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Unique Paralegal Programs

These innovative programs provide exciting paralegal education options.
By Debra Levy Martinelli

January/February 2004 Issue

Paralegal education isn’t just about torts, business law and legal ethics anymore. While those areas continue to comprise the backbone of programs throughout the country, many of those programs have developed unique philosophies, curricula or facilities and have evolved as the needs of techno-savvy students and prospective modern employers have developed. For example, a number of education programs expose students to agencies or organizations providing the underserved with access to justice or using both classroom and distance learning to educate a new generation of future paralegals.

After several decades of offering a solid foundation of legal knowledge and practice, paralegal educators across the country are branching out by developing and fine-tuning a plethora of options designed to enhance the educational experience and introduce legal assistant students to some not-so-traditional career options taking hold in the employment marketplace.

The schools mentioned in this article are only a few of the many paralegal schools that offer unique and innovative education programs.

35 Years and Counting
St. Louis Community College
St. Louis
(314) 539-5000

As the 1960s came to a close, Richard Nixon began his first term as president of the United States, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the four-day Woodstock music festival in the Catskill Mountains became a part of the cultural landscape and “Sesame Street” debuted on public television. In America’s heartland, one of the first degree-granting legal assistant programs in the nation was born at St. Louis Community College.

Still on the cutting-edge 35 years later, this past summer, the Legal Studies for the Paralegal program began offering a legal nurse consultant certificate in addition to the paralegal certificate and associate’s degree it has offered since the program was created in 1969.

Back then, said Nancy Simmons, who has served as the program’s director since 1983, most of the certificate-seeking students were legal secretaries who wanted to further their careers in law. Now, she said, the majority of students seeking a certificate in legal studies fall into one or both of two categories: people who hold degrees and work in other fields but want to change jobs, or legal professionals employed by law firms that want to make sure their paralegals have the credentials necessary for the firms to bill their time.

Simmons noted the program’s student body can’t definitively be divided into those seeking a certificate versus those seeking an associate’s degree because many want both. “A lot of students take the course work necessary for a certificate on the way to getting an associate’s degree,” she said. “For some, their work experience gets them in the door to work toward the certificate, but they want to go on for the degree.”

Courses are offered on two of the community college’s three campuses, which serve both the city and county of St. Louis. On the Meramec campus, where Simmons is based, the four core classes are offered during the day and others are held in the evenings, while at the Florissant Valley campus, courses are offered primarily on weekends. “The curriculum was designed to offer a wide variety of course selection and flexibility,” she said. “Offering the core courses as day classes works out very well for people returning to the job market and using their retraining money to make sure their new career path is what they want and what they like. For others returning to the job market after leaving it for a period of time, it gives them a chance to learn new skills that will provide them with better employment opportunities.”

The legal nurse consultant program was unveiled in summer 2003, through both the Legal Studies program and the nursing program: “The national nurses organization wants legal nurse consultant programs to be operated through nursing programs [rather than legal studies programs]. In our program, students must be RNs. They take continuing education classes taught by nurses or other medical professionals to update their skills in specific medical areas and also take classes in our paralegal program,” Simmons explained. “It’s going great. I am amazed at how many nurses are looking at doing legal nurse contracting on the side or changing careers to become paralegals.”

One of the goals for the future, Simmons said, is to focus more on technology. “I think we do a great job on technology now. We teach an introductory course on computers in law and our technology-based legal research courses use Westlaw and Premise, a CD-ROM and magnetic media search software using natural language, fields templates or traditional Boolean search queries. But as more and more courts are being technologically innovative, we need to make students really comfortable with it,” she said.

Multidiscipline Major
Montclair State University
Upper Montclair, N.J.
(973) 655-4000

The Paralegal Studies Program within the Legal Studies Department at Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, N.J., has a number of “firsts” and “onlys” on its résumé. According to Marilyn Tayler, the founding director of the program who continues to serve on the faculty, in 1979, the university’s paralegal program became one of the first to be encompassed within a four-year institution. “We started with a unique concept — a paralegal minor — so that a student could major in any subject and complete a 24-credit paralegal minor as part of a baccalaureate degree,” Tayler said.

Since its inception, the minor has included as an option a Hispanic area of interest for bilingual students, which grew out of a need to teach the skills necessary in a bilingual legal environment to students who are fluent in both languages. Tayler said mastering Spanish legal terminology is critical. “Here in the United States, a notary refers to someone who authenticates a signature, while in Latin America, a notary is an attorney with most of the qualifications of a judge,” she said.

Tayler said the Montclair State program was the first in the country to offer a multidisciplinary major, and remains one of only a handful of such programs nationwide. What Tayler terms a “truly multidisciplinary major” in Justice Studies combines the disciplines of law, sociology and psychology. “Students learn about the interaction of law and justice and develop a consciousness about justice and how it relates — or doesn’t relate — to the practice of law,” she said. All students take legal research and social science research and have an externship experience. Beyond that, they choose a concentration in justice systems, child advocacy or paralegal studies, the last of which mirrors the program’s undergraduate paralegal minor.

In addition, Montclair State has one of only seven legal studies master of arts programs in the country not directly connected with a law school. Initially, Tayler said, the goal of the program, established in 1995, was to provide a vehicle for paralegals who wanted to move up the corporate or law firm ladder to positions as supervisors or managers. “What we discovered is there isn’t really a market for that,” she explained, “so the focus of the master’s program has shifted to providing advanced training in paralegal-related areas. We have concentrations in dispute resolution, legal management and information technology, and a new one for people in human resources.”

Among the Montclair State program’s other innovations, Tayler counts establishing the nation’s first paralegal public interest law clinic, which gives students “the full feel of public interest law” by interning at a nonprofit legal services organization, and the Educational Opportunity Program, which provides support services such as mentoring and tutoring to minority and disadvantaged students.

Distance learning
Essex County College
Newark, N.J.
(973) 877-3000

The Legal Assistant Program at Essex County College in Newark, N.J., is unique not because of its curriculum, which is similar to those of many other programs around the nation, but because of an innovative partnership forged between Essex County College and Thomas Edison State College, New Jersey’s distance learning college for adults. The partnership allows students to earn a certificate or associate’s degree in paralegal studies and then transfer to Thomas Edison to complete a four-year degree.

“Until three years ago, when this program with Thomas Edison began, we offered an associate of applied science degree, which was geared more toward starting a paralegal career and getting a job,” said Bill Mulkeen, director of program and curriculum development and transfer/articulation for all of Essex County College and director of the Legal Assistant Program, who also serves on Thomas Edison’s academic council and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) board of directors. “But employers — in Newark alone, there are administrative courts, administrative agencies, federal and state trial courts and some state appellate courts as well as numerous law firms, corporations and not-for-profit organizations — want to hire paralegals with the broader education that comes with a bachelor’s degree. And students want to get a bachelor’s degree. So now we offer an associate of science degree because the credits are more easily transferable than those earned for an associate of applied science degree.”

The Degree Pathways Program at Thomas Edison allows students to take up to 80 credit hours at Essex County College, which then transfer to Thomas Edison, where they can complete, through distance education, the additional 40 hours necessary for the bachelor of science in Human Services degree. What makes the program even more unique is Thomas Edison allows students to take proficiency tests to opt out of courses, conducts a “portfolio assessment” — an examination of a student’s previous certificates, licenses, degrees and work experience that translates to credit hours — and includes an advanced level practicum constituting the last six credit hours completed by the student writing and defending an in-depth paper about his or her paralegal employment. If a student has course credit from other institutions in another state, Mulkeen said, Thomas Edison will review all of those courses and, in many instances will allow application of those credits toward the bachelor’s degree.

“There’s no other program in the country like this one. It provides a seamless way for students to earn a bachelor’s degree while they work as paralegals,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”

Access to Justice: More Than a Pro Bono Buzz Phrase
Highline Community College
Des Moines, Wash.
(206) 878-3710, ext. 3910

Joy Smucker is understandably proud of the success of the Community Justice Project, part of the paralegal program at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash., near Seattle. What began as a desire to provide students with real life experience about access to justice — or the lack thereof — has in just three years quite literally changed the course of some of those students’ professional career paths.

Incorporated into the program’s legal ethics course, the Community Justice Project (CJP) requires each student to locate an association or organization that provides or promotes better access to justice for the traditionally unserved or underserved. The student spends a total of 24 hours during the course of an academic quarter learning about that organization from within.

“The focus of the Community Justice Project is not so much learning how to do paralegal work in that environment as it is working for an organization that is trying to provide better access to justice. We want to raise students’ level of awareness of the ethical issues associated with access to justice,” Smucker explained. In addition to volunteering to work at the organization of their choice, students keep a journal about their experiences and discuss their observations in the classroom setting.

Many of the sites students choose for their CJP experience are classic examples that typically spring to mind when one contemplates government and nonprofit organizations dedicated to equal access to justice. For example, with the Housing Justice Project, an attorney assigned by the local superior court oversees a morning calendar of eviction procedures involving mostly low-income tenants without legal representation. The paralegal students assist local attorneys who represent the tenants by interviewing the client, organizing witnesses and otherwise coordinating the matters with the attorneys. The experiences often prove so rewarding for the students, Smucker said, they choose to serve their internship with the Housing Justice Project.

Other students’ CJP projects are less predictable. One student chose to design a pamphlet that served as a resource guide to patrons of a local library searching for information ranging from state statutes (on the shelves in that very library) and case law (in any of the libraries of the three law schools in the area) to telephone numbers of domestic violence hotlines and contact information for congressional representatives (listed in the pamphlet itself).

Another student who became hearing-impaired as a result of a viral illness, wanted to work with a deaf advocacy program. And a local elementary school developing a peer mediation program for students to resolve conflicts among themselves, offered training to community volunteers, including Highline paralegal program students, so they, in turn, could train the elementary school children.

For many of the approximately 200 students who have participated since 2000, the Community Justice Project has had an effect far beyond fulfilling an academic requirement. Some students springboard their CJP experience into an area of specialization they had not previously considered, Smucker said, while others are simply exposed to an environment they wouldn’t otherwise experience during their paralegal education or careers. “Students have said, ‘I am planning a career in corporate law, but this has really been an eye-opener,’” she said, which is the whole point.

A Legal Library and 30 Laptops
Phoenix College
Phoenix, Ariz.
(602) 285-7833

As the Legal Assisting Program at Phoenix College in Phoenix, Ariz., approaches its 30th birthday, it can boast of a couple of complementary resources that make teaching and learning legal research fundamentals easier and more effective: an on-site legal library within the college’s library and an electronic classroom with a capacity for 30 laptop computers connected to the Internet.

The holdings in the law library stacks of the greater Phoenix College are impressive. Legal Assisting Program Director Scott Hauert said among them are: Federal Supplements, Federal Reporter, Pacific Reporters, Federal Practice Digests, the United States Code, the Arizona Code, a complete set of restatements and treatises for every area of law taught in the program, including criminal and civil procedure, real estate and probate.

In the nearby electronic classroom, the program’s approximately 400 students learn legal research by doing it. “When I first came to the program as an adjunct in 1996, it was before the time of the Internet as we know it. We sent our legal research students to the Westlaw training center in downtown Phoenix to learn Westlaw, and we had only a single computer with a modem for use by the entire program. We were very limited in what we could teach,” said Hauert. “At the same time, the cost of paper [library] holdings skyrocketed. In 1996, it cost $20,000 to keep the library current; by 2000, it cost $40,000. We were under enormous pressure from the college to find a way to save money, but also under pressure from the American Bar Association to provide our students access [to legal research resources]. In 1998, computer labs were added when the library was remodeled. But you could only have access to the computer labs for certain blocks of time each week. We could teach LexisNexis ourselves, but students had to go off on their own to complete assignments at computers somewhere else.”

Hauert and his colleagues searched for a solution. Ultimately, they determined to reduce their paper holdings by shifting the paper to electronics. This way they are still able to fulfill their role as a teaching library. The money they saved went to purchasing the laptops. “Not only do the laptops allow us to teach all of the legal research ourselves, they also give students a lot more hands-on computer time,” he said.

In addition to the legal research course, the computer lab is used for instruction in interviewing and investigation and computerized litigation support. It’s also used by the Library Department to teach freshman English students factual research methods on the Internet.

“You have to find a way to partner and share resources,” Hauert said. “As a public community college, if we had to pay for those resources through student fees, the fees would put the program out of reach financially for many of our students.”

Updating a Classic
Cumberland County College
Vineland, N.J.
(856) 691-860

In 1970, when paper copiers had purple ink and were called mimeographs and electric typewriters were just beginning to take the place of manual ones, what was then known as the Legal Technicians Program at New Jersey’s Cumberland County College in Vineland, N.J., about 45 miles south of Philadelphia, opened its doors after intensive study and planning by the Cumberland County Bar Association and the college. The curriculum included a core two-semester course — Techniques of Legal Practice and Procedure — as well as courses in business law, estate planning, property transactions and family law, and a strong grounding in
legal ethics. In keeping with the times, it also required courses in accounting, office business machines and physical education.

Fast-forward 33 years, and the program — one of the first paralegal degree granting programs in the nation — has changed with the times and flourished in the process. In what is now known as the Paralegal Studies Program, the business machines course has given way to one in legal technology in which students have access to both LexisNexis and Westlaw; courses in civil litigation, legal research and writing and law office management have been added; and, yes, the physical education requirement has been abandoned.

The philosophy of the program, however, remains constant: Provide a solid background in law practice and procedure  geared toward the general practice of law. “The root of the original courses is still apparent in the curriculum because Cumberland County’s lawyers are mostly general practitioners. Their type of practice hasn’t changed significantly, and neither have their areas of practice,” explained Mary Herlihy Fay, the program’s coordinator since 1989. “Our curriculum is constantly being updated, but it’s still designed to meet the needs of general practitioners. A lot of specialty courses wouldn’t serve either our students or their prospective employers.”

That a program of this depth and breadth developed in a small southern New Jersey county is still a bit startling, even to Fay. “It’s kind of amazing that out of this rather rural county came this innovative thinking,” she said.

The evolutionary nature of the program continues on Fay’s watch. To meet the needs of the significant Spanish-speaking population of Cumberland County, Fay is developing a curriculum with a concentration in Spanish language skills in which students will be required to take 13 credits in Spanish, including a course in legal terminology in Spanish. She hopes to welcome the first group of students to the new curriculum in fall 2004.

Shaping Education
From coast to coast, in large metropolitan areas and small rural hamlets, quality paralegal education is not only available — it’s thriving. Through the vision of lawyers, legal assistants and educators — and the growing demands of evolving, conscientious legal clientele — curricula have grown and expanded to include specializations and advanced programs catering to the needs and special interests of a variety of prospective students and to the employers who, over the past few decades, have come to know just how valuable paralegals are to the practice of law.

There is a program out there for just about everybody. It just takes a little research to find the best fit.

Would you like to read an annual feature on unique paralegal schools? LAT is interested in hearing from you. We also would like to hear from other unique paralegal schools about their programs. Please e-mail [email protected].


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