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A Proper Warm-Up
Be sure your new job will provide the training you need to succeed.
By Susan Howery

January/February 2000 Issue

As an educator, I would never undervalue the importance of formal education in preparing for a career as a paralegal. But let’s face it — even a great paralegal program can’t possibly train you for everything you need to know, nor can it anticipate the idiosyncrasies of every law firm, agency or corporation for which you will work. As a new paralegal employee, you must learn and adapt to the style, politics and specialization of your particular firm. Therefore, just as education is important in becoming a paralegal, so is on-the-job training. The question is, will you get the training you need?

The Past
Thirty years ago, lawyers began hiring paralegals to ease their loads and make money for their firms. Many of the first positions resembled document and case managers. Paralegals Bates-stamped, indexed and organized large files and discovery requests. They counted, collated and summarized. They created and managed demonstrative evidence. Rarely were they asked to draft a brief or interview a witness.

The first positions were typically in urban offices laden with large document cases. The lawyers’ advertisements for assistance with these cases sought individuals with a four-year degree. They didn’t request paralegal training, education or experience. Sybil Taylor Aytch, RP, a paralegal with the Phoenix-based Weinberger Law Firm, remembers her first position:

“I was hired straight out of college by a mid-sized Manhattan law firm, which provided a three-month, in-house training program for new paralegals. My second week at the firm, I was placed on a trial under the direct supervision of a senior associate. Throughout the three-month training period, we had weekly assignments to complete, and at the end of the three months, we were tested on our knowledge of all materials. Those who did not make ‘the grade’ were weeded out.”

Sybil’s experience mirrors the attitude of the past: We will train. Lawyers didn’t require job candidates to have paralegal education or training because there weren’t many paralegal programs out there, and because of the prevailing attitude that the firms could do a better job training the new employees.

The Present
Paralegal education programs have now become commonplace, and law firms’ hiring expectations have changed. Many employers now require that candidates not only have earned a degree, but that they have graduated from an American Bar Association (ABA) -approved paralegal program, have also passed either the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) exam or the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) and have some experience. Some law firms no longer expect to provide in-house training. One of my interning students called me with a horror story: On the first day of her internship, she arrived to find her desk covered with stacks of work and the supervising lawyer out of town for the week.

Many practicing paralegals would probably say that in-house training is still important, though. Pat Elliott, CLAS, first vice president of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), is currently employed by the Phoenix law firm of Lewis and Roca. Although there wasn’t a formal training program previously at Lewis and Roca, they did provide some mentoring. The firm has recently created the position of “paralegal coordinator,” who will be responsible for revamping the in-house training program offered at the firm. Like many firms, Lewis and Roca expects to hire individuals with education and experience. But as Elliot said, “education is important, and continuing education is important, and credentials are important, but [just] as important is the training which should be provided inhouse in the specialty practice areas of the firm.”

If you’re a student reading this column, don’t panic yet. If you’re like most students, you’ll feel very nervous and unprepared when you finish your program. You actually know more than you think, and it won’t be as difficult as you envision. Most paralegal programs train you to think critically, rather than to remember it all, which is impossible. Critical thinking will take you far in the legal profession. However, your generalized training won’t sufficiently prepare you for the specifics of the practice areas for which you’ll be hired. Fortunately, there are still many firms out there that are willing to provide in-house training.

Researching Training Programs
One of the things you should do prior to accepting any position is to ask detailed questions about the practice and what type of training you’ll receive. For example, you could ask the following questions:

  • What type of in-house training do you provide?
  • Is training provided for the software utilized by the firm?
  • Are paralegals in this firm expected to continue their legal education? If so, does the firm provide funding for seminars, conferences or other training?
  • If I attend seminars, conferences or receive in-house training, will that time be credited to my annual billable hours requirement (if applicable)?
  • Will the firm reimburse me for classes at a local college or university paralegal program that would add to my current knowledge of the firm’s practice areas?
  • Does the firm expect me to take the CLA or PACE exams? If so, will the firm pay the application fee and the fee for the review courses?

If the firm to which you’re applying doesn’t offer any in-house training or funding for continuing legal education, you might want to think twice about taking that job. You may also find that sole practitioners don’t always have the budget to pay for continuing legal education and training, but the position may be an excellent one for you. If that’s the case, consider checking with your local organizations and paralegal and bar associations for free or inexpensive seminars you can attend.

You can also apply for scholarships to take classes at the community college in your area. Subscribe (or ask the attorney to subscribe) to the best of the state legal periodicals, or check out the local college’s library. Involve your employers in your quest for knowledge and training, and keep them informed of your activities. They may end up picking up the tab.

Much education and knowledge is required of paralegals about their practice areas, new technology, ethical dilemmas and law office management. Continuous training and learning is absolutely critical to serving clients competently. Although some firms may expect you to hit the ground running without a proper warm-up, hopefully they’ll help keep you in shape for the long run in your new career.

Susan Howery is the Paralegal Program Coordinator for Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz. She held the same position at Davenport College in Kalamazoo, Mich. for several years. Howery also taught in both programs. She initiated and advised two student paralegal associations, and has been active in the state and local paralegal associations. Howery is currently the American Association for Paralegal Education board of directors representative for Associate Degree Programs. She was the legislative chair of AAfPE and the 1998 Annual Conference co-host. She also hosted the 1996 Regional AAfPE conference for the Pacific Region in Phoenix.

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