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Paralegal experts look at educational trends for the 21st century and find distance learning opening new doors to the legal assistant profession.
By Lorraine Baker

January/February 2000 Issue

Back when the legal assistant profession was in its infancy, paralegals were often viewed as little more than glorified secretaries — dressed up with a fancy title, but still transcribing dictation and punching away at a keyboard. Attorneys didn’t know how to best use them, and legal assistant educators struggled to not only effectively train their students, but also to push attorneys to re-define the image of this new breed of legal staffer.

Through the diligence of educational professionals and those talented legal assistants who were given the opportunity to shine, the profession has grown roots and is maturing into a well-defined career — rather than merely a weak branch of the secretarial tree.

While many of today’s legal assistants were educated in the school of hard knocks, formal training has become an expected part of any new legal assistant’s resume.

“The biggest trend in paralegal education is an increase in education generally,” said Therese Cannon, educational consultant to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Standing Committee on Legal Assistants. Cannon believes that while employers may not require working legal assistants to hold certificates or degrees, those with formal training have a definite edge in the market.

Although smaller firms and rural communities tend to be slower to respond to trends, employers are increasingly hiring legal assistants with bachelor’s degrees. The results of a 1998 ABA survey showed that 25.1 percent of law firms required a paralegal certificate of some kind, and 47.2 percent required a bachelor’s degree.

Fortunately, educational programs have matured along with the profession. Today schools are offering legal assistants varied and innovative ways to hone their skills. Paralegals can deepen their understanding of the profession and add marketable skills to their resumes by earning certificates, two- and four-year degrees or, in some states, master’s degrees.

Choices for paralegals go beyond deciding what type of degree to obtain. With rapid advancement in technological innovation, legal assistants can now choose between on-site and online education. Paralegals can now get all, or as more commonly the situation, a portion of their educations at home. This new form of learning, called distance learning, tops the A-list of trends and happenings in today’s delivery of legal assistant education. Whether legal assistants are veterans interested in pursuing continuing legal education or novices just starting out, the educational marketplace is ripe for the picking.

Web-Ed 101
The introduction of new technology to the educational marketplace has broadened the manner in which paralegal education is delivered. Off-site classes, traditionally delivered by means of telecourses, are now being replaced or enhanced by online education options.

Increasingly, the World Wide Web is becoming a tool for educators, who use either Web consultants or pre-programmed educational software to put their courses online.

Although the negative stigma attached to distance education persists, it’s clearly diminishing. Distance education is fast becoming an integral component in the delivery of quality education. Providers that work with the medium agree that there are now many quality courses available, providing content that is as academically rigorous and challenging as what is provided in traditional classrooms.

With technology developing so swiftly, legal assistant organizations are scrambling to respond to the issues raised by this new method of education. At its spring convention, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) adopted a resolution endorsing distance education as a viable educational alternative (see Legal Assistant Today, September/October 1999). NFPA sees the flexibility and accessibility of distance education as a means of drawing in future professional legal assistants.

At its annual convention in Boston this October, the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), presented an amendment on distance education to members for a vote (see “AAfPE Talks Regulation,” on page 24 of this issue). According to Paul Guymon, AAfPE president, members didn’t adopt the amendment in its present form but sent it back to committee for further review. The fact that the membership didn’t endorse the amendment shouldn’t be viewed as a rebuff of distance education, according to Guymon, but rather as a mandate to broaden and refine standards in the delivery of distance education.

Educational Choices

Associate’s Degree Program — Often offered through community colleges, the curriculum offers approximately 15 to 30 semester hours in a variety of general paralegal courses in different areas of the profession. In addition, students are expected to complete general degree requirements in core courses, such as mathematics, English and the sciences. Though the legal specialty courses in these programs may not be transferrable to four-year institutions, many programs are working with higher education to change that.

Bachelor’s Degree Program — Offered through four-year colleges and universities, students generally major in paralegal studies, taking up to 45 credits in this area, with the remainder of the 45 credits taken in general education courses required by the college or university.

Master’s Degree Programs — It’s estimated that only six paralegal master’s programs are currently offered nationwide, but the numbers are sure to increase as the market matures. Offered to students who have already obtained bachelor’s degrees, these courses provide advanced study in law and various legal specialties.

Private Programs — Offered by private, for-profit educational providers, these programs generally convey a certificate upon completion. Credits normally aren’t transferrable to regionally accredited colleges and universities. The quality of these courses varies widely. Some meet the criteria for ABA approval, which requires at least 18 semester credit hours of study, while others may require as little as three months for program certification.

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 classroom setting.

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.

Accreditation/ABA Approval
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 belts.

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 course offerings.

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 explained.

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 assistant courses.

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.

Gone are the days when lawyers hung out their shingles and drew in the locals by drawing up wills, doing divorces and going to court on landlord-tenant cases. As the law has become more complex, lawyers have responded by becoming more specialized. Legal specialties are too numerous to count and there are legal assistants working in every one. This trend toward specialization has created new and diverse educational opportunities for paralegals.

“Programs are becoming more responsive to the needs of the community,” said Cannon, who said she sees a lot of graduates going back to school for specialized training in a number of particular legal niches. Responding to the legal assistant market, paralegal programs are offering more specialized course work, often as an adjunct to their underlying core courses.

Specialized legal courses aren’t only useful for working legal assistants who want to gain knowledge in their respective fields. They also attract students from a variety of other disciplines. From nurses to bankers to human resources personnel, legal specialty courses are filling up.

Perhaps as a response to this new market need, several legal assistant master’s programs have sprung up around the United States. Barbara Nagle is the coordinator for one such program at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J.

Nagle said her program offers a master’s degree in legal studies. Students are required to take 36 semester hours, including general legal courses and some courses in either dispute resolution or legal management, information and technology.

Nagle sees Montclair’s program as offering a career-enhancement degree. “Our target market is the working legal assistant, who, perhaps missed getting their [formal] education and is now hitting a ceiling,” Nagle said.

Ninety percent of her students are working adults, according to Nagle. About half are legal assistants. The other half are from other disciplines, such as criminal justice, insurance and education. Nagle said the diversity of her students’ backgrounds provides an interesting classroom mix.

While earning an advanced education in a legal subspecialty may sound appealing, the drawback is clearly in the availability of programs. Nagle said her best count on legal studies master’s programs was a whopping six — in the entire United States.

LeClair said it’s difficult to justify the cost of providing courses of interest to only a select few. For this reason, according to LeClair, many established legal programs don’t offer courses in highly specialized areas of law. Instead, LeClair said he views continuing legal education as an integral part of the educational process and a means for filling this educational need.

Although courts and legislatures in several states are dealing with the subject of the unauthorized practice of law (UPL), none have implemented mandatory licensure or regulation of paralegals thus far.

The primary focus of UPL litigation and legislation right now is on legal technicians, not legal assistants working under the supervision of lawyers. Because it’s too early to discern the impact any regulatory requirements may have on the paralegal profession, educators aren’t gearing their programs to address issues that might arise in this area.

On the
National Scene

Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE)
In existence for less than five years, PACE is still in its infancy. To date, nearly 200 paralegals have successfully completed the exam with a 78 percent pass rate. PACE was created to enhance paralegal roles in the legal field. It tests applicants’ critical thinking and analytical abilities, rather than knowledge in specific legal areas.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) is currently working on a computer-mediated exam study course that they expect to have up and running after the first of the year.

Certified Legal Assistant Exam (CLA)
The National Association of Legal Assistant’s (NALA) Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) exam has been around for 25 years, and there are approximately 10,000 legal assistants who have passed the exam and received the CLA designation.

Upon successful completion of the CLA exam, legal assistants can apply for and take advanced certification exams in particular areas of law. State-specific exams are currently being designed and implemented.


Educators are paying attention, however. AAfPE’s Guymon said his organization hasn’t taken an official stand on the issue of regulation yet, but the organization is watching the developments in various states. “We will try to interject the importance of educational standards [into any regulatory policy that may be implemented],” Guymon explained.

Trends In Continuing Legal Education
While most legal assistants get their early training through degree or certificate programs or on-the-job training, most sharpen their skills through continuing legal education (CLE) courses. Although seminars and courses are offered through local legal associations, distance education is fast becoming a popular alternative.

For most working legal assistants, time is at a premium. Current technology allows legal assistants to tap into courses offered 24 hours a day via an Internet hookup. Taking legal assistant courses from the comfort of home means less time spent commuting.

“Online education is getting a lot of attention,” said David Dye, education director of the Consortium for Advanced Legal Education (CALE). According to CALE materials, more than one million students receive training through distance education, and those numbers are climbing.

In response to an unmet need in the legal educational marketplace, CALE was established three years ago to provide working paralegals with a convenient and affordable way to stay competitive. A nonprofit consortium of law firms, publishers and legal educators, CALE provides advanced online legal specialty courses.

CALE often works in partnership with legal education providers in developing its CLE courses. Educational providers are then able to offer the online courses in addition to courses in their core curriculums. It’s a collaborative effort, according to Dye. With CALE providing the software and expertise in distance education, and law firms and educational programs providing the students, each of the consortium partners can focus on what they each do best.

What that means for working legal assistants is that continuing educational offerings are improving and becoming more accessible and affordable. As legal assistants take advantage of this powerful educational tool, deepening their understanding of the law and legal procedure, they position themselves for advancement and nurture their profession’s continuing growth and maturity.

Lorraine Baker is a freelance writer and a legal assistant with the Portland, Ore., law firm of Elliott & Park. She holds a legal assistant certificate and a bachelor’s degree in communications and writing.

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