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Take Your Seats

A front-row look at trends in paralegal training and programs.

By Sally A. Kane, J.D.

January/February 2009 Table of Contents



A changing economic climate, emerging technologies and a global legal market have transformed the legal industry. In response to evolving market demands, paralegal educators and law firm managers are adapting school programs, continuing legal education courses and training policies to better prepare today’s paralegals for success in the workforce and in their careers.

“Paralegal roles are expanding,” said Charles Volkert, Esq., executive director of Robert Half Legal, a national legal staffing service based in Menlo Park, Calif. “Law firms look for multiple skill sets and a wide variety of experience as they expand globally.”

What skills sets are hot in today’s paralegal market? Paralegal educators, managers and recruiters across the country agree that a combination of strong technology, writing and communication skills, and hands-on experience will help paralegals excel in the workplace. Other hot trends in paralegal education and CLE include distance learning and a greater demand for certain paralegal specialties.

Technology Training

As legal employers embrace more advanced technology as a means of increasing productivity and efficiency, superior technology skills are essential for paralegals.

Training in firms. Tech-savvy paralegals have a solid advantage in the legal market. “Legal employers look for technical proficiency. The bar has been raised,” Volkert said.

Legal employers are not solely relying on educators to teach computer skills to paralegals; firms across the country are taking measures to train paralegals on a variety of legal technology applications. This training generally is accomplished through a com­­bination of in-firm programs, vendor training and CLE.

Reed Smith is a strong proponent of paralegal training. The firm has created “Reed Smith University,” a firm-wide program providing education and skills development for lawyers, managers, paralegals and staff. The university contains a separate school of technology, created to train employees on the firm’s technological and information resources, explained Janet Sullivan, a senior paraprofessional manager for Reed Smith in Philadelphia, who manages 165 para­legals and case assistants across the United States. One of the firm’s most recent technology initiatives was training paralegals on electronic filing with state and federal courts, Sullivan said.

Hanson, Bridgett also advocates CLE for its paralegals. “I’m a very strong proponent of encouraging staff [members] to [continue their education] and take CLE,” said Michelle Morris, a paralegal manager at Hanson, Bridgett in San Francisco and president-elect of the International Paralegal Management Association. In California, paralegals are required to complete four hours of general education CLE and four hours of ethics every two years. Morris’ firm has a CLE budget for each paralegal and encourages para­legals to attend CLE sessions.

Hanson, Bridgett occasionally hires vendors to train paralegals on specific legal topics and software applications, and also holds monthly training sessions for its paralegals covering a wide variety of topics ranging from legal writing, research and leadership development to privilege review, trial preparation and mediation. These sessions are open to paralegals of every level and are taught by Morris and other senior staff members.

White & Case also has a comprehensive training program for all of its legal assistants, said Lynda Wertheim, director of legal assistants for White & Case in New York. The firm has an 8-week training program for entry-level legal assistants and monthly CLE training sessions for all legal assistants. Like Reed Smith and other large firms, most training and CLE seminars are conducted in-house. Legal assistants also are invited to attend CLE programs held for the firm’s associates, and are encouraged to attend sessions provided by outside service providers on topics in areas in which the service provider has expertise.

“Training is becoming more critical because clients expect that paralegals who work on their matters be efficient and have certain skill sets,” Wertheim said.“[Despite the struggling economy], I see training increasing for legal assistants.”

Training in schools. In many law offices, time-pressured attorneys rely on paralegals to select, manage and operate law-related software. As a result, paralegal programs across the nation are expanding their technology offerings and training students on a diverse array of word processing, spreadsheet, timekeeping, presentation, legal research and case management software.

“It is impossible for programs to teach every form of legal software available but it is necessary for programs to introduce their students to the concepts and provide education in these areas,” said Anita Tebbe, credentials chair of the American Association for Paralegal Education and a paralegal professor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan. Tebbe also is chair of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Paralegals Approval Commission, which oversees the ap­prov­al process on behalf of the Standing Committee on Paralegals. “Many paralegal education programs are incorporating training in [technology] into existing courses,” she said.

Jeffery Rubel, director of the Paralegal Technology Program at the University of Cincinnati-Clermont in Batavia, Ohio, and AAfPE technology chair, agreed that no paralegal program should be without technology training. “Across the United States, paralegal programs are waking up to the fact that they must train paralegals on technology,” Rubel said. Rubel’s program is typical of the technology skills that tech-focused paralegal programs are teaching. Students learn state-of-the-art software and hardware programs, time and billing systems, scanning, optical character recognition and case management software.

Carolyn Smoot, AAfPE president and director of the paralegal studies program at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., concurred and said the biggest change she has seen in her 11 years as director has been the evolution of technology. “I tell students that the more they know of technology and software programs, the more job security they have,” she said.

Smoot ensures that technology training is incorporated into nearly every aspect of her paralegal program. “I ask that each instructor discuss the technology that relates to [his or her] subject matter,” she explained. For example, legal writing classes offer Westlaw training, the bankruptcy instructor teaches online filing and torts classes teach case management software.

E-discovery training. The record growth of the litigation support/ e-discovery field also has prompted an increase in technology training in both paralegal schools and law firms. “The litigation support market has experienced phenomenal growth in the past several years. This rapid expansion has created an acute shortage of talent in the marketplace,” said David Cowen, president of The Cowen Group, a global staffing agency specializing in litigation support and e-discovery based in New York. “There is no influx of fresh talent entering the industry. The need for formal training is critical to the continued growth and advancement of the profession,” he explained.

In response to the market demand for litigation support professionals, paralegal programs are beefing up their in­struction in this area. Duquesne Paralegal Institute in Pittsburgh is one of the first paralegal programs to offer a certificate in litigation technology. This specialized track requires the completion of five courses in litigation technology, in addition to the required core classes. “Students learn how technology is used in the discovery process, trial preparation and data management,” said Pamela Bailey, DPI program director, and immediate past AAfPE publications chair and director of certificate programs.

Morris stated that e-discovery training is the biggest trend she has seen in terms of in-firm paralegal training. She noted that federal e-discovery rules adopted in December 2006 and pending state rules in California have prompted firms to expand e-discovery training for paralegals. Her firm holds monthly sessions to teach various aspects of litigation support to paralegals. “We have certain litigation databases we support,” Morris said. “Each month, we teach key topics such as document review strategies, advanced query searching and electronic discovery. Our goal is to have the paralegals become ‘super users’ with these systems.”

Wertheim’s firm also has jumped on the e-discovery training trend. “We’ve done co-sessions on litigation support technology and discovery because of the [2006 amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure],” she said. “We are offering a session on document productions in the 21st century.” She also not­ed that everyone needs to know about practice-specific technology because technology impacts all practice groups.

Skills Enhancement

Another major trend in paralegal training and education is a renewed focus on fundamental skills such as legal writing, communication and marketing.

“Paralegal programs are very much concerned with the basics,” Bailey said. “There is a movement across higher education all the way up through the advanced degree levels to place more emphasis on writing skills.”

Educators and employers alike are finding that entry-level paralegals are lacking in legal writing proficiency. Nancy Caine Harbour, J.D., assistant professor, Eastern Michigan University program coordinator and AAfPE president-elect, attributed this weakness, in part, to inadequate pre-college instruction. “Many kids aren’t getting basic grammar in high school,” she said. Moreover, students today consume information in quick, short sound bites through e-mail, video games, instant messaging and texting. “They’ve developed a code language,” Harbour said.

Employers are demanding writing competency from paralegals entering the field. “Employers want to see a student’s portfolio; they want to see a writing sample,” Harbour said. A paralegal’s inability to write a coherent sentence will undermine the paralegal’s credibility and the attorney’s faith in his or her work product, she observed.

Wertheim has seen a similar weakness in paralegal writing. “I think writing skills have become diluted over the years. We provide training in writing skills for paralegals. We also have a session for new associates on how to write clearly — it isn’t just the paralegals,” she said. Clear writing is just one of the many skills incorporated into White & Case’s legal assistant training schedule.

Public speaking is another area in which paralegals need coaching, Wertheim noted. “Public speaking goes hand-in-hand with the need for clear writing. Paralegals need to present themselves clearly and articulately, especially when they are asked to explain the results of their work,” she said. The firm held a new public speaking session for paralegals last year.

Smoot also has found that students lack oral and written communication skills. In her advanced internship class, she teaches basic communication and marketing skills such as how to shake hands and how to interview for a job. “Communication skills are important so we practice them in class,” Smoot said. In the future, she might require students to take a grammar test in order to qualify to take the legal writing course. Students who fail the test would have to complete a remedial writing course, Smoot said.

Rubel’s paralegal program incorporates what he calls a “start stone” in information processing. He compares the start stone to a capstone course, which ties together key learning objectives and allows students to demonstrate their mastery of the material. In start stone, students learn the software early in the program. Professors reinforce those skills throughout the students’ education by weaving it into other courses, Rubel said.

Real-World Lessons

While paralegal programs always have assumed a practical approach to education, today’s programs are placing an even greater emphasis on real-world skills. An increasing number of educators are incorporating experiential learning opportunities such as law clinics, capstone courses and simulations into their programs. Moreover, while internships have long been a staple of paralegal education, more programs are making internships a prerequisite to graduation.

“Having hired and trained paralegals in the real world, I’m a big believer in teaching real-world skills to paralegal students,” said Harbour, who worked as a trial attorney for more than 28 years prior to joining EMU. As part of EMU’s Paralegal Studies Program, Harbour runs a clinical program known as the Legal Resource Center. Working under the supervision of an attorney, students in the clinic help clients prepare civil forms in four areas: family law, probate, landlord/tenant and small claims. Students must put in 150 hours at the center per semester. The work counts as an elective or as an internship.

“We are paralleling what is being done in the law schools,” Harbour ex­plained. “[The clinic] gives students hands-on experience, as well as community involvement.” Since the county provides an office for the clinic within the courthouse, students also have the opportunity to watch judges and attorneys in action. Local employers appreciate the experience that students gain from the clinic, Harbour noted.

Bailey also incorporates hands-on training in the classroom at DPI. “There’s nothing like taking the classroom into the real world to reinforce the classroom training,” Bailey said. In the advanced civil litigation course, students Cite Check and Shepardize an actual brief and format it for filing in federal court. The county’s circuit court clerk visits the class to teach students how to electronically file documents in state court. A practicing litigation support professional helps students determine whether a case should be handled “the old-fashioned way” or with case management technology. In another class, a practicing paralegal teaches students how to create trial exhibits using the latest software, Bailey said.

Mandatory internships are another way educators are ensuring that paralegals are prepared for real-world practice. “The number one thing employers want is experience,” Rubel stated. “We as program directors must place students into mandatory internships so students are really living that experience. Students can then say they have worked in a law firm; they have real world experience.”

In Rubel’s internship program, paralegals must work under the direct supervision of an attorney for a total of 200 hours. In most cases, students are placed in a law firm or corporate law office, although some students find their own placement. The internships are usually, but not always, unpaid positions. Students are required to log their hours as if they were actually billing as a paralegal. They write three reports —  one at 50 hours, one at 100 hours and one at 200 hours. Following the internship, the students and their sponsors complete an evaluation.

Harbour and Smoot’s paralegal programs also require students to complete an internship prior to graduation. “An internship is really a valuable experience and allows students to get a broader perspective,” Smoot explained. It also gives students an edge in securing employment. “Most employers want paralegals with at least one to three years of experience,” Smoot explained. “What I’m hearing from some firms is that the internship is counted as job experience.”

In Harbour’s program, “students must complete 150 clinical hours in a legal setting — law firm, corporate law office, courthouse — working as a paralegal, not a secretary,” she said. Internships typically are unpaid positions and are performed over the 15-week semester. The school takes an active role in helping students find internships at local law firms and legal departments to ensure the right fit. “The internship placement must be approved by the professor to make certain that that we have a match to allow for the best opportunity for the student,” Harbour said.

Smoot’s internship program is similar. Students must work in the office for 150 hours, complete a self-evaluation on the internship experience and track their hours. Employers also must complete an evaluation of the student. Upon completing the internship, students earn three credit hours.

Smoot recently added a mandatory advanced internship to the program, which she compares to a capstone course. The advanced internship includes a 1-credit classroom component in which students discuss their internship experiences and share concerns. The class teaches interview skills, résumé and cover letter drafting, ethics and professional dress. Students also learn how to interview clients, track time, organize files and practice interviewing for jobs.

Distance Learning Initiatives

Distance learning, also known as e-learning, is one of the fastest-growing segments of higher education. According to a survey conducted by Babson Survey Research Group and The Sloan Consortium, almost 3.5 million students — 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students — were enrolled in at least one distance learning course in Fall 2006 and online enrollments are growing annually. Emerging media and interactive technologies have increased the e-learning possibilities in both academic and workplace settings.

The flexibility of taking classes at any time from any location appeals to today’s time-pressed paralegal student. Distance learning is especially popular among students with families, jobs and other obligations, and can represent the only alternative for paralegals who reside in remote areas.

As online technology improves, distance education is becoming a part of mainstream education. Courses are delivered through a growing array of technological tools including e-mail, audio tapes, streaming video and Web-based delivery systems. Some paralegal programs are offered in an entirely online format, while others offer a blend of face-to-face and online delivery systems.

Distance learning in the workplace. The United States corporate e-learning market reached $9.7 billion in 2007, and the worldwide market reached $15.9 billion, according to a recent study by International Data Corporation.

Law firms and corporations are integrating e-learning into their organizations through firm-wide intranets, Web-based delivery systems and other technologies. As law firms expand across the globe, online technology provides a uniform educational platform for geographically dispersed employees. Moreover, the modular nature of distance learning allows paralegals to learn at their desks, breaking down the work and going at their own pace.

Within law firms and corporate law departments, online CLE and training courses have grown in popularity, in part because of the convenience and accessibility of online classes. Moreover, paralegals’ growing technical proficiency and experience with the Internet and online technology have made e-learning an easy way to expand one’s knowledge base.

“Webinars and online technology are becoming more popular as a source for training because the quality of the technology has improved,” Wertheim commented. With offices in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, White & Case videotapes CLE sessions in its New York office and posts those sessions and related handouts on its legal assistant intranet page, making them accessible to all employees around the world. Employees can download the handouts and watch the videos at their convenience, Wertheim explained.

Reed Smith takes a similar approach to paralegal training. The firm incorporates e-technology such as Webinars and video conferences into the program. “Some programs are presented locally in one office but we can offer [them] to all offices by video,” Sullivan explained.

Distance learning likely will continue to pave the way for global collaboration and sharing of content. Volkert recommends that paralegals take advantage of online technology to expand their skills sets. “Online continuing education classes are an excellent way to position yourself to be more marketable, not only if you are looking to change jobs but also if you are seeking to advance in your current place of employment,” Volkert said.

Distance learning in the classroom. Distance learning not only is increasing in the workplace, but in paralegal programs as well, as more national professional organizations embrace it. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations endorses distance education as a viable alternative within NFPA’s existing core curriculum and education policies. The ABA, the accrediting agency for paralegal programs in the United States, permits some aspects of distance learning within paralegal education programs. However, to date, no paralegal program that is offered in a solely online format has been approved by the ABA. Additionally, while AAfPE doesn’t accredit paralegal programs, it offers institutional membership, which currently isn’t available to exclusively online programs. According to Smoot, “At this time programs that offer only online courses are not eligible for institutional membership in AAfPE. These schools can be affiliate or associate members. Our membership requirements are being reviewed at the present time by a task force.”

Although many educators debate the effectiveness of online learning, academic leaders concede that the demand for distance learning is growing. “Educational institutions are initiating distance learning programs in all disciplines in addition to their traditional classes,” Tebbe explained. “Institutions need to answer to their constituencies but need to ensure quality and comparability to traditional programs. The amount of distance learning appropriate for paralegal education continues to be a subject of discussion.”

Despite the controversy surrounding distance education, paralegal programs across the country are expanding their online offerings and creating highly interactive and pedagogically rich content. The University of Cincinnati Clermont plans to roll out online classes in the near future. “The reason we are considering it is not because it is a better way to teach students, but because it is the reality of what students want. Students have crazy lives and we must accommodate them,” Rubel said.

Bailey anticipates that DPI will offer online courses by Fall 2009. “Some students do not want to take courses in an online format and others do. We are trying to incorporate Blackboard [a type of e-learning technology] enhancements into traditional classrooms so there is a mesh of both learning styles,” Bailey said.

Smoot believes that Southern Illinois University’s paralegal program also will expand its online offerings. She notes that financial feasibility is a roadblock to offering distance learning alternatives.

Specialties Moving to the Head of the Class

As the legal industry evolves, legal specialties grow and wane in demand. Paralegal specialties popular in today’s legal market include bankruptcy, immigration, litigation, collections/foreclosure and intellectual property. The explosion of electronically stored information also is fueling the growth of e-discovery and litigation support specialties.

“Every market is different but there are national trends,” Volkert said. A recent survey of the hottest practice areas conducted by Robert Half Legal in February 2008 found that litigation still remains strong. Bankruptcy, ethics, complex litigation and intellectual property also are hot.

Some law firms are prepared to keep their paralegals ready for changing specialties. For example, Reed Smith posts openings internally and any paralegal can apply. If a paralegal switches specialties, he or she can get up to speed in the area by taking classes from Reed Smith University.

“Like any profession, the law experiences ups and downs. Law firms change focus as needed,” Tebbe said. “Paralegal education programs respond as necessary but always maintain a core curriculum for the education of paralegals.” Tebbe has seen many programs adding courses in intellectual property.

As AAfPE president, Smoot is able to observe paralegal education trends on a national level. “I’m seeing an increased interest in immigration law. I also see the paralegal [becoming] more involved in handling administrative hearings and related matters,” Smoot commented. In her program at Southern Illinois University, Smoot foresees the addition of paralegal courses in intellectual property, as well as additional technology courses.

Bailey also has seen a strong demand for immigration law, and wills and estates practice due to the demographics in Pittsburgh. Similarly, Harbour has witnessed an increased demand for immigration and bankruptcy paralegals on a national level.

Rubel agreed that litigation continues to remain a strong area and forecasts a growth in technology and e-discovery courses. Cowen, who has spoken to litigation support leaders across the country regarding the need for liti­gation support training, also foresees an increased focus on technology and e-discovery skills.

The global economic crisis has spawned the birth of a hot new legal practice area: financial crisis law. A number of major law firms have formed multidisciplinary practice groups to help clients manage financial difficulties in response to the turbulence in the financial markets. These groups provide clients with news, information and analysis on the financial crisis and help clients deal with distressed assets, litigation, regulatory and government enforcement matters. As this new practice area grows, paralegals might begin to play a greater role.

Trends Taking a Back Seat

Minimized paralegal roles. As the delivery of legal services becomes more complex and competitive, paralegal roles are expanding. Sophisticated, cost-conscious clients are demanding efficient, effective legal services, prompting increased and expanded use of para­legals in lieu of more expensive staff such as associates and partners.

Access to quality legal representation by economically disadvantaged groups also might expand paralegal usage in the United States, Rubel stated. He also predicts that recent laws in Canada and the United Kingdom that expand paralegal utilization and allow paralegals to represent clients in small claims court and before administrative tribunals, might encourage expanded roles in the United States. In the future, educators will need to modify their curriculums to prepare paralegals for these expanded roles.

Short-term paralegal programs. As paralegal roles expand, employers are requiring a greater educational foundation for entry-level paralegals. As a result, a 4-year degree is becoming the hiring standard in many markets, although 2-year degrees still are acceptable in some regions. Short-term paralegal programs — ones that can be completed within a few months and require no undergraduate degree as a prerequisite — are losing their popularity.

While a quick and easy degree or diploma might appeal to many aspiring paralegals, such programs might not provide adequate training and are frowned upon by many employers. NFPA recommends that future paralegals have a 4-year degree to enter the profession. NFPA also recommends that individuals receiving a formal paralegal education should have 24 semester hours or the equivalent of legal specialty courses to enhance their ability to practice as paralegals.

Declining practice areas. While some practice areas are growing in demand, other areas are less popular. “The market tends to be cyclical,” Rubel observed. “Four years ago, we could not supply enough paralegals to the real estate market. Now we can’t place enough paralegals into the collection/ foreclosure firms.”

Many educators and paralegals also noted a decreased demand for environmental paralegals. This decline might be due, in part, to a decrease in litigation filed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund. Enacted by Congress in 1980, this law prompted enforcement measures and litigation relating to the clean up of hazardous waste sites.

Paralegals in alternative dispute resolution. Another declining trend in the paralegal industry is ADR, Rubel noted. “While huge for the legal market, ADR is not [a] niche paralegals have been able to work into,” he observed. “Most ADR involves some form of arbitration or mediation, and plenty of lawyers are anxious to work in that area so the doors have not opened for paralegals.”

Education Evolution

Globalization, technological advancements, economic pressures and changing lifestyles have inspired changes in both training opportunities for working paralegals, as well as paralegal programs. Educators and employers alike are incorporating technology training, skills enhancement, experiential learning and distance education into their organizations in order to better prepare paralegals for practice in the 21st century.         



Sally A. Kane, J.D., is a freelance writer specializing in legal and career topics. She has more than a decade of experience in the legal industry as a paralegal and an attorney. For more information, visit her legal careers Web site at http://legalcareers.about.com.



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