Will your next move be a graduate-level education?
By Rod Hughes
January/February 2006 Issue
ever there has been a profession in which educational standards vary,
it’s the legal assistant field. Depending on your region or locality,
the criteria for experience and education — not to mention the title
variations for paralegal positions — run the gamut. Despite more than 30
years of growth and development, access to the profession remains
largely at the discretion of hiring managers.
In a profession
lacking solid enforcement of educational standards, those who have taken
it upon themselves to pursue graduate-level education are,
understandably, unique. Some paralegals decide to pursue a master’s
degree in legal studies to give them an edge in the marketplace, to
increase their marketability and to specialize in specific practice
areas. But does having a master’s degree increase the chances of getting
a better job and better pay, or can it actually have the opposite
effect? Legal Assistant Today talked with educators, placement
agency representatives and master’s degree graduates to get their
perspectives on these issues.
Setting the Standard
While there isn’t an educational standard in the paralegal field, more
and more paralegals are seeing the need for advanced paralegal
education. In some areas of the country, it’s becoming common for
employers to expect new paralegal hires to have a bachelor’s degree or a
“Ultimately, it’s the employment market that determines
what the educational requirements are for paralegals who want to enter
the profession,” said Terry Hull, director of legal studies at
San Marcos. Her program has offered an American Bar Association-approved
master’s program in legal studies since 1999.
Ronald Goldfarb, immediate past president of the American
Association for Paralegal Education, agreed.
“Thirty years ago, you had high school graduates being
hired and trained in-house,” said Goldfarb, vice president of legal and
external affairs at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J. “As the
function of the legal assistant has expanded, and as they are utilized
in more hands-on roles in complex fields, employers are requiring more,
and so education is playing a big part in what these employment
candidates are capable of as they enter the marketplace.”
Goldfarb said he encourages students who don’t already
have a bachelor’s degree to get one. “Now whether you go on for a
master’s degree [as a paralegal] is something that requires a definite
career strategy and takes some careful consideration,” he added.
Overall, the paralegal job market still is quite a long
way from requiring graduate-level training. “In very niche areas of the
law — very technical positions — perhaps there is a need [for
graduate-level education]. For most other areas, at this time, no, there
isn’t a demand for a master’s degree,” said Alice Rowley, placement
director for Kelly Law Registry in Philadelphia.
Gerry Grandzol, placement director for Special Counsel in
Philadelphia, agreed, adding that he didn’t see a master’s
degree in legal studies, or any other graduate-level area of study as a
sure-fire way to career advancement in the legal assistant field. “One
thing I have come to learn in this industry is that résumés and
education levels are not indicative of a person’s true performance,”
Grandzol said, noting experience and quantified work performance often
outweigh education credentials in the paralegal employment marketplace.
In a profession lacking an enforceable education
standard, why do some paralegals choose to undertake a graduate-level
education when there doesn’t seem to be a demand?
spoke with three recent graduates from Texas
State who earned their master’s degrees in legal studies in
“It’s what separates you from the rest of the crowd,”
Toylaine Spencer said about earning a master’s degree. She chose to
pursue her graduate education to stand out from other paralegals in the
employment market. Spencer was trained in-house and worked as a legal
assistant for several years before starting her master’s program more
than 10 years ago. She took time off to start a family, then was
completing her undergraduate degree in criminal justice when she decided
a master’s degree would give her an advantage in the employment market
after having been gone for several years. In June 2005, Spencer was
hired by Jenkens & Gilchrist in Austin,
Melissa Pruitt, one of Spencer’s classmates, said she
chose to earn her master’s in legal studies as a potential precursor to
law school. After receiving her undergraduate degree in government from
of Texas, she initially thought law school would be in her future, but
said she had mixed feelings about it. “I knew I wanted to do something
at the graduate level, and I thought I could do this as a transition,”
However, Pruitt’s thoughts of law school now are nearly a
faded memory. In February 2005, she was hired by Andrews Kurth, an
eight-office international law firm that was looking for a corporate and
securities paralegal. Pruitt said after she was hired, she discovered
she had competed for the position against legal assistants with
bachelor’s degrees and some level of experience, while her main
qualifications were an undergraduate degree in government and her
master’s in legal studies. “So far, I am fairly happy doing what I am
doing, and it’s something I think could be a long-term career,” she
While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in political science
State, Sharon Murray became interested in the legal field. Some of the law
classes she took as an undergraduate piqued her interest, and she
decided to pursue her master’s degree in legal studies. It was growing
competition, now and in the future, that prompted
Murray to enroll in
the graduate program.
“I decided to pursue a master’s degree primarily because
of the changing job market. Just as there has been a shift away from
high school diploma-only job requirements to increased requests for
bachelor’s degrees, I anticipate the current job market [will] move away
from associate’s and bachelor’s degrees to requiring a higher level of
education,” Murray said. “I anticipate being in the workforce for
another 25 years, and I believe it’s only to my advantage to have as
much of an educational head-start as possible to remain competitive
later,” she said.
What is Out There?
Currently, there are five ABA-approved master’s programs
in legal studies in the United States. In addition, AAfPE’s online
database of member institutions (www.aafpe.org)
reveals approximately 10 master’s programs throughout the country
offering graduate-level legal education to paralegals.
Beyond AAfPE membership and ABA-approved programs, there
also is a variety of graduate schools that offer law-related type
programs. Although these are not paralegal-specific academic programs,
they might be beneficial to paralegals seeking advanced education. A
good resource to discover cursory information on such programs is
it should be used to learn what programs exist and not as a validation
of the quality of any particular program.
One reason Goldfarb said there isn’t a wealth of master’s
programs specifically for paralegals is because it’s a profession in
which a bachelor’s degree coupled with a paralegal certificate and
experience as a working legal assistant can take you where you need to
go, career wise.
“Now, for someone looking for a career as an academic in
the paralegal field or who wants to work in some highly specialized
area, such as alternative dispute resolution, pursuing a master’s degree
probably makes a good deal of sense,” Goldfarb said. However, he noted
that for paralegals looking for a career in small- to mid-sized
litigation or transactional law practices, or for many in-house
paralegal positions, a master’s degree might not be a career asset. “You
have got to have a very specific goal in mind if you are considering a
master’s degree as a paralegal rather than just looking at it as the
next logical step,” he said.
The legal studies program at Montclair
State University in
which is an institutional member of AAfPE and an ABA-approved program,
offers a broad education in legal studies for graduate-level students
and isn’t specifically designed for paralegals. However, Norma
Connolly, chair of the legal studies program at Montclair, estimated
approximately 60 percent of the program’s current students are legal
assistants, with about 60 students to 80 students enrolled.
The program began in 1995, and through 2004, 57 students
have completed the program, with 32 of those graduates having paralegal
backgrounds. Connolly said paralegal graduates of Montclair’s master’s
program in legal studies, through surveys, reported they sought their
degrees for the purposes of career advancement, such as management
positions or supervisory roles.
“Most paralegals who want an advanced degree look for a
master’s in legal studies. One education track we offer in the program
is legal management in information technology, which is an ideal match
for those who wish to use their education in the paralegal profession,”
Students have gone on to work for companies such as Chase
Manhattan Bank, Aspen Systems, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Verizon and
various law firms, Connolly added.
The master’s in legal studies program at Texas
State offers three concentrations in addition to a generalized legal
studies program: environmental, legal administration and alternative
dispute resolution. The enrollment numbers per year are about 100
students, with between 30 and 40 graduates of the program per year.
said while master’s graduates go on to work in traditional law firms,
state and federal agencies, and corporations, the difference most often
is in their responsibilities in those jobs.
Connolly noted that some paralegals interested in
obtaining a master’s degree see it as a stepping stone to law school,
particularly those who didn’t do well as undergraduates and see a
master’s program as an opportunity to enhance their educational
When deciding if you should pursue a master’s degree, consider not just
your goals, but also those of potential employers for whom you would
like to work. Rowley said many of Kelly Law Registry’s clients seeking
paralegals to fill temporary and permanent openings require a certain
level of experience, a bachelor’s degree and a paralegal certificate,
or some combination thereof. “I have yet to get a specific request from
a client requiring [paralegal employment candidates to have master’s
degrees],” Rowley said. She said she has placed fewer than 10 paralegals
who have master’s degrees in legal assistant positions. None had
legal-specific graduate degrees. Those placements primarily were in
intellectual property, with a few in real estate and financial services.
Grandzol agreed that paralegals with master’s degrees can
find success in highly targeted fields such as intellectual property,
certain types of corporate practices and in particular, the life
sciences field. “I have seen paralegals with master’s degrees in a
variety of academic areas working in the area of pharmaceuticals or in
technology-based industries,” Grandzol said. However, like Rowley, he
has never had an employer specifically request a paralegal candidate
with a graduate degree.
Another potential disadvantage: Rowley said a master’s
degree can become a hurdle when you start to discuss salary.
“Specifically, it becomes a problem if paralegals with master’s degrees
are demanding higher levels of pay than what employers are offering for
positions that don’t require that level of education,” Rowley said.
Pruitt said while she believes her advanced education is
a tremendous resource, it did present obstacles to her job search. “I do
believe it can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it demonstrates
hard work, competence and commitment. However, when [potential]
employers look at your résumé and see a lot of education, they
automatically begin thinking you are out of their price range,” she
said. This even applies at her current firm, where she said, “They were
impressed enough to hire me and also not sure how to fully compensate me
as a result.”
Spencer said while her education was an asset to some
employers, her master’s degree might also have been a liability.
“Believe me, I applied for a lot of paralegal positions after
graduation. I think a lot of employers took one look at my master’s
degree and thought I was probably out of their pay range,” she said. “I
love my job, and I am fortunate enough to work for an employer that pays
paralegals higher than average wages.”
Spencer said she felt the application of her academic
achievements in the job market was overall a positive experience. “I
would not think pursuing a master’s degree in just anything for the sake
of having a master’s would be helpful. However, if you are pursuing a
master’s in a certain area of study you enjoy and want to work in, I
think it can only be helpful,” she explained, having sought work as an
environmental and administrative law paralegal. She did note, however,
that because legal assistants holding master’s degrees are the exception
rather than the rule, approaching salary issues in the interview process
might be complicated, unless you are targeting a particular employer or
field of law.
Focusing on the current job market, Spencer said she
still believes a master’s degree in any discipline moves you to the top
of a potential employer’s “to-hire” list. And, beyond standing out from
her peers in the employment market, Spencer felt it was a good fit to
pursue a master’s degree in something she enjoyed while also being able
to apply that education to her work. “For me, having a master’s [degree]
is what got me this job. I replaced a paralegal who had a master’s
degree” she said. Although she noted she is the only paralegal of six in
her Austin office who has a master’s degree, she said the other
paralegals have either an undergraduate degree in the field or more than
20 years of legal experience.
Almost none of the educators and placement professionals
interviewed said that a master’s degree can or should act as a stepping
stone to management-type positions. The advantages of a master’s degree,
according to Rowley, are client-specific. “Some will see it as an
advantage, and some will see it as having more dollar signs attached to
it than they can reasonably pay,” she said. It all comes back to the
employer’s needs and requirements.
Murray took six months off from her job search after she
obtained her master’s degree, and now is seeking her first paralegal
position. However, she has run into a few stumbling blocks. In the
course of her job search in Austin, Murray said a number of employers
have required legal assistant candidates to have completed their
training through a law school program, rather than a legal studies
“I am not sure why that particular requirement is
necessary or what possible advantage an employer believes is obtained by
going to a law school as opposed to any other school,” Murray said. “The
school where I obtained my training is becoming quite well known within
the state for the students [it graduates], and yet employers are still
asking for students from accredited law schools.” In her case, the
advanced education helps, but employers independently set the bar for
what they are looking for in paralegal hires.
Murray’s situation is one reason paralegals such as
Pruitt advocate moving the profession toward some type of licensure or
national regulatory scheme. “There needs to be a set of standards that
is universal, especially since we are income producers and the
profession continues to take on more advanced legal tasks than our
predecessors did maybe 25 years ago,” Pruitt said. Murray said a
universal standard would eliminate barriers such as arbitrary
educational standards and geographic differences that persist in
defining the role of paralegals.
Is graduate school the solution to many paralegals’ career issues?
Again, it comes back to the profession itself and what employers are
seeking in job candidates.
While some paralegals think master’s degrees will become
the norm in five to 10 years, others say the days when a paralegal will
need the graduate degree are much further in the future. “Master’s
degrees will not be the standard in our lifetime. First of all, there
are not that many paralegal graduate programs out there,” Spencer said.
Rowley said more and more in firms and even many
corporations, paralegals are being used with increasing levels of
responsibility in areas where maybe once associates or junior attorneys
were handling things. “As paralegal roles continue to expand, [having a
master’s degree] would only be more helpful down the road — maybe five
to 10 years,” Rowley said.
The decision for a paralegal to pursue a master’s degree
is one that, in Hull’s estimation, is and will remain varied, nuanced
and particular to the individual. For those willing to accept that they
will need to navigate skepticism regarding salary and who are willing to
work within the offered salary ranges of the employers they seek out, a
master’s degree in any discipline can be an asset if you carefully match
your needs with a potential employer’s.