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Sometimes Less is Less
The potential danger of short-term, entry-level programs.
By Susan Howery

November/December 1999 Issue

Last year, some of you may have caught the movie, “One True Thing,” a moving story about a daughter who returns home to care for her dying mother. The film’s subplot involves the father who is completely detached from his family and espouses statements such as, “Less is more.” Later in the movie, the mother tells her daughter, “To me, more is more.” Because paralegal programs are a significant part of my life, the movie made me think about paralegal education and its worth. I discovered a definite parallel between the movie’s issue of “less is more,” and short-term and distance education paralegal programs.

The Rise of Continuing Education Departments
Over the past two decades, colleges and universities have been trying to stay solvent in tough times. As an instructor and paralegal program director in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I observed many colleges and universities dealing with the problem of declining enrollment numbers. We discussed the trend in many long meetings at the college where I was employed, and it was a topic of interest at many of the national seminars I attended. In order to increase revenues and the number of bodies necessary to satisfy governmental agencies and bottom lines, many colleges and universities moved toward strengthening their continuing education departments (i.e., master’s degrees and other post-degree programs). This new agenda saw the dawn of short-term programs in various disciplines, including the paralegal profession. The creation of distance education programs, made possible by many technological advances, was seen as another solution to the money problem.

Short-Term Programs
The paralegal profession has seen the rise and fall of many paralegal programs, including everything from fly-by-night crash courses to programs with real content. I’ve always assumed that fly-by-night programs easily fail because they’re poorly managed, they’re poorly constructed, they’re embroiled in college politics, and student interest in the subject isn’t sufficient. From what I’ve seen over the years, poorly constructed programs — often too short in content — also fail because employers are dissatisfied with the graduates. Students can’t get jobs. Thus, I’ve never worried about such programs too much — they should naturally fail, right? But short-term programs — a breed of programs that can often be characterized as fly-by-night — seem to be growing in popularity. Employers will sometimes pay for them, and, if not, employed graduates can afford them. They can be completed quickly and without much money or effort and, in turn, the student receives a certificate to hang on his or her wall. However, many of these programs were and still are created by entrepreneurs looking only to make a fast buck.

Distance Education
Distance education is another recent innovation in the delivery system of programs — paralegal systems included. Distance education encompasses interactive television, broadcast telecourses and online courses that have arisen as delivery modes for courses and whole programs, appealing to the at-home parent, the working masses and graduate students. To some, distance education is sexy — it’s fresh and glitzy. Consumers, however, can easily confuse distance education with quality education. The terms are not synonymous. Again, many entrepreneurs are capitalizing on opportunity.

The Danger
The danger isn’t just in continuing legal education programs, or in the delivery of courses via distance education. There are a lot of good programs out there. What potential students don’t realize, however, is that many colleges and universities instate short-term and distance education programs that are sold by opportunists as quality programs. Unfortunately, these don’t always provide sufficient training and content for students. These opportunists then use the good name of the college or university to gain respect for the program. The program may never have gone through a curriculum process, a needs-survey or a thoughtful design process with the area’s employers in mind. The college often isn’t even involved in outlining the program’s content. Some of these programs are only six weeks long and still claim to produce a functional graduate.

Robert LeClair, chairperson of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) Distance Education Task Force and board member, said, “My opinion is that the short-term, entry-level training does a disservice to the paralegal profession, to the students enrolled and to the clients served, assuming the graduates of those programs can ever find jobs.”

Quality Mongers
AAfPE and the American Bar Association (ABA) serve as watchdogs for the quality of paralegal programs. Programs that want to be members of AAfPE must be approved by the ABA or be in substantial compliance with the ABA’s Guidelines for Approval of Legal Assistant Programs. The AAfPE candidate school must also be institutionally accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency. I strongly encourage you to make certain that the program you wish to enter is backed by AAfPE or the ABA, or at least adheres to the same guidelines.

Three Things to Look for in a Quality Paralegal Program
1. The program must be long enough to provide adequate training. Those of you already working in the paralegal field know that what’s required is more than any school can provide. However, educators have a duty to provide an adequate foundation. I don’t believe this can be accomplished in less than 18 semester units, which is the minimum requirement for ABA approval.

2. Paralegal programs should balance the curriculum between teaching job skills and teaching theory of law. When choosing a program, potential students should check to be sure the curriculum at least includes:

  • Legal research and writing, litigation, ethics, contracts, business organizations and torts.
  • A general education requirement in order to graduate.
  • An internship or other type of experiential learning component.

3. Potential students should also investigate whether the school:

  • Has adequate facilities, such as a law library, computer labs and properly equipped classrooms;
  • Provides opportunities to perform volunteer work in the legal community, in a student association or in honor societies; and
  • Offers academic counseling, career services, financial aid, tutoring, orientation and placement assistance. (Taken from the “Choosing a Paralegal Education Program” brochure produced by the Association of Legal Administrators and the Conclave (AAfPE, ABA, Legal Assistant Management Association, National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations).

Laying Down the Law
Nobody can deny entrepreneurs the right to make a fast buck. They’ll always be out there looking for opportunities to do just that. We can, however, do our part to keep untrained graduates out of the work force. The legal profession is known for its intolerance of incompetence. If we use a measuring stick for quality when picking a paralegal program, such as AAfPE membership, ABA approval or any of the above listed qualities, maybe we won’t find ourselves buried in student loans and still out of a job after we’ve already graduated.

For more information about AAfPE, call or write to:
American Association for Paralegal Education
2965 Flowers Rd. South, Suite 105
Atlanta, GA 30341
(770) 452-9872
(770) 458-3314 (fax)
Or visit: aafpe.org or aafpe.org/index.html

For more information about the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants, call or write to:
Standing Committee on Legal Assistants
American Bar Association
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 988-5616 (staff administrator)
(312) 988-5677 (fax)
Or visit: www.abanet.org/legalassts

Susan Howery is the paralegal program coordinator for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. She held the same position at Davenport College in Kalamazoo, Mich., for several years. Howery also taught in both programs. She initiated and advised two student paralegal associations, and has been active in the state and local paralegal associations. Howery is currently on the AAfPE Board of Directors as the representative for associate degree programs. She was the legislative chair of AAfPE and the 1998 annual conference co-host. She also hosted the 1996 Regional AAfPE conference for the Pacific Region in Phoenix.

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