and students must look at education
in a new way in the new century. From how the material is presented to how exams are
proctored, the educational envelope is being pushed.
Aware of the reservations many have for the medium,
providers of distance education are striving to overcome the obstacles that online
education presents. Bob Griggs, associate academic dean of distance learning at the Rapid
City, S.D.-based National American University, said it takes a lot of time to put a
quality course together. “Technology is fun, but it’s not the star,” Griggs
said. “Quality is [always] the key.”
Griggs has spent several years in the classroom, and has
spent the last three years teaching online courses. He feels he can offer more to students
online than in the traditional classroom. Griggs said that now he actually interacts with
the students more, not less. “Students can’t hide [online] like they do in a
traditional classroom,” said Griggs, who explained that each paralegal student in an
online course is required to respond to discussion questions. Students are also involved
in online study groups which are most typically accessed through chat rooms.
Griggs explained that this kind of learning isn’t
for everyone, however. Students need to be self-directed to learn well in an online
environment. According to Griggs, the typical distance education student is a working
adult, often with a 9-to-5 job that makes attendance in a traditional classroom difficult.
“They are serious about content,” Griggs said. “They want to learn.”
Because they’re often older, these students aren’t as concerned about the social
components of a traditional classroom. They’re self-motivated and want to get through
their educations and onto the business of working in the field.
While less travel-time and flexible class hours are major
benefits of online education, access is also a key element to the popularity of the
developing medium. “Geographical barriers that once isolated students are now
fading,” Griggs said. Through his online courses, Griggs can reach students from all
over the country. Distance education is an especially powerful tool for reaching students
and working paralegals who live in remote locations where access to traditional education
is sometimes difficult.
The legal assistant studies program at the University of
Maryland University College in University Park, M.D., is probably one of the largest
providers of distance education in the legal assistant field.
According to Adelaide Lagnese, the program’s
director, enough program material is provided online for a student to obtain his or her
degree or certificate via the Internet. Lagnese reported that about half of her currently
enrolled students have chosen online courses, while the other half attend in a traditional
Lagnese is enthusiastic about distance education. She
echoes Griggs’ observation of more interaction with students online. “I find
myself checking my e-mail and responding to students every day,” said Lagnese, who
said she also teaches courses in a traditional classroom setting.
Lagnese sees funding as a barrier to offering more online
courses. Often universities aren’t willing to back up their interest in distance
education with dollars, Lagnese explained. It costs more to provide online education, at
least in the start up phase, Lagnese said, so she feels fortunate that her university
supplies the resources necessary to get her programs to students.
Though it’s difficult to pin down exact numbers, the ABA estimates that there are 500
to 600 paralegal programs operating nationwide. Of those programs, more than 200 are
ABA-approved. In addition to the ABA, there are national associations in place that
monitor and advocate for the delivery of quality legal assistant education. AAfPE, for
example, works with the ABA and legal assistant program providers to promote high
standards in paralegal education and has set out detailed guidelines for paralegal
programs in its Statement of Academic Quality.
But ABA approval is voluntary, and there are many quality
courses without the designation. It can be hard to know which program to select. Depending
upon where a student lives and what his or her career goals are, graduation from an
ABA-approved school may or may not be important. For a working legal assistant with a
strong employment history, the designation means less than for a newcomer trying to break
into the field.
Bob LeClair, the legal education department chair at
Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, and a member of the AAfPE board of
directors, said that legal assistants are well-advised to obtain their degrees through
ABA-approved programs. “The [ABA] standards are positive,” said LeClair, who
directs an ABA-approved program. “Frankly, it makes it easier for me to sell my
program to the market.” Selling the program is a necessary component of his job to
educate and place paralegals in the field.
According to LeClair, many quality programs aren’t
ABA-approved, but lawyers in the field use the ABA approval as a benchmark.
“It’s their organization, and they trust the designation,” LeClair said.
Lagnese said she runs a quality program that isn’t
ABA-approved, largely because her program has a distance education component that
isn’t yet within ABA guidelines. Although Lagnese agrees that lawyers often look for
graduates of ABA-approved programs, she feels employers with this mindset are missing out
on hiring well-trained paralegals. Lagnese points out that both her program and others are
run through regionally accredited two- and four-year institutions. This means that program
standards are set regionally to ensure that students obtain a high-quality education.
Lagnese is working with the ABA on the distance education
issue, particularly in the area of monitoring contact hours. “This is new,”
Lagnese said. “They have to look at it slightly differently. We will be in the
forefront, and that’s OK with us.”
Enrolling in an ABA-approved or regionally accredited
program is a good way to ensure a quality paralegal education because many potential
paralegals find themselves confronted with scores of substandard programs.
These fly-by-night paralegal programs provide little in
the way of substantive information and have been known to graduate students and set them
loose on the legal field with as little as three months of classroom study under their
Substandard programs have people like LeClair rather
worried. “These schools flood the market with paralegal wannabes,” LeClair said.
Their graduates are most often inadequately trained, but get jobs in the field anyway.
Lawyers who hire graduates of these substandard schools are ultimately dissatisfied, and
it creates a negative perception of paralegals. LeClair sees this as a significant
disservice to the paralegal marketplace.
It’s important to note that while there have always
been substandard legal assistant education providers in the field, the rapid growth in the
delivery of educational services on the Web has increased the number of poor quality
Experts expect, however, that as the industry matures,
the quality schools will rise to the top and squeeze out slipshod competitors. In the
meantime, prospective students need to be wise consumers. Checking with local and national
paralegal associations before enrolling in any online courses will help ensure prospective
programs meet the standards of quality set by the profession.
Traditional Classroom Improvements
Though distance education is making inroads as a viable option for legal
assistant coursework, the traditional classroom still remains the core of most educational
programs. Many professional educators and academics agree that the personal interaction
needed for on-site learning can’t be replicated in the world of virtual reality.
“You can’t teach social skills [over the
Internet],” said Susan Howery, paralegal program coordinator at Yavapai College in
Prescott, Ariz., who says it’s difficult to teach things like appropriate law office
demeanor outside the classroom. For her rural student population, this is a necessary
component of their education. “I have to see the students to help them,” Howery
But the classroom is no more static than its
technological counterpart. Various recent improvements in program presentation and content
are readily apparent. One change is that more paralegals now teach or team-teach legal
Attorneys still make up the bulk of the faculty in
paralegal programs — often because paralegals lack the postgraduate degrees generally
required to teach at the university level. However, adding paralegals to the faculty
roster is an improvement.
According to Cannon, in the early days of paralegal
education many lawyers provided legal content, but didn’t understand the
paralegal’s role well enough to appropriately convey the practical skills necessary
for the students to fit into the legal team. While lawyers have come a long way in
understanding how best to use legal assistants, experienced paralegals can provide
real-life examples of how they actually do their jobs.
The maturation of the legal assistant profession has also
impacted the quality of teaching materials available in the field. “When I started
teaching in l971,” Cannon said, “there were no textbooks.”
According to Cannon, publishers like West Legal Studies
continue to add quality paralegal texts to their inventories. Not only are their texts now
written specifically for paralegal students, but books have also been written for
educators in the field.
Technology has also had an impact on the classroom.
Twenty years ago, computers were the future of business and law; today there’s one on
every desk. Paralegal education has responded to the change. Law office technology is an
integral part of most general education degrees, and online legal research is nearly a
standard course offering. AAfPE’s Statement of Academic Quality includes the teaching
of computer-based legal resources and other law-related computer skills as necessary
components for a quality instructional program.