New School of Thought
Online CLE for paralegals
makes advances in the profession.
January/February 2004 Issue
Continuing legal education helps experienced
professionals keep current with changing laws and practices. Not
surprisingly, the Internet has brought an entirely new way for
paralegals to improve their know-ledge and skills, referred to as
“e-learning.” E-learning is education delivered via a computer network,
usually — but not necessarily — over the Internet.
With the evolution of e-learning, busy paralegals can
continue their education without travel costs or geographical
constraints. Instead, with only a computer and an Internet connection,
paralegals can take a course in their pajamas at midnight, on their
couches on weekends, or even at the beach during a vacation. Course work
can be completed at each individual’s own pace, and the 24/7
availability of many CLE programs means access to quick instruction, or
what the e-learning gurus call “just-in-time learning.” These attributes
are beneficial to many busy paralegals wanting to continue their
education while still working full time and caring for family needs.
What is Available?
Many online CLE courses are available for paralegals wanting
to stay a step ahead of the rest. Currently, formats for online training
run the gamut from analog or digital satellite and legal analysis,
broadcasts to CD-ROMs, and from compressed video to streaming audio to
The National Association of Legal Assistants offers CLE
through its NALA Campus (www.nala.org/newcampus/Default.htm)
in civil litigation, written communications, contracts, intellectual
property, judgment and legal analysis, legal ethics, real estate, the
American legal system and legal research via written and audio (WAV
file) text, as well as slides and interactive tests.
This e-learning format is referred to as “asynchronistic,”
meaning it’s not occurring in real-time and, therefore, is accessible to
students around the clock.
With the lack of student interaction in online CLE,
some educators think this method of learning isn’t as effective as
in-classroom work. However, Marge Dover, a Certified Association
Executive and NALA’s executive director, said just because there is no
“live” professor, doesn’t necessarily mean there is no interaction. She
pointed out that all of NALA Campus’ courses have message boards for
paralegal students and e-mail links to course authors.
NALA Campus, which has hosted more than 12,000 users
to-date, also offers course previews, demonstration modules and course
pre-tests. After registering on the site, users can access a message
board to see what other professionals have said about the courses.
Charlsye Smith Diaz, a former Texas paralegal who has
taken NALA Campus courses, noted one benefit of online education is it
can draw in students who might not typically interact in a traditional
classroom setting. There is a great side benefit to online CLE, Smith
Diaz added. Taking an online course allows students to “meet” others
with similar interests from around the country, with whom many might
never have interacted if not for the course.
Dover said NALA Campus.com currently is developing
live, or “synchronous,” programs that should be launched in mid-2004.
Using this type of format, a student participates in a telephone
conference call with an instructor and other students, and logs on to a
Web site to watch an instructor’s presentation.
Dover said NALA Campus’ 50- to 60-minute synchronous
courses will contain a messaging component to facilitate student-teacher
communication, and the programs will permit student polling (for
example, questions such as, “How many of you prepare courtroom
exhibits?” can be polled), with the ability to immediately post the
Bruce Hamm, director of Professional Legal Education at
New York’s Syracuse University and a former board member of the American
Association for Paralegal Education, noted an increasing number of
teaching institutions are offering this type of instruction because of
its inherent cost savings. Additional classrooms or “remote locations”
can be added, but only one teacher is required. Hence, the teaching
method becomes increasingly economical, especially in those locations
with small numbers of students. However, he cautioned that depending on
the material being taught, online learning is not always more cost
“In those cases where the number of students must be
limited — for instance, a writing intensive course with a lot of
required feedback — the additional technology and technical support
required actually drives up the cost of the course,” he said.
Hamm said, with the right technology, synchronous
instruction can allow good interaction between students and instructors.
And while certain segments of the population are looking for online
learning for one reason or another, alternatively, there are those who
will never be comfortable with the new technology. However, more
students are coming to expect some technological enhancements in
According to Hamm, a consequence of the online
environment has been for programs and instructors (especially with time
zone changes and international students) to find themselves in a 24/7
mode of operation. “This expectation creates its own set of difficulties
for staffing and technical support. I don’t think all students are
choosing programs based on online capacity, but … it does appeal to some
based on their own situations and learning styles.”
According to Janice Amato, vice president of
professional development for the National Federation of Paralegal
this professional organization for paralegals currently offers three
avenues for online CLE: short, text-only seminars (an overview of
immigration, two levels of computerized litigation support, ethics,
trial notebooks and medical records) presented in partnership with West;
Computer Mediated Distance Learning in conjunction with the Consortium
for Advanced Legal Education,
a nonprofit organization providing advanced specialty course work for
legal professionals; and a seven-week course, also presented through
CALE, for paralegals who are preparing to take NFPA’s Paralegal Advanced
Competency Exam (PACE) to become Registered Paralegals (RP). CALE touts
itself as an education marketplace through strategic alliances among
educators, publishers, content providers, associations, organizations
and legal professionals.
The American Law Network, which is made up of three
continuing legal education groups — American Bar Association CLE,
American Law Institute/American Bar Association and the Practising Law
Institute — uses satellite broadcasting technology particularly well,
according to Hamm. This format offers, for example, a panel discussion
of experts broadcast to a roomful of people who watch on a large screen.
Generally, Hamm added, this is a fairly one-way
interaction, although a question and answer component can be added —
with questions submitted via e-mail or fax — to make the training more
The ABA offers a variety of videoconferencing,
teleconferencing and Webcasting courses at
Of course, there is a cornucopia of online CLE course work designed
mostly for attorneys looking to fulfill mandatory CLE credits. Those
types of offerings include Lawline.com and CLEonline.com to name a few.
In addition to offering course work, CLEonline.com
invites bar associations, legal publishers and professional legal
organizations to collaborate in developing online CLE courses. Experts
said this type of partnership is likely to grow in the future. It’s not
much of a stretch to imagine online CLE providers will be developing
course work tailored to a particular law firm or other paralegal
employer in the future.
For more information about online CLE courses available
for paralegals, please see the charts
The Technical Side
While the future of online CLE for legal assistants — both
the development of course work and the evolution of the technology to
deliver it — will depend on what legal assistants want and need, for
now, online paralegal CLE requires little more than a computer, an
Internet connection and a modem. Providers of online paralegal CLE offer
easily downloadable and free software programs to access the course
work, and provider Web sites describe in detail the programs and
technical features a user must have.
NALA Campus course work, for example, requires the
student to use Netscape Navigator 4.0 or Microsoft Explorer 4.0 or
higher. A modem connection speed of at least 56k is recommended, but the
faster the better. NALA Campus audio files are in WAV format. Internet
Explorer users use Windows Media Player for the audio feature, which the
NALA Campus site offers as a free download. Netscape users can utilize
that browser’s built-in WAV files.
Several of the NALA Campus courses have supplemental
material, available in Portable Document Format, and the site provides a
free download of Adobe Acrobat Reader for those students who don’t
already have the program.
NFPA’s course work also currently requires only an
Internet connection and, for some courses, a PC with at least Windows
3.1 or Windows 95 or a Mac, and Adobe Acrobat Reader.
Most of CALE’s offerings also require computer
conferencing software, allowing a student to communicate directly with
the instructor and other students. That program is provided by CALE as
part of the course fees.
Of course, most online CLE providers describe various
discretionary customizations available to a user on their individual Web
sites — from how to experiment with slide size to how to format the
computer screen to accommodate both text and slides. The sites also
provide contact information for technical support if a user experiences
As the need for online paralegal CLE continues to
evolve and as more providers enter the field, there is little doubt
other types of online formats, such as satellite broadcast or Webcasting,
will enter the picture. Much of the CLE course work offered by the ABA,
for example, already uses the Webcast format, which is like watching TV
on the computer screen.
Learning styles are as different as hair color. So, while
online education offers marvelous opportunities, it also presents
significant challenges. Some paralegal educators say while there is
nothing precisely wrong with online or distance learning, paralegals
should use a jaundiced eye when looking for online CLE to enhance their
“I have never seen a system — and I think I have seen
most of them — where the quality of education doesn’t suffer from a lack
of classroom interaction,” said Paul Guymon, coordinator of the
paralegal program at William Rainey Harper College in Illinois, and a
former president of AAfPE. While Guymon said he believes online CLE has
a role to play as legal assistants grow in their careers, he emphasized
the importance of interpersonal communication and online course work.
Guymon noted paralegals constantly are called on to
interact with lawyers, clients, witnesses, judges and fellow legal
professionals. Law, quite simply, is a social discipline. And it’s this
reality that leads many paralegal educators to differentiate between the
continuing nature of CLE and initial paralegal training.
Hamm said he agreed, adding that online legal education
isn’t very effective for undergraduates and law school students because
it requires a foundation of specialized knowledge and skills. He
emphasized the need to distinguish between online programs for
experienced legal assistants — who presumably have already developed the
logic and skills necessary for a successful career — and programs for
those studying to become a paralegal.
Put simply, Hamm said, online education holds a certain
attraction for people, but it’s not likely to work well with
inexperienced paralegal students, and it’s not the best medium to hone
For more experienced paralegals, some online CLE
courses do have an appeal, and many have taken such courses offered by
NALA. As part of her doctoral studies, Smith Diaz reported more than
half of the site’s users have more than 10 years of experience in the
paralegal field. She reported on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being the most
satisfied), the average satisfaction rating by approximately 400
paralegals who have taken NALA Campus CLE courses is an impressive 4.25.
Guymon said the impact of distance learning goes beyond
the educational to the economic. Online CLE is affecting educational
institutions, which are finding it difficult to compete with commercial
While the advent of online CLE is too recent to have
yielded statistics reflecting the financial impact of commercial CLE
providers, which are siphoning paralegals and their dollars from
traditional educational institutions, Guymon said this is a concern.
Harper College, he noted, offers few paralegal CLE courses because
commercial CLE providers use marketing tools to entice students that
teaching institutions generally don’t.
How to Pick ‘em
Perhaps the greatest challenge presented by the growth of
online CLE is for paralegals to thoroughly investigate a provider’s
offerings. A Google search of “continuing legal education” results in
literally thousands of hits — and, with more providers seemingly jumping
into the arena every day, experts say legal assistants are well advised
to ask a lot of questions before putting their (or their employer’s)
When searching for the best online CLE courses,
paralegals should look at several key factors, such as:
- Who is controlling the quality of the CLE course work?
- Is it sponsored by a bar association or a professional
- Is the course work created in partnership with a
top-notch educational institution or legal-related association?
- Whose reputation is at stake if the instruction is
In addition, paralegals should talk to their peers,
paralegal educators and paralegal organizations for further information
And, while asking such quality-control questions might
seem like a no-brainer, it might, Guymon added, require special
initiative, especially for paralegals whose employers are encouraging
and paying for the CLE.
“Anybody can put anything they want on the Internet,”
Guymon noted, adding that legal assistants must make sure a flashy Web
site, with lots of bells and whistles, is not covering up a lack of
The Future: Regulation and
There is little doubt the main reason there are far fewer CLE
programs tailored for paralegals than for lawyers is because paralegals
(apart from on-the-job supervision by lawyers) are not yet regulated.
Without delving too far into the contentious regulation debate, it’s
nonetheless important to note if the regulation of legal assistants is
inevitable — as more than a few believe it will be — with it will come
requirements for CLE.
“It’s only a matter of time,” said Hamm, who said he
believes the regulation of paralegals is a mere five and certainly no
more than 10 years away. “Regulation is going to come on a
state-by-state basis, and with that will come mandatory CLE for
Hamm said the driving force behind the inevitable
regulation of the paralegal profession (hence, mandatory CLE) is
consumer protection. The demand for affordable legal services, he said,
is bound to lead to instances of the unauthorized practice of law. “Once
people get burned, and they will, you will see regulation,” he added.
Currently, California is the only state requiring the
certification of paralegals, although the program is overseen by the
paralegals’ supervising attorneys, not by a regulatory body. California
requires four hours of CLE in legal ethics every three years, and four
hours of general or specialized law every two years for paralegals to
In Florida and Louisiana, the state paralegal
organizations oversee a certification program, and many experts believe,
whether the move is toward voluntary certification or mandatory
licensure, other states will not be very far behind.
Some associations have CLE requirements as well. NFPA
requires 12 CLE credits, including one in ethics, within two years of
passing the PACE exam to maintain the PACE credential, RP. The same
requirement for CLE credits is required every two years thereafter.
Likewise, NALA’s CLA credential is valid for a period of five years. To
maintain the CLA credential, paralegals must submit proof of
participation in 50 hours of qualified CLE programs for each five-year
Of course, as in any profession, what the market
demands — both the employment market and the market of legal-services
consumers — will be key to the growth of paralegal CLE. And, while there
is little evidence paralegal employers are requiring CLE as a condition
for promotion, that too, could become a factor if the legal assistant
field becomes regulated.
Meanwhile, despite the debate over the need for, or the
inevitability of, paralegal licensure or certification, no one disputes
that CLE is important to the legal assistant profession as a whole.
Employers know they have to keep their paralegals up to
speed on changing laws, rules and practice skills. It’s important for
law firms, in-house law departments and public agencies to have the
best-educated workforce to provide quality legal services. In fact, one
confirmation of this is the registration fees for a majority of
paralegals who have taken NALA Campus CLE courses have been paid for by
the employer, according to Dover.
Ultimately, of course, legal assistants are responsible
for their own education and career growth. Experienced paralegals know
they must be engaged in ongoing education and training to present the
best credentials to current and prospective employers. As Dover said:
“The tradition in all professions is for professionals to be involved in
continuing and improving.”