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All That You Need to Know Regarding Paralegal Training Programs

published January 24, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing

( 173 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)

What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
In just over a dozen years, the number of paralegal programs has grown from almost none to over 350. There are paralegal programs offered in almost every community in the country, and there are many different types of programs, from generalist programs to special ones, such as one which trains people to handle the special legal problems of Native Americans. As the growth in such programs indicate, they are meeting important training needs-both for people entering the field and for employers seeking skilled assistants to help provide high quality, low-cost legal services.

In considering the paralegal field, one important question you'll raise is "Should I enroll in a paralegal training program?" In thinking about a program, you'll want to know what kinds of programs there are; which school you should choose; what course of study you should take; and if you'll be more likely to get a job when you graduate.

Should You Go to Paralegal School?

Answer to this question really depends upon the individual — who you are, your work and experience history, why you want to become a paralegal, the kind of employer for whom you wish to work, the area of paralegal work that interests you and your financial situation.

"Is a paralegal degree necessary?" and "Is one helpful?" There are two important estimates which indicate the impact of paralegal programs: the first is the percentage of working paralegals who have gone through a program, and the second is the percentage of training course graduates who get jobs upon completion. While there are no reliable overall statistics, it is estimated that about one-half of the paralegals working in the field have not taken a paralegal course. However, probably more than half the graduates of paralegal programs get jobs within three to six months of graduation, and at the more well-known schools, as many as 85% to 90% of the graduates quickly obtain paralegal positions. These two estimates tell the story generally. It's not necessary to get a degree or certificate in paralegal studies to get a paralegal position: but if you do, you'll be more likely to find a job sooner.

However, while there are some situations for which it is clearly recommended that you obtain a certificate in paralegal studies, there are some other situations for which it isn't necessary, and there are many cases where the decision could go either way. Below we'll discuss the most common situations.

Employers Requiring Paralegal Training

Corporations, government agencies and some law firms often require both a paralegal certificate and a B.A. as entry- level requirements. If you are thinking about work at these types of law offices, a paralegal course may be a good idea. Many such employers requiring completion of a paralegal studies program for entry-level positions will waive these requirements for paralegals with previous experience. So if you can get the experience first, you can often move into such organizations as your second or third position in the field.

Legal Secretaries, Returnees, Retirees, Career Changers

If you're thinking about moving into the paralegal field from another career or after a long absence from the field, give serious consideration to a paralegal course-especially if you're now a returnee, retiree or legal secretary. A course will certainly enhance your qualifications, give you an over view of the field and help convince a prospective employer that you're both serious about a paralegal job and qualified to be a paralegal.

Recent Graduates With Good Grades, Future Lawyers, Etc.

If you are recently graduated from college and have very good grades, your chances of finding a position in a law firm or corporation are good-without paralegal training. If you have difficulty job hunting, you can always take a paralegal course later.

What are "good" grades? Unquestionably, straight As are good. So are academic honors like cum laude. How about a B average? This too is probably sufficient, but less so. The reputation of the college you attend and the competition for jobs also factors. The less outstanding your academic record, the more helpful a course will be.

If you wish to pursue a specialty like trusts and estates and have good grades, you may not really need a paralegal certificate to get a job, but with the certificate job offers may be more plentiful and you might also be a better paralegal. If you are planning to use your paralegal experience as a basis for applying to law or business school, we suggest not going to paralegal school before looking for a job.

If you don't have a college degree, go to paralegal school!

Other Considerations

There are other important reasons to consider paralegal training, especially if you want to make a career in the field. One widely held view is that paralegals who have formal training will do a better job and get better work. Janet Kaiser, director of the UCLA Extension's Attorney Assistant Training Program, is outspoken in her recommendation for formal training: "At this point," she says, "no one should be working as a paralegal without training. A paralegal must understand the abstractions of the law, and the decision-making process behind strategy and procedure. Without paralegal training, you can't see the big picture, and you'll end up doing the boring work."

Most paralegal training programs fall into one of two groups. The first group is made up of those "lawyers' assistant" pro grams which train paralegals as generalists in the standard legal specialties, such as trusts and estates, or litigation. Most graduates from these programs go on to work in law firms, corporations and government agencies. Many also work in public service areas.

The second group is made up of the many very specialized programs, concerning such areas as prisoners' rights, legal problems of the aged, and the rights of Native Americans. Paralegals, who go through these specialized programs, may already have experience in the field and may already have a certificate from another standard program.

Most standard paralegal programs fall into five categories:

1. Junior and community college programs

These programs, generally two years long, accept high school graduates. The student usually takes a number of general liberal arts classes, as well as specialized courses in paralegal work, and receives an A. A. degree in legal studies. Both public and private colleges offer these programs, and the tuition can range from a nominal amount to more than $2000 per year.

2. Four year college programs

Similar to the junior college courses, but of longer duration, these programs grant a B.A. degree in paralegal or legal studies. Some offer specialties in different legal areas. Again, the student will take a general college curriculum, as well as classes in his or her major. Admission is open to qualified high school graduates, and tuition varies widely, depending on whether it's a public or a private school.

3. Graduate programs

Few in number, these programs offer a master's degree in legal studies. The programs are offered by universities and only accept college graduates.

4. Certificate programs

These programs are offered by both universities and private paralegal training institutes. Typically, they are short term- three or four months in length-and quite intensive. Students are expected to attend about twenty hours of class per week, and to spend a substantial amount of time on outside assignments and studying. Most schools offer both a generalist program, and specialty programs in such areas as litigation, real estate, wills, trusts and estates, and corporations. Many schools accept only qualified college graduates. At other schools, non-graduates may attend if they have completed some college and have had legal-related experience. All the programs researched offer a certificate upon satisfactory completion. Tuition varies, but one can expect to pay up to $2000.

5. Evening and Continuing Education Programs

Some universities and institutes which offer a full-time pro gram during the day also offer evening programs for students who work. Usually they cover the same material, but classes meet less frequently and the program stretches over a longer period of time. Other schools only offer part-time evening programs, through their continuing education departments. Admission requirements vary, but most require either a B.A. degree, or some college work and legal experience.

How to Choose a Paralegal School

Once you have decided to attend a paralegal program you're faced with the question of which program. At last count, there were some 350 private schools, colleges and universities offering some sort of paralegal training. How do you know which is right for you? There are a number of factors to consider, but a few are most important:
 
  1. Program quality and reputation
  2. Curriculum
  3. Placement record and employment assistance.

Quality and Reputation

Your first step in choosing a paralegal program should be to evaluate its quality and reputation. From the list of paralegal training programs that follow, choose a few that interest you. Write away for their catalogs, and study them carefully. But don't limit your investigation to reading brochures. Al ways visit a school before registering for a program. Reputable programs will encourage you to interview with them. In fact, any school that doesn't want visitors, is one in which you should be wary. Take a look around. What are the facilities like? Is the classroom space adequate? Paralegal students spend a great deal of time in the library. Is the library in good condition? Is it well stocked with legal texts and casebooks, and does it have a librarian there to assist?

The Faculty

A school with fine facilities could still offer a poor education, if it doesn't have an equally fine faculty. Who's teaching at the schools you're considering? Most good schools have courses taught by practicing attorneys and paralegals. Although at first glance, having an adjunct faculty, of people who have full-time practices as well as teaching commitments, might seem a drawback, it's regarded as an asset. A practicing attorney or paralegal will be more in touch with the reality of legal practice than a full-time professor who spends his or her time in the classroom. After all, you are not going to paralegal school to become a legal scholar; you're going to learn the practical aspects of legal work.

Experience and Reputation

In selecting a paralegal program, experience counts for a lot. In the past ten years, hundreds of paralegal programs have opened, and there's unevenness in quality. While length of a program alone doesn't assure a quality education, the duration of the offering usually indicates that students think enough of it to enroll each year.

Talk, also, to lawyers and paralegals in the community where you'd like to work. Ask them what they think of the program you're considering, and if they'd hire, or do hire, its graduates. Join a paralegal association. No one knows more about the kind of training a paralegal needs than people actually working in law firms or corporate legal departments.

Curriculum

Study the curriculum of the school you're considering. Many programs offer both specialty and generalist courses. It's important that the school you're considering offers a program in your field of interest. If you know, for example, that you want to work for a real estate company, it may be unwise to attend a school that's not strong in that area.

Choosing Your Training Program

Let's say you are considering three-month intensive pro- grams, two-year associate degree programs, and four-year legal studies curriculums. How do you choose which is best? Although excellent programs are offered in both, opportunities are greatest for college graduates. Most people in the field agree that the trend, especially in large cities, is to hire college graduates for paralegal positions. And even if you are hired without a college education, chances are that you won't be assigned work that is as responsible or challenging as it could be if you had a college degree. A major law firm might hire a junior college graduate to be a document clerk, but it will leave the legal research and client contact to people with B.A. s and/or paralegal certificates. There are, of course, exceptions. Paralegals who seek work in smaller towns and suburbs, or who have had extensive experience, perhaps as legal secretaries, might find rewarding jobs without college diplomas. But increasingly, that's becoming the exception and not the rule.

Whichever type of paralegal program you choose, consider carefully the placement record of the institution. That doesn't mean you should rule out new programs; they might be excellent, though they haven't been around long enough to com pile placement statistics. But if a school refuses to disclose its placement information, offers limited employment assistance, and won't give you the names of its graduates to con tact, you might cross it off your list. No school can guarantee you a job, but the best schools have excellent placement records and offer you professional employment assistance.

Geographical location also plays a part in the placement process. Although there are paralegal schools that recruit and place students nationwide, most find jobs for the majority of their graduates in their city or state. Especially if you are considering a small or newly established program, decide first if you'd like to live where that school is located. Be careful when applying to little known programs in isolated, rural areas. In some cases, there simply aren't enough lawyers around to offer jobs to the graduates.

Tuition and Internships

Cost is often a vital factor in considering paralegal education. In some respects, community colleges and state universities have the edge, since they offer a paralegal education at a relatively low cost. But don't rule out a private school solely because of the tuition. A training program that offers quality courses and excellent job opportunities might be worth the investment. And don't overlook the numerous scholar ship, tuition assistance and work-study programs available. The school you are considering should be able to supply you with information about these.

And consider, also, whether a paralegal school offers an internship program. This is especially important for students at two-year programs, where practical experience can compensate for the lack of a B.A. degree. Also, an internship can often lead to a paid position after graduation. But don't rule out a program just because it doesn't offer an internship program, as is the case with some intensive courses.

Choosing Your Courses

The first step in selecting the course of study best for you is to decide where you want to work (both location and type of law office) and the field that best fits your background and career goals.

Generally speaking, your choice will be between a generalist program, a litigation program, and one of the standard specialties, such as corporate, trusts and estates, or ERISA. The course of study you pursue will also affect or be affected by your choice of school. Talk to others in the specialty areas. Remember, the course of study you pursue may determine the area of specialty you pursue and the rest of your career in the field. The most important decision you need to make is whether you have an interest in a specific field. If you do, try to take a course in it.

Generalist Programs

Generalist courses cover a little bit in almost every field. This type of course can be a great way for you to learn more about the entire paralegal field if you're uncertain about which area you'd like to specialize in.

The primary purpose of many generalist programs is to prepare paralegals for work in "general practice" law offices. Attorneys who work as general practice lawyers handle all kinds of legal work-matrimonial, property, personal injury litigation, and sometimes corporate work. These lawyers need generalist legal assistants and often work in smaller law firms in large cities or in smaller towns, suburbs and rural areas. Lawyers working in law offices with more than five lawyers usually begin to specialize. These professionals often seek paralegals with specialty training.

There are a number of schools which only have generalist programs. Their graduates go on to work in every different specialty. Should you take a generalist course if you're planning to enter a narrow specialty?

All things being equal, you should take a specialized course rather than a generalist course if you know the area in which you want to work. But before you select the course, consider the school offering the generalist program. Evaluate its reputation against other schools. Study its placement record and talk to recent graduates. Find out how easy it will be to enter different specialties. You may find, given the school’s reputation that a generalist course is good training for a job in almost any specialty area that employers are looking for paralegal graduates from that school without preference for narrower training.

Specialty Programs

Litigation

If you choose litigation, you'll have a lot of company. As many as 70% of the paralegals today work in litigation. Most paralegals choose litigation for two reasons: it's the field where most of the jobs are, and it's the field that first comes to mind when one thinks about law. If you are considering litigation, conduct your own investigation-and talk to paralegals in the field.
Many paralegals working in litigation start as paralegals after graduating from college, without taking a paralegal course first. If you're thinking about litigation, check to see whether it would be helpful for you to enter the field by taking a course.

Trusts and Estates

Many courses are offered in such narrow specialties as corporate. Blue Sky, real estate, trusts and estates and ERISA. These courses tend to be practical and filled with specific activities you'll be performing on a day-to-day basis. The work environment for paralegals who've graduated from such courses and who go on to work in these specialties is generally less personal and more technical.

Opportunities and salaries are good for experienced paralegals in every specialty. For entry-level people, however, the opportunities fluctuate according to the marketplace and the political and economic situation. For example, paralegals who specialize in administrative law often find work in government agencies. Promotion can be rapid, and the work challenging. But at present, there's a hiring freeze, and no one can be sure how long it will last. On the other hand, the trend over the last few decades has been toward greater government activity in the marketplace. So there will probably be a continuing demand for administrative law paralegals, both in government agencies, and in private firms and corporations affected by government decisions.

Earning Potential

It's hard to generalize about salaries for different special- ties since they can vary so widely. As a rule, however, litigation paralegals tend to begin at a lower starting salary than tax, corporate or real estate people. But that's no reason to choose one of the latter specialties over others because with experience salaries level out. In an interesting study done by the San Francisco Association of Legal Assistants, salaries in that city were surveyed, according to specialty. It was found that entry-level probate paralegals had the highest salaries, followed by real estate, corporate, and litigation specialists, respectively. But for paralegals who'd been working for one to ten years, results were very different. For those paralegals, the maximum salaries were earned by litigation specialists, followed by corporate, probate and real estate paralegals. If you intend to work for a large law firm in a major city, it may be best to pick a specialty rather than a generalist program. Which specialty you choose is a personal consideration, based upon your interests, the kind of work you want to do and the environments you prefer.

Accreditation, Certification, and ABA Approval

There s one criterion that we haven't discussed yet in evaluating paralegal programs: American Bar Association approval The entire question of approval and accreditation of paralegal programs is a controversial issue, and it is one that deserves some examination.

Many people in the paralegal profession think it's possible that there will be a uniform certification or credential system somewhere down the road. In the meantime, the American Bar Association has taken responsibility for evaluating paralegal training programs-not individual paralegals, it must be added, but only paralegal education.

In the future we may see some kind of state licensing or national examination for paralegals. In the meantime, there are no exact standards for paralegal competence, or paralegal training. You'll have to be your own best judge!
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