Unique Paralegal Programs Spotlight
Innovative programs provide exciting paralegal education options.
By Tim Pareti
January/February 2005 Issue
What makes a paralegal program unique? Perhaps it’s the make
up of the school faculty or the student body. Maybe it’s the course
selection or a need the school fills in the local community. Or it might
be a specialty program few schools offer. Most paralegal programs offer
the obvious: certificate or degree programs in legal studies. However,
the schools we found this year offer a little more — something you might
not find elsewhere: an active paralegal student association, an intense
master’s program, a specialized degree program for medical
professionals, a tribal advocacy degree, a legal resource center run by
student paralegals and a high-tech courtroom for paralegal studies.
School officials continue to improve paralegal programs to meet the
changing needs of the workplace. Administrators are meeting challenges
in the growing paralegal profession by adding new courses in emerging
legal fields or meeting the needs of a global community by adding
distance learning programs. The following schools are a snapshot of the
many unique, innovative paralegal programs across the United States.
Expanding Tribal Advocacy
Turtle Mountain Community College
The tribal advocacy paralegal program at Turtle Mountain
Community College in Belcourt, N.D., is taking a fresh and unique
approach to improve the tribal court systems of Native Americans. With
the help of a federal grant from the Department of Justice, Turtle
Mountain is expanding its tribal advocacy paralegal program by offering
online courses and financial assistance for up to 20 students in a co-hort
program that will begin in the fall of 2005. The program currently
offers two degrees: associate of arts with a concentration in tribal
advocacy-legal studies, and associate of applied science in tribal
paralegal, both approved by the American Bar Association.
In 1998, Congress earmarked money to Turtle Mountain in an
effort to increase the number of Native Americans trained in tribal
government and law. Dubbed Project Peacemaker, Congress has given more
than $1.5 million to the program so far, which benefits the Turtle
Mountain Tribal Courts. This program is being developed to serve as a
model for other tribal courts across Indian country.
The program, which is open to anyone, seeks to strengthen
tribal courts through legal training in the tribal justice system based
on native perspectives, customs, traditions and culture, said Susan
DeCoteau, director of Project Peacemaker. Both the Trial Advocacy and
Tribal Paralegal degrees will qualify the person to become a certified
tribal advocate on Turtle Mountain. These degrees will allow a graduate
to appear in Turtle Mountain courts and conduct cases in that court
Currently, there are no standard higher educational
requirements to practice law in the Turtle Mountain tribal court system,
DeCoteau said. “Our goal is to get our students to become attorneys and
tribal advocates. We believe it will help alleviate some of the problems
faced by tribal court systems today,” DeCoteau said.
DeCoteau said Project Peacemaker now is attempting to create
more distance learning courses, where students from other colleges and
universities can obtain the tribal advocacy paralegal degree.
The first step is this year’s co-hort program where program
administrators will choose 10 to 20 students from a batch of about 40
who register for an online course called Introduction to Legal Studies
and Ethics, offered in spring 2005. The final selection will be based on
performance and grades in this spring class. The selected students will
receive tuition stipends and scholarships for the tribal advocacy
“Our instructors are mostly Indian attorneys, and they
develop their courses around the textbooks and their experience in the
Tribal Courts they have worked in,” DeCoteau said.
To fill these teaching slots for these new online courses,
administrators are searching for more attorneys, preferably with a
background in tribal law.
Students who graduate from TMCC with the tribal advocacy
degree can transfer the 39 legal studies credits to a local four-year
college as upper-level coursework, DeCoteau said. Project Peacemaker
offers coursework in addition to general education requirements in any
of the two-year degrees.
Student-Run Resource Center
Eastern Michigan University
There are plenty of people who need help navigating the legal
system but can’t afford an attorney. Many of them struggle through the
system confused, frustrated, angry and worried. In Ypsilanti, Mich.,
paralegal students at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) are learning
about such community needs.
Last year, in a cooperative venture, EMU, the Legal Services
of South Central Michigan, Washtenaw County, Washtenaw Bar Association
and the Washtenaw County Unified Trial Court, opened the Washtenaw
County – Eastern Michigan University Legal Resource Center in Ann Arbor,
Mich. Under the supervision of an attorney, EMU paralegal students
dispense legal self-help information to people in the community who need
assistance in landlord tenant disputes, small claims, personal
protection, noncriminal issues and family law matters, said Dr. Dan Ray,
associate professor and coordinator of EMU’s Legal Assistant Studies
program. “It’s going very well,” Ray said. “The reaction in the
community has been very positive. Our target group is people who are not
eligible for legal aid and can’t afford an attorney.”
The LRC, which opened in September, assisted approximately
160 people in the first month of operation. The selection process for
EMU paralegal students to work at the LRC has become competitive.
According to Ray, about five to 10 students per semester are selected to
work at the LRC. Because of space constraints, some students are turned
away, only to apply the following semester, he said. Although working at
the LRC can be used to satisfy the clinical experience component of the
school’s required program internship course, the LRC work is voluntary
and not required for students in the paralegal program.
Students must have completed nine semester hours in the
paralegal program and be enrolled or have completed an additional nine
semester hours of courses to be eligible to sign up for the course that
accompanies the LRC clinical experience. The selection process for the
LRC includes an interview. Those selected must then successfully
complete a two-day training course, covering the necessary forms and
procedures used at the Center. The students, who work at least 10 hours
per week at the Center, help patrons fill out proper forms for various
civil matters such as divorce, child custody or probate matters, with
attorney supervision. “No matter how hard you try, you can’t duplicate
experiences students get in the Center in a classroom setting,” Ray
said. “The classroom isn’t the same as real life.”
EMU’s program is one of three programs nationwide selected by
the Army Judge Advocate General Corps to offer a paralegal degree
completion program for Army Paralegal Specialists. All Army personnel
who want to become Army Paralegal Specialists are required to
successfully complete a 13-week classroom course offered by the Judge
Advocate General Corps prior to becoming Army Paralegal Specialists.
EMU’s proposal incorporates that 13-week course into its Army Paralegal
curriculum. The remaining courses required for the degree will be taken
primarily via EMU online course offerings.
“It’s extremely difficult for military personnel, especially
those on active duty, to get a four-year college degree with any
educational continuity. Our Army Paralegal Degree program is designed
to help service members get a college degree, and we are very happy to
be able to offer this opportunity to those folks who dedicate themselves
to serving the country,” Ray said. “We are working with the American Bar
Association to get approval for this program option, and we hope we can
offer the Army Paralegal Degree program beginning in January of 2005.
EMU offers a second bachelor’s degree option that permits
students who already have a four-year degree from an accredited
institution to get a bachelor of science degree in Legal Assistant
(Paralegal) Studies. EMU’s program is one of three ABA-approved, public
university, bachelor’s degree granting paralegal programs in Michigan.
Active Student Association
The paralegal student association at Yavapai College is an
extremely active and well-known student organization. It sponsors
quarterly legal clinics for the public, raises money for an annual
scholarship, publishes a newsletter and conducts monthly seminars for
working paralegals. Not bad for a two-year college tucked in a rural
town in the mountains of Prescott, Ariz.
In fact, the Paralegal Association at Yavapai has won the
Yavapai College Community Service Award every year since 1998. With the
help of community legal services, local attorneys and judges and the
Alternative Dispute Resolution Office in Yavapai, students of PAY
provide legal services to community members.
Two to four times a year, PAY sponsors a legal clinic where
students are paired up with a client to provide and explain the legal
forms needed for a divorce. The students receive a weekend training
course prior to the clinic, conducted by a local prosecutor or the
lawyer for the Community Legal Services. The PAY legal clinic has
garnered the respect of the community, and paralegal students not only
get good experience the community, but they also receive bonus credits
for the work.
PAY also holds an annual holiday craft fair where a
percentage of the proceeds benefit three paralegal scholarships each
year, said Susan Howery, assistant dean for Business and Computer
Science and Paralegal Program director
“[PAY] is very hands-on and service oriented,” Howery said.
“Because PAY is so active, it’s out in the community all the time and
that is how students get jobs. The community is happy to have us. We are
an integral part of this community. We have a great reputation.”
Yavapai’s Alternative Dispute Resolution course meets most of
the required hours by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office in order to
mediate in Superior Court. Students then will schedule the remaining
time with the teachers post-class to finish their 40-hour training,
usually held at the college. Two local mediators with more than 10 years
mediating experience teach the course. The ADR class began two years
ago. Also as part of the ADR requirements, students must sit in on
several mediations before they can become a mediator.
“It’s very beneficial to anyone wanting to mediate to observe
different styles of mediations, what happens when you deadlock, ways to
facilitate communication,” Howery said.
Yavapai College offers
an associate of applied science degree in paralegal studies, a legal
nurse certificate program and a post-degree paralegal certificate
program, all of which are ABA approved. Many of the courses are distance
learning. Students can see and speak to each other through an ITV system
from each of the college’s two campuses — Prescott and Verde Valley.
“While there also is real time incorporated into those
courses as well as same-time chat rooms, students mostly work on their
own time, except that they must meet assignment deadlines,” Howery said.
“We do have students work in groups via the Internet to provide them the
experience of working as a team. We make the courses as interactive as
Each core paralegal course has two instructors — a
graduate-level paralegal and an attorney, Howery said. “The paralegals
give the practical experience and the attorneys provide substantive
knowledge,” she said. “It’s really good. It works out incredibly well.”
LNC in a Law School Setting
University Law School
(614) 236- 6885
The paralegal program at Capital University Law School in
Columbus, Ohio, started in 1972, and is the only one in the nation
housed in a law school and endorsed by a local bar association — the
Columbus Bar Association.
“Our unique features lend for excellent faculty and enhance
the placement of our students,” said Donna Schoebel, director of the
paralegal program at Capital University.
The ABA-approved paralegal program at Capital University
offers two unique post-baccalaureate certification programs geared for
nurses and medical professionals: the Legal Nurse Consultant program and
the Life Care Planner program.
The LNC program began in 2001. While some registered nurses
prefer to go through the paralegal program, the majority of nurses go
through the LNC program. Either approach prepares them to work in areas
of civil and criminal litigation, involving workers’ compensation,
personal injury, insurance law, products liability or medical
malpractice. Nurse paralegals who hold the LNC certification are
prepared to work as independent consultants for insurance companies, law
firms or hospitals. However, Schoebel noted that in Ohio, LNCs are
required to work under the direct supervision of an attorney.
“Legal nurse consultants are unique nonlawyer professionals
who can analyze medical records, do medical research and significantly
assist in the case, and as such, are specialized nonlawyer
professionals,” Schoebel said.
The LNC program is held in monthly modules with blended
distance learning from February to November each year. The paralegal
program is offered in a part-time evening format or as an accelerated
summer immersion program. According to Schoebel, Capital’s LNC program
format meets the needs of a busy and demanding nurse schedule. Most
nurse paralegal programs require students to attend classes two to three
times each week for one year. “Our program allows them the flexibility
to maintain their full-time nursing position and complete the legal
nurse consultant program at the same time,” Schoebel said.
There currently are 12 LNC students, many of whom live
outside of Ohio. “The LNC and Life Care Planner programs have been
really effective,” Schoebel said. “We have drawn students from all over
the country.” The Life Care Planner program prepares medical
professionals who are capable of working with attorneys and clients to
create a life care plan for the catastrophically injured or chronically
ill individual. “Our program prepares a life care planner to effectively
function as an expert witness capable of defending the life care plan
they have written,” Schoebel said.
One of only four LCP educational programs in the country,
Capital University’s program is rigorous, teaching deposition and trial
practice skills, as well as the ability to break down the medical cost
of a patient, she said. LCP students, who are required to take an
intense medical research and writing course, must devise a life care
plan and defend it in a mock trial at the school. “We prepare students
to function as expert witnesses which no other program does. Our
students are much better rounded, trained and prepared to hit the ground
running. They are seasoned veterans by the time they come out of
school,” Schoebel said.
The LCP program, approved by the Commission for Health Care
Certification for the 120 hours of training required to sit for the
Certified Life Care Planner examination, is an eight-month module
program where students take weekend courses once a month from October to
June. Both programs hold membership in the American Association of Legal
An Intense Master’s Program
University — San Marcos
San Marcos, Texas
When administrators began putting together a plan to create a
master of arts in legal studies program for paralegals at Texas State
University, there were only six other programs in the nation that
offered a model. The final result was an ABA-approved graduate studies
program for paralegals started in 1999, requiring an advanced writing
and research project similar in scope to a master’s thesis, said Dr.
Terry Hull, director and associate professor of the Legal Studies
program at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. “Some of our
students’ writing from this course has been published in legal journals
and publications,” Hull said.
Graduate students are assigned an advisory instructor and
must defend their research project to an advisory committee in order to
pass the required oral comprehensive examination. The graduate program
requires a total of 36-semester credit hours, consisting of 21 core
courses as well as a 135-hour internship.
The master’s degree in Legal Studies at Texas State
University is the only program in Texas to offer a master’s in legal
studies. Graduate students can choose from a general concentration,
legal administration, alternative dispute resolution and environmental
law. To enroll, students must take the Graduate Record Examination and
have a minimum grade point average of 2.75. “We don’t believe this is
for everyone,” Hull said. “The writing, analytical and critical thinking
skills and the admission standards reflect that. It’s a difficult and
challenging program. We want our students to be successful and that is
why the program is rigorous.”
The master’s program has grown about 24 percent since its
first class in the spring of 1999. Hull said the program has earned a
stellar reputation in the legal and corporate community. “[The legal
community] has been very supportive,” Hull said. “I know in many
instances where the employers pay their employees to go through this
Texas State University
also offers a post-baccalaureate paralegal studies certificate program,
which requires completion of 24-semester credit hours including an
internship. The Lawyer’s Assistant Certificate program began in 1976,
and has graduated 1,080 students, Hull said. The university also offers
a graduate-level mediation certificate program suited for students
interested in mediating employment, landlord-tenant, neighborhood and
other interpersonal disputes. The certificate program, which can be
earned separately from the master’s degree, is post-graduate work.
“We have found that mediation skills are readily transferable
to a variety of settings and many students are interested in this type
of training for a variety of professional and personal reasons,” Hull
High-tech Courtroom for Paralegals
The University of Toledo
University of Toledo
offers an associate of applied science and bachelor of science degrees
in paralegal studies. The four-year university also offers a
post-graduate degree in paralegal studies and a nurse paralegal
certificate. But what really makes this program shine is its new
high-tech mock courtroom for paralegals, which opened in August 2004.
The Richard B. and Jane McQuade Mock Trial Courtroom at UT
features integrated communication technology, including a drop-down
liquid crystal display projector, two 52-inch plasma screen monitors,
interactive computer monitors, wireless Internet capabilities and a
document camera at the podium. The computers are interconnected and have
a digital evidence presentation system.
Each counsel table, the judge’s chair and the jury box have a
flat-screen monitor with the ability to connect to a laptop. The witness
stand also has a flat-screen monitor where witnesses can annotate
evidence on screen. The judge’s chamber is connected to the entire
system and has a library and a camera system that can be used to
simulate remote witness testimony.
“The students really enjoy the opportunity to have classes in
the courtroom,” said Kathleen Mercer Reed, chair of the UT Undergraduate
Legal Specialties Department and director of Paralegal Studies. “They
come out of the program with more familiarity with a courtroom
environment and with the technology they will need for a career in
today’s practice of law.”
The courtroom facility was funded through part of a $16
million renovation of UT’s College of Health and Human Services
building. In addition, more than $85,000 in grants and alumni support
helped to fund the courtroom’s technology upgrade. Reed said, with
available funds, the school is considering installing a video
conferencing system. It would allow the school to hold CLE workshops and
have remote guest speakers in classrooms, she said. “Not only do we have
this wonderful mock courtroom, but we also have some real financial
support,” Reed said.
All paralegal courses are taught by attorneys and judges in
the mock courtroom. In addition, the courtroom is a practice site for
the university’s nationally recognized Mock Trial Team. While in the
paralegal program, students can become a member of the Mock Trial Team,
which has qualified for the national finals 13 times in the past 18
years. For the first time, the team competed in the four-year university
category last year in an annual competition sponsored by the American
Mock Trial Association and placed sixth among representative teams from
the Ivy League and the Big Ten, Reed said.
To provide long-term support to the Mock Trial Team, and to
provide the opportunity to continually upgrade the courtroom with the
most up-to-date technology, Judge Richard McQuade and his wife Jane
McQuade gave a $100,000 gift to the team. The money was put into an
endowment fund where a portion will be available each year to support
the team and provide for technology upgrades in the courtroom, Reed
said. The rest of the money will pay for travel expenses incurred by the
Mock Trial Teams, which compete in invitational, regional and national
mock trial tournaments, she said.
Beginning next year, UT paralegal students also will be
conducting mediation for disputes between students referred through the
school’s Student Legal Services. The majority of the disputes, which
will be held in the mock courtroom and monitored by an
attorney/professor, will be roommate and landlord/tenant related, and
will be conducted through the paralegal program’s Alternative Dispute
Resolution course and clinical experience.
Education for Changing Times
The paralegal profession is one of the fastest growing occupations in
the United States. As the profession grows, the role of a paralegal is
changing in the legal community. Paralegals can become licensed, and
more and more states are recognizing them. To keep up with increasing
job demand, changes in law and a rapidly changing workforce, paralegal
curricula must change as well. Perhaps that is what defines a unique
paralegal program — the ability to understand and adapt to the new
changes and needs of the profession.