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Robert J. LeClairWeekend Wonder
Short-term paralegal programs harm the paralegal profession.
By Robert J. LeClair

January/February 2002 Issue

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 profitability; and
  • 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 assistants.

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
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 quality.

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 today’s paralegal.

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 Short-term Programs?
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.

Robert J. LeClair is a 1971 cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and has practiced law in Hawaii since 1972. He is the founder of the paralegal program at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, and he has served as its department chairman from its inception in 1975. He is currently the president of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE).

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