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3rd Annual Unique Paralegal Programs Spotlight

Innovative programs provide winning education options.
By Tim Pareti

January/February 2006 Issue

In the world of paralegal education, there are many paths to success. The options might vary, but the end result is the same — quality education that fills a niche. Such is the case for active Army personnel who can obtain a paralegal degree from almost anywhere in the world through an innovative distance-learning program at the University of Great Falls in Montana. Or consider the nontraditional paralegal student at Illinois’ Elgin Community College, where working parents can provide pro bono services any time from their homes. Networking with local attorneys is a possibility at Syracuse University in New York, where paralegal students can join the local bar association. At Virginia’s Marymount University, paralegal students are required to conduct pro bono work, an impressive item on any résumé. And students at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga can make themselves more marketable by adding a social science specialty to their paralegal degrees. Many quality paralegal programs serve the different needs of students throughout the nation and the world. The schools mentioned in this article are just a handful of good examples.

Pro Bono for the Nontraditional Student
Elgin Community College
Elgin, Ill.
(847) 214-7466
The paralegal program at Elgin Community College, located in Elgin, Ill., began in 1989 and was American Bar Association approved in 1992. Most para­legal students at ECC are working parents who are embarking on their second or third career, and would like to give back to the com­mu­nity despite their busy lives. Two years ago it was a perfect fit when the college joined forces with the Center for Disabil­ity and Elder Law in Chicago to provide pro bono legal services: The para­legal students could work from their own homes and gain real-world experience at the same time, said Laurel Vietzen, coordinator of ECC’s ­paralegal program.

Previously, Vietzen said she looked into possible at-home pro bono opportunities for students to gain practical experience outside of the classroom, but there was nothing ongoing. “Pro bono for working students, and in fact any kind of internship or practical exper­ience for working students, was a problem since the beginning,” Vietzen said. At the same time, Ron Kowalczyk, a pro bono attorney and part-time ECC para­legal professor, was looking for pro bono help for CDEL, for which he serves on the board of directors. CDEL had been relying on working lawyers and paralegals to provide pro bono services, but as a professor at the college, he recognized the need for students to gain real-world experience, and helping the center could fill that need. Kowalczyk introduced Vietzen to the CDEL board, and within two weeks, the center provided training for the volunteer paralegal students. Twice a year, a CDEL representative comes to the campus to conduct training sessions, teaching paralegal students how to conduct phone interviews and write reports, Vietzen said.

ECC paralegal students who work with the center then can call potential clients from home and interview them. After the interviews, they write reports, which are then sent to a volunteer attorney who determines what kind of legal help is needed. The non­profit private charity provides pro bono legal services to thousands of people who are impoverished or disabled. The para­legal students are the first ones to make contact with the potential candidates, getting the facts and background information of the case, Vietzen said. “They learn a lot about interviewing and dealing with people who are real clients,” Vietzen said. “It makes the students feel good, and it adds to their résumés. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

So far, more than 30 ECC paralegal students have provided pro bono services to CDEL, Vietzen said. Participation in the program is not required but is popular among the students.

ECC also offers a Tech Prep paralegal program for area students to earn college credit while still in high school. More than a half-dozen high school students take advantage of the Tech Prep program each year. The courses are limited to seniors who can take up to four courses, including legal tech and business law. “It’s an excellent way for young people to see if they really want a career in law before they commit to that,” Vietzen said.

ECC offers an associate of applied science degree in paralegal studies, a basic vocational specialist paralegal certificate for those who already have a bachelor’s degree, and a nurse legal consultant certificate.

A Pro Bono Requirement
Marymount University
Arlington, Va.
(703) 522-5600

Marymount University, a private catholic university in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., has a long tradition in community service. Now, in the spirit of the university’s founders, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, the school of about 3,700 students requires its paralegal students to conduct at least 24 hours of pro bono work to graduate.

“It gives the students real work experience,” said Susanne Ninassi, assistant professor and paralegal studies program director at Marymount. “It also provides legal services, under the direction of a licensed attorney, to those who might not have access to legal services.”

The requirement went into effect in September 2003 and has won accolades from the community. Students choose where they conduct their pro bono work, but sites must be approved by the paralegal program director.

Most students opt to perform pro bono services with the Florian Foundation, a charitable organization that offers free legal help to public safety officers. Sandra Doptis, a Marymount alumna and member of Mary­mount’s Paralegal Advisory Committee, and her business partner, Andrea Buchaman, founded the charity in 2001. Paralegal students assist attorneys in preparing wills, advance medical directives and powers of attorney for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Although the Florian Foundation is not tied to the school or located on campus, the nonprofit organization does use the school’s conference rooms to conduct estate-planning meetings with local public safety officers. That is convenient because the students meet on campus to do the pro bono work, Ninassi said. Students perform their pro bono services at the foundation’s site as well.

Other paralegal students do their pro bono activities through the National Capital Area Paralegal Association at the Divorce Clinic in Fairfax, Va., and the Legal Services of Northern Virginia, Ninassi said. “The students are happy with our program,” she said. “It’s a solid program, and they are very satisfied, and the community is very pleased with our pro bono work.”

About 60 students currently are enrolled in the university’s ABA-approved paralegal program, which includes four-year degrees in business law and paralegal studies, an undergraduate paralegal certificate, a graduate paralegal certificate and a graduate degree in legal administration. The undergraduate program began in 1984, and according to Ninassi, Marymount was the first university to offer a master’s degree in paralegal studies in 1996.

A Bond With the Local Bar
Syracuse University
Syracuse, N.Y.
(315) 443-3299
At Syracuse University, paralegal students have the unusual opportunity to become active members in the local bar association. Most other New York bar associations don’t have student paralegals as members.

Currently, about 20 paralegal students from Syracuse are affiliate members of the Onondaga County Bar Association in the state of New York. The paralegal students can participate in various activities with the bar association, and working paralegals also can be members of the bar. There are approximately 150 paralegal members out of 1,500 members.

In 2001, Bruce Hamm, director of Syracuse’s Legal Studies Program, persuaded Onondaga County Bar Association officials to change the group’s membership bylaws to allow the student members to join the bar association. Hamm pointed out at a board meeting that the bar already had working paralegal members and law students as members, so why not admit student paralegals? “I felt it was important for my students to get connected to the local bar as soon as possible for jobs, networking, involvement in activities, benefits, continuing legal education — all the things the bar offers its regular members,” said Hamm, who has been Syracuse’s program director since 1997.

Since students have been able to become members, they have attended the association’s monthly meetings and luncheons, served on committees, helped with various pro bono projects and participated in the bar’s Law Day activities. Some of the pro bono work the students participate in includes pro se divorce clinics, elder law fairs and Habitat for Humanity events, according to Hamm.

The partnership provides paralegal students with a unique opportunity to network with local attorneys. Through internships, contacts and other volunteer activities, students gain exposure needed to land a good job after graduation, Hamm said. “It gives them a real kick start to get to know people in the legal community,” he added.

In addition, the ABA-approved legal studies program recently expanded the partnership by combining its employment listserv with the bar’s job bank. There are about two to three job postings each week, Hamm said.

Another spin-off from the partnership was a CLE course on paralegal utilization conducted by several partners in local law firms. The school and bar also joined forces to bring in the state’s regional attorney general, who conducted a luncheon program on the unauthorized practice of law. The school and the bar have jointly conducted surveys on topics such as paralegal utilization and technology needs.

Also, the local bar has helped students find internships and assisted in providing guest speakers for classroom lectures. Representatives of the bar regularly attend the program’s graduation ceremonies and other events held at the university. “We have a very cohesive group of paralegals, and I think having the relationship with the association is a good thing for everyone,” Hamm said. “It’s good for our students because they get out in the real world before they graduate.”

Syracuse offers a 120-credit hour bachelor’s degree in legal studies and a 26-credit hour paralegal certificate for those who already have an associate’s degree. Syracuse’s paralegal program began in 1979, and was ABA-approved in 1983.

A proposed minor in legal studies was considered by the University Senate in December. The proposed minor requires 19 credit hours, and if approved, will be offered in the fall.

Paralegal Degree for Army Personnel
University of Great Falls
Great Falls, Mont.
(800) 856-9544

Active personnel in the U.S. Army stationed anywhere in the world now can obtain a paralegal degree on the Internet from the University of Great Falls, a private catholic university in Great Falls, Mont. The paralegal program began in 1979.

For more than two decades, UGF has offered distance learning education to its students. In 2004, administrators decided to expand the distance-learning education to meet the needs of the U.S. Army, and in April 2005, the ABA approved an Internet-based, distance-learning Army Judge Advocate General paralegal degree program at UGF. It’s one of three such programs approved by the ABA. All ABA-approved programs require that students take a minimum of 10 semester credit hours of legal specialty courses in a traditional classroom setting. Fortunately for JAG students, the ABA has approved specific face-to-face JAG training courses that fulfill this requirement. JAG students can then complete the balance of their credits through the university’s distance learning program. “It gives them a choice where to attend in a flexible format,” said Dan Shannon, assistant professor of paralegal studies at UGF. “They can work at their own pace at their own time. And, we offer a quality product.”

What makes UGF’s JAG paralegal program unique is that students attend class online in real time. Once a week, through a unique telecom system UGF developed, the students participate in a live, online audio-conference with the instructor. For it to work, students need a personal computer, sound card, microphone and speakers. Each week, students attend a live lecture with the professor on the Internet. The telecom system allows each student to take turns speaking through their microphone. Only one person can speak at a time, so the instructor moderates the discussion, and the class discussion is posted on the class Web pages for review. “The telecom system is like a walkie-talkie,” Shannon said. “You can’t talk at the same time. You have to say, ‘I am done,’ and the next person talks.”

Taped lectures of each course are converted into CDs, DVDs or videotapes and mailed to the JAG students. Class syllabi, exams and assignments are accessed through the university’s Web site. UGF provides the students access to LexisNexis and Westlaw to conduct legal research.

“What sets our program apart is the fact that we have been in the distance-learning mode for almost 20 years,” Shannon said. “We have small class sizes offered at various and convenient times, have a low student-to-faculty ratio, and cater to the student who is working and wishes to obtain advanced training or an advanced degree in the evening or on the weekends. Our curriculum is grounded upon application.”

The new JAG paralegal program also is a good fit for the university, which can tap into personnel with military law experience from nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base. JAG students can obtain either a 128 credit-hour bachelor of arts degree or a 64 credit-hour associate of arts degree in paralegal studies. They also can earn an online minor degree in psychology, criminal justice, addiction counseling or university studies. Most of the courses are offered online.

So far, six students from California to as far as Germany are enrolled in the Army paralegal program. “You can tell they are military. It’s ‘yes sir, no sir,’” Shannon said. “They are very gracious and professional.”

UGF also offers associate of arts and bachelor of arts degrees in paralegals studies for civilians. Currently, more than 60 students are majoring in paralegal studies at UGF.

An Emphasis on the Sciences
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Chattanooga, Tenn.
(423) 425-4135
The legal assistant studies program at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which started in the fall of 1996 and obtained ABA approval in the spring of 2004, has expanded in an effort to create the perfect, all-around paralegal. Rather than simply train a paralegal in traditional legal skills — such as document preparation, filing and database management — the school now offers an interdisciplinary approach in which students can take courses outside traditional legal studies.

A paralegal student at UTC can choose to obtain a bachelor of science degree in legal assistant studies or a bachelor of science degree in legal assistant studies with a social science concentration, according to Karen McGuffee, coordinator of UTC’s Legal Assistant Studies Program. Both programs are 120-semester credit hours. The social science concentration program consists of the core courses, plus additional courses in statistics, research methods, psychology and criminal justice. “The student not only gets legal training, but also a specialty focused in research,” McGuffee said.

The idea behind the specialty in social sciences blossomed several years ago when a local judge on the program’s advisory board suggested that paralegal students get additional training in research and statistics. The faculty then sought input from local law firms to see what skills they would like from para­legals. Firms wanted paralegals to be able to interpret statistical data and act as jury consultants, McGuffee said. In addition, local attorneys wanted para­legals to be skilled in interviewing and qualifying expert witnesses.

So in the fall of 2003, UTC added the social science concentration. When interviewing expert witnesses, attorneys and paralegals often are dealing with someone who has a Ph.D., McGuffee said. “Since lawyers are not trained in social science research, the paralegals can help understand and communicate with the expert,” she added.

The UTC paralegal graduate also will have some rudimentary expertise to conduct jury research, evaluate statistical methodology and understand relevant bodies of literature in the social sciences. They could help serve as an in-house jury consultant, McGuffee said. “Rather than hire an expensive jury consultant, a paralegal would be able to look at and understand research studies to qualify jury members. [He or she] can be in the forefront, and say ‘Yes, I have the foundation to interpret the data.’”

While no one has graduated with the social science specialty yet, there are six students enrolled in the program, McGuffee said.

The bachelor’s degree in legal assistant studies is one of only a few four-year legal assistant studies programs in Tennessee. UTC also offers a minor in legal studies.


The workplace is in a constant state of change. Evolving technology, growth industries, demographics and law trends are just some of the things that the movers and shakers of paralegal schools must take into account. To meet those needs and still remain competitive, school administrators must be innovative, creative and willing to take risks in the education game.


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