Playing It Smart
Make an informed choice about your paralegal
By Celia C. Elwell, RP
March/April 2001 Issue
As more state legislatures, bar associations and paralegal associations
look for ways to define a paralegal and decide what qualifies someone to be a paralegal,
education is one of the major elements considered.
Therefore, choosing a legal assistant program isn’t
a decision to be made lightly. A diploma from a fly-by-night paralegal program simply
isn’t going to cut it.
Too often, people choose a paralegal program based solely
on one factor, such as cost or the short length of the program. Regrettably, some are
persuaded by television and print advertisements from schools that offer a diploma in
everything from paralegal studies to welding. I hope to convince you there are many
important issues to consider before choosing the paralegal school that is right for you.
It isn’t a decision that should be made by looking only at brochures or Web sites,
either. I recommend you put time and effort into investigating your options. In any
situation, knowledge is power. It makes sense to make an informed choice about your
Paralegal programs come in different shapes and sizes
— certificate programs, two-year associate degree programs, four-year bachelor degree
programs and diploma programs. I have divided paralegal schools into three rough
categories for further review: American Bar Association (ABA)-approved programs, programs
in ABA compliance and proprietary schools.
ABA-approved programs must adhere to certain qualifications and
requirements to maintain ABA approval. All ABA-approved schools are re-evaluated on a
regular basis to maintain the school’s quality.
To obtain ABA approval, the paralegal school must (1) be
post-secondary (college) level of instruction; (2) require at least 60 semester hours,
including general education and legal specialty courses; and (3) be properly accredited.
Other standards have included on-site requirements such as an adequate law library.
The ABA’s standards and its publications, including
its definition of a legal assistant, are available on the organization’s Web site,
Programs in ABA Compliance
The second category is schools which, although they have not obtained
ABA-approval, are in substantial compliance with ABA guidelines. Substantial compliance is
To me, it means the paralegal program already complies
with ABA guidelines but, for whatever reason, has chosen not to seek ABA approval. In
other words, if the school applied for ABA approval, it would pass.
Some proprietary schools are ABA-approved; others are not. Proprietary
schools that are not ABA-approved should be properly accredited.
Proprietary schools tend to make me jumpy because their
standards are not consistent from school to school. Therefore, you should conduct a more
in-depth investigation using the suggestions below before signing up.
Distance learning programs are also proprietary schools.
Two types of distance learning include online classes and correspondence courses. In most
online classes, the student and professor communicate in what is known as real-time.
Real-time means there is no lag from when one person types or speaks until a message is
received. A distance learning program should also be properly accredited.
When checking out a distance education program, be sure
you will have real-time access to your instructor. Make sure your instructor will be
available at convenient times to answer questions and give help when needed. You should
also have access to other students. If these things are not available, keep looking. Since
distance learning depends on the Internet, you will need a computer that has adequate
power, memory and Internet access.
With correspondence schools (I would advise against
enrolling in such schools), the teacher sends material to the student, the student does
the work, and then sends the material back to the teacher. Quality distance learning
programs don’t work that way. There should be quality interaction between student and
instructor, and the student should have Internet access to other students in his or her
Choosing the Right School
First, locate your local or national paralegal associations.
There are two major national paralegal associations: the
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal
Visit each organization’s site and click on
membership information. Each paralegal organization has affiliates across the country, so
you should have no problem locating the association affiliates closest to you.
Talk with the president and members of your preferred
association. Ask for their advice as to which paralegal school(s) in the area they
recommend and why. What are the preferred qualifications by paralegal employers in your
area? Pick their brains. Bond with these people. Find out what it takes to join as a
student member. These professionals may become your mentors, friends and peers.
Second, gather all the information you can about
paralegal education options. Today, the paralegal profession and employers stress having
more education, not less. To many, this means graduation from a quality paralegal program
plus obtaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Many paralegal programs have
articulation agreements with two-year and four-year colleges and universities for this
Fortunately, there are abundant sources on paralegal
education and the profession. At their respective Web sites, both NFPA (www.paralegals.org) and NALA (www.nala.org) have articles about what a
paralegal is and how to choose a paralegal school. Also, the ABA (www.abanet.org) and the American
Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) (www.aafpe.org) have similar articles and information. Gather
information at each source.
Compare the Schools
Your local paralegal association contacts will provide you with names of
reputable paralegal schools in your area. To be more thorough, use AAfPE’s Web site
to find paralegal programs that are AAfPE members. (AAfPE member schools are generally
ABA-approved.) I advise against “missile-locking” on the first school you visit
and ignoring the other possibilities. Gather information from all likely prospects. Tour
the schools; talk to the director, faculty and students if you can. Then sit down with all
the information you have gathered and do a comparison. Don’t base your decision
solely on costs.
More Warning Signs
Does the school insist you sign a contract or note binding you to pay for
the entire program, regardless of whether you finish or before you can graduate? If so,
walk away. Most schools, just like state universities and colleges, allow you to pay as
you go. You may decide at some point that the paralegal profession isn’t for you.
Make sure you can walk away without paying for the remaining cost of the program because
you signed a contract or a student loan for the entire amount. If anyone at the school
pressures you to sign such a contract or student loan, my recommendation is to get out of
The ABA guidelines require paralegal applicants be high school graduates
or have successfully completed the GED, together with other criteria used for selecting
students whose success as a paralegal can be reasonably inferred. Many ABA-approved
schools use a student’s SAT or ACT score to meet the probability of success
requirement. You are seeking an education to join a profession, not a trade. Programs with
low entrance criteria should raise a red flag. Also, make sure the school requires general
education courses. Remember, the preference is more education, not less.
ABA-approved programs take about two years to complete
the required 60 semester hours. Many four-year baccalaureate paralegal programs also have
ABA approval. But, what if the school is not ABA approved? Programs that are in
substantial compliance with ABA requirements will likely have about 60 semester hours in
accordance with ABA guidelines. If the school doesn’t provide a degree upon
completion, be sure to find out what kind of articulation agreement the program has with
the local two-year or four-year colleges. Obviously, courses from diploma schools will not
likely transfer to post-secondary schools.
Pay attention to the program’s length. Some
paralegal schools last only six weeks, some just six months, or some are a year or more.
To determine whether a shorter program is for you, do a comparison of curriculum, etc.,
with schools of longer length. This should help you decide whether you will receive a
quality education. Does the school require general education courses? What do you get when
you graduate? Who teaches the courses? What kind of success rate does the school have in
finding jobs for its graduates? What do local paralegals and employers have to say about
What You Should Learn
Paralegal education is different from what is taught at law school. Law
students are taught predominantly legal theory; paralegal students are taught a
combination of legal theory and practical skills — what I like to call the nuts and
bolts. For example, you should not only learn civil procedure, but also be taught how to
draft the pleadings, summons, subpoenas, motions, etc.
Avoid paralegal schools that overemphasize clerical
skills. Almost all paralegals and attorneys now have a computer on their desks. So
naturally, computer skills are a must. Look for schools that teach computer science, word
processing or other types of software, such as PowerPoint, Corel Presentation and
litigation support software. Question an overemphasis in time-keeping and accounting
software and basic typing skills because those skills are more clerical in nature. Also
avoid schools that teach you legal writing by having you fill in blanks in boilerplate
Any paralegal instructor should have proper credentials, but there are
different theories as to what those credentials should be.
I personally would want an instructor who has experience
working with paralegals. Is the instructor capable of teaching me what I need to know to
work as a paralegal in a specific area of the law? Has the instructor actually worked in
this area, or is he or she just going by what was learned in law school or paralegal
Attorneys, paralegals and other people who are experts in
their areas should teach legal assistant classes. Look out for an instructor who teaches
classes on a subject without expertise in it. Look for instructors who know where the
rubber meets the road.
A poor paralegal education will be a major roadblock to
success in a paralegal career. Programs that look like a quick fix are often anything but.
The more education you have, the better off you will be. Educate yourself before choosing
a paralegal school to attend. Never forget that knowledge is power. Play it smart!