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Taking a Stand on Education
Majority favors academic standards, but disagrees on what kind.
By Patrick Vuong
March/April 2006 Issue

Paralegals think it’s cool to stay in school. In last issue’s My Opinion Survey, we asked if there should be minimum educational requirements for all para­legals. An overwhelming 96 percent of the 164 readers who responded said yes.

“I take pride in my profession, and to see [people] tag themselves as ‘legal assistants’ without any type of education, experience or professionalism makes a mockery of the profession,” said Andrea Brunson, a 24-year paralegal based in Daingerfield, Texas. “I believe we need to continue the crusade to uphold the standard of our profession.”

Reader Christine Parizo of East Longmeadow, Mass., agreed. “Some educational requirement is necessary to maintain the integrity of the profession,” said Parizo, who has been a paralegal for almost three years. “It seems that almost anyone can walk in off the street with a correspondence-course certificate and call [himself or herself] a paralegal, when the reality is it takes a lot more than just a few courses to be successful.”

However, not all respondents concurred. Among the 4 percent who didn’t want educational requirements, some said such standards would limit job opportunities for those with a lot of experience and no formal training. “Every person retains and learns at a different level. College doesn’t mean ‘book smarts’ or common sense,” said 20-year paralegal Vickie Cherup of Tampa, Fla. “I have worked with paralegals [who have four-year degrees] and some with only hands-on, learned experience. [The experienced paralegals] are by far more valuable because they have done it all. College teaches you only so much — the rest you learn on the job.”

One paralegal manager from Princeton, W.Va., with eight years of experience and a paralegal certificate, said there should not be minimum educational requirements “because many professionals have been in the field for numerous years and you truthfully gain more knowledge by working in a law office than by sitting in a classroom.”

Ninety-eight percent of paralegals said there should be a grandfather clause if mandatory academic standards were established, according to survey results. “There should be some type of grandfather clause for those of us who have paid our dues and created the profession for others to follow — those of us who have earned our degree from the School of Hard Knocks, which is most law firms,” said a 25-year paralegal from Lansing, Mich.

But a St. Louis paralegal in favor of educational requirements said there should not be a grandfather clause. “[Veteran paralegals] should be held to the same standards as everybody else,” said the three-year paralegal. “It’s assumed their years of training will enable them to easily ace any exam given on competency.”

According to the survey results, the top three choices for what should be the minimum level of education are: 1) paralegal certificate from an American Bar Association-approved school; 2) high school diploma; and 3) bachelor of arts or science degree.

“I have a bachelor of arts degree [in] business and believe my work product improved after I attained a higher level of education,” said Diana Jetter Herring, a 24-year paralegal from Sugar Land, Texas. “I also enjoy my career more [because] I have a greater degree of understanding of the [different] aspects related to legal subject matter.”

However, a paralegal supervisor from Columbus, Ohio, with 21 years of experience said an associate’s degree should be the minimum requirement because it gives the candidate a broader view of the world. But she cautioned it’s not the only factor to consider: “The most important qualities in a good paralegal are work ethic and passion. Education is only part of the picture.


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Updated 08/30/07
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