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My Opinion

To ABA or Not to ABA?

Results are mixed regarding career impact of program approval.

By Ashley Johnson

January/February 2008 Table of Contents


The career benefits of attending an American Bar Association-approved paralegal program have received mixed reviews in LAT’s most recent My Opinion survey results. Some paralegals feel that it’s the only way to go while others feel that it largely goes unnoticed by attorneys.

More than half of those who participated in the survey felt that a paralegal’s career opportunities are influenced by attending an ABA-approved paralegal program. Nearly 45 percent of respondents felt otherwise. “It’s been my experience that most attorneys make their hiring and promotional decisions based on what you can actually do (and your attitude), rather than on the ‘name’ on your certificate or the fact that the ABA approved it,” said a six-year paralegal from Gilbert, Ariz.

Of the 55.6 percent of respondents who felt that ABA approval influences a paralegal’s career opportunities, the majority, 34.1 percent, felt that it does so through increased employment opportunities. Nearly 30 percent also felt ABA approval gives paralegals more recognition as professionals, and 22.2 percent felt ABA approval leads to better chances for career advancement. “If you are serious about a paralegal career, why not strive to obtain the best education possible in order to excel in the profession?” asked Laura Ahtes, AACP, RP, DCP, a 20-year paralegal from Wilmington, Del., who attended an ABA-approved paralegal program.

However, not all respondents are sold on the benefits of an ABA-approved paralegal education. “Application of the knowledge, skill level and the instinct to do the 200 percent commitment required of paralegals is what makes them valuable,” said one respondent with 20 years of experience who did not attend an ABA-approved program. “Someone can attend Yale but if they have no applicable experience, how much benefit do we get in being their first position and having to train them?”

Of those who agreed that ABA approval has no influence, 29.2 percent felt that experience and knowledge are as valuable as education in the paralegal profession; 27.3 percent felt that strong candidates will have employment and career opportunities regardless of the program attended; 19.8 percent felt that employers will recognize any good paralegal program, regardless of ABA approval; and 17 percent felt that in some locations, paralegals don’t have access to an ABA-approved program but they still have plenty of career opportunities. One attorney who responded to the survey expressed her view on the issue. “I hire paralegals based on demonstrable intelligence and ability to learn on the job,” she said. “A paralegal certificate or degree is nice but not critical. ABA approval is irrelevant in my mind.”

Over half of the survey respondents (53.9 percent) attended an ABA-approved paralegal program, with 36.7 percent of those saying they did so because it was the best program in their area. Other respondents said they chose an ABA-approved program because they thought it would help their career more than a non-ABA-approved program (25.3 percent), and employers in their area require a certificate from an ABA-approved program (24.1 percent). Only 8.9 percent chose the ABA-approved program because it was the only program in their area. “As an attorney and paralegal educator, ABA approval and a bachelor’s degree is the gold standard in paralegal education,” said Anne Murphy Brown, J.D., program director of the ABA-approved Ursuline College legal studies program in Pepper Pike, Ohio. “Most employers who call for qualified para­legals contact our program based on the need for a bachelor’s degree candidate from an ABA-approved program.”

The number one reason given by those who chose an ABA-approved program also was the number one reason given by those who chose another program: because it was the best in their area. As for other reasons respondents chose another paralegal program, 15.5 percent said ABA-approved certificates are not required for employment in their area; 12.1 percent said they wanted to attend an ABA-approved program, but there was not one available in their area; and 5.2 percent said their program was approved by the American Association for Paralegal Education, which is what they were looking for in a program.

The impact of ABA approval remains unresolved. However, a 20-year paralegal from Metairie, La., philosophized on education and paralegals’ careers. “A paralegal certificate/major … or whether the school is ABA approved may help in an initial job search, but beyond that, experience and ability count for more than education,” she said.


Survey Results

Does attending an ABA-approved program influence career opportunities?

     Yes: 55.6%

     No: 44.4%


If yes, how does it influence career opportunities?

     Increased employment opportunities: 34.1%

     More recognition as a professional: 27.8%

     Better advancement: 22.2%

     Increased leadership roles: 10.3%

     Other: 5.6%


If no, why not?

     Experience and knowledge are just as valuable: 29.2%

     Strong candidates will have opportunities regardless of the program: 27.3%

     Most employers recognize any good program: 19.8%

     In some areas, no ABA program is available: 17.0%

     Other: 6.6%


What type of program did you attend?

     ABA approved: 53.9%

     Another paralegal program: 34.8%

     I did not attend a paralegal program: 11.2%


If you attended an ABA-approved program, why?

     Best in my area: 36.7%

     Thought it would help my career more: 25.3%

     Employers require certificate from ABA program: 24.1%

     Only program in my area: 8.9%

     Other: 5.1%


Total survey responses: 90



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