Short-term paralegal programs harm the paralegal
By Robert J. LeClair
The comments in this article are my
opinion and may or may not reflect the opinion of the American Association for Paralegal
Education (AAfPE). None of these comments are intended to apply to short-term continuing
legal education for practicing paralegals. My comments are limited to those programs
attempting to provide entry-level paralegal training in periods of time that are woefully
less than the minimums established by AAfPE or the American Bar Association (ABA).
In recent years, there has been a proliferation of
paralegal programs claiming to produce functional entry-level paralegals in training
involving less than 120 hours of instruction.
Many of these short-term programs are offered through the
continuing education departments of many well-known major universities or through the
Internet under the guise of “distance education.”
Traditional paralegal educators have labeled these
programs “weekend wonders,” because they claim to produce functional or
“certificated” paralegals in six or seven weekends.
It’s my opinion that these programs should not be
considered as meeting minimum standards of the requisite education to enter the paralegal
profession. Additionally, these programs do a fundamental disservice to the students
enrolled in the course, to paralegal education, and to the paralegal profession.
Can Short-term Programs
Train Functional Entry-level Paralegals?
Both the ABA and AAfPE have set minimum educational standards to train an entry-level
paralegal. By any stretch of the imagination, the time periods involved in the
“weekend wonders” tend to fall woefully short of the minimum standards set by
either AAfPE or the ABA. Both the ABA and AAfPE requirements set minimums of 60 total
semester hours with 18 semester hours of substantive paralegal classes and 18 semester
hours of general education (or the equivalent in quarter or clock hours).
A semester hour is typically defined as 15 sessions of 50
minutes each session. By contrast, the typical length of the short-term programs is
equivalent to about six semester hours.
Respected paralegal educators and officers of national
paralegal associations have expressed to me their strong belief that functional
entry-level legal assistants can’t be trained in the limited time periods involved in
the “weekend wonder” programs.
If Their Training Is
Inadequate, How Have These Programs Proliferated?
Entrepreneurs have recognized the substantial profits to be made in
education. Short-term programs have proliferated by using sophisticated marketing
techniques involving three major areas:
- The desire of students for a fast education;
- The use of university continuing education departments
that are not subject to curriculum review and offer courses based primarily on
- The use and lure of distance education.
These three areas are discussed in greater detail in the
following three paragraphs.
Students are susceptible to the sophisticated marketing
techniques used by the short-term programs. The “weekend wonder” programs appeal
to potential students who want to enter the paralegal profession as quickly as possible.
The weekend schedule of the programs and their short duration are attractive to a society
where instant gratification isn’t fast enough.
The programs offer a “certificate” or claim to
produce “certificated” paralegal graduates. Many students believe this
“certificate” is a credential that will be accepted by the legal profession as
meeting the education level required to enter the field. Students are excited while they
are taking the short-term course, since it moves along quickly and covers only the
highlights of each area. During the course, students generally assume they are learning
sufficient skills to function as a paralegal. Reality doesn’t usually hit until they
attempt to find employment.
Even if they are able to find employment, they are
discouraged when they attempt to function in today’s sophisticated legal markets and
realize their training has not adequately prepared them for employment as legal
Traditional paralegal programs, such as AAfPE
institutional member programs, must meet rigorous curriculum review standards within their
institutions. Continuing education departments at most universities are generally not
subject to these curriculum review standards.
In the 1980s and 1990s, cash-strapped universities turned
to continuing education as a means of generating income. Since these courses are seldom
offered for credit, the primary consideration that has evolved is whether the course will
produce income. Whether the course has traditional intellectual content that meets minimum
standards isn’t a major consideration.
This isn’t to say a continuing education department
isn’t an adequate site to house an effective paralegal program in some circumstances.
Many quality programs are, in fact, located in such departments. Unfortunately, the
“weekend wonder” programs have approached numerous continuing education
departments and have offered to share the substantial revenues that can be generated from
students seeking a fast track to a paralegal career. The owner of the short-term program
provides the teacher and the course materials. The university provides the space (and also
its good name).
The short-term paralegal program uses the name of the
institutions already offering its course to market to even more institutions. The program
looks attractive to university personnel in charge of continuing education departments.
The effort required of the university is very low and usually consists of offering a
classroom, listing the course in the printed continuing education marketing brochures and
(often unknowingly) lending the good name of the institution to add credibility to the
“weekend wonder” program.
Profit margins to the school generally are at least 20
percent of the gross revenues and could be as high as 66 percent of the gross revenues.
Thus, the “weekend wonders” have found a safe haven in continuing education
departments, where they can bootstrap credibility based on the good name of the university
while remaining free from curriculum review, program outcomes or accountability for
placement of “certificated” graduates.
The Use and Lure of
Distance education is now being used as another means of offering
“weekend wonder” courses. There are a number of positive ways in which distance
education can be used by traditional paralegal programs to augment course offerings.
However, a strong feeling on the part of many students does exist that if something is
offered by distance education, it therefore is “cutting-edge” and must be of
Consumers are confusing distance education with quality
education, and the terms are not synonymous. Many correspondence courses have dressed
themselves in distance education clothes and are marketing their courses to students who
assume the education is of quality.
Thus, in recent years, the short-term programs have added
distance education as another primary means of course delivery in addition to the
continuing education department methods previously described. The inadequate time periods
involved in the short-term programs exist regardless of whether the means of delivery is
through live instruction or through distance education.
What Is the Harm?
Although even limited amounts of formal education can be beneficial, entry
into the paralegal profession requires education of sufficient length, sophistication,
intensity and quality.
Those attempting to provide students with a paralegal
education should maintain the minimum standards as established by the ABA and AAfPE. The
failure of the short-term programs to live up to these educational minimums harms the
paralegal profession in the following ways:
- Students are negatively impacted when they spend
significant sums of money in the false hope that substandard programs will provide them
with an education that qualifies them to function as paralegals.
- The paralegal profession is weakened by the poor job
performance of graduates who have been inadequately prepared for the field.
- The colleges and universities that offer these programs,
or that offer campus space to these programs, are threatened by the damage to their
reputations from the substandard education provided.
- Paralegal education suffers when students choose not to
pursue a paralegal education due to the bad reputation created by substandard programs.
- Paralegal education is discredited when employers who hire
students from substandard programs assume that prospective employees from other programs
are similarly ill-prepared to cope with the demands of the paralegal profession.
- Consumers of legal services are harmed by the actions of
incompetent graduates of programs that fail to comply with accepted educational minimums
and who, therefore, are not capable of performing the complex duties required of
In short, the ones benefiting from the “weekend
wonder” programs are those who receive profits from the programs (i.e., the
university continuing education departments and the owners of these short-term programs).
What Can Be Done About
AAfPE program directors have consistently expressed their concerns about
these short-term programs.
As AAfPE president, at the March 2002 board meeting, I
will ask the AAfPE Board of Directors to consider the problems created by short-term
programs. It’s my hope the board will issue a formal position statement outlining the
damage being done by these programs. I also hope that any statement adopted will be
broadly circulated to prospective students, AAfPE members, national and local paralegal
associations, the presidents and boards of higher educational institutions and continuing
education departments of universities.
The key to solving this issue must be education about the
dangers and inadequacies of these programs. It isn’t likely the owners of the
short-term programs will voluntarily stop offering these programs, because of the
financial rewards they are receiving.
The only solution is for the educational institutions
currently offering these “weekend wonder” programs to have sufficient integrity
to investigate whether they are participants in a process that is harming students,
paralegal education, the paralegal profession and the general public.