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Making the Most of Your Paralegal Training Program

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An internship is a temporary job, arranged through your paralegal program, for which you receive either academic credit or pay or both. Claire Andrews notes, "It's really important to me that the students do get out there, whether it's through a part-time job or through the internship, to get the practical experience. Otherwise, waving that certificate means nothing."
Internships can provide you with the single most valuable part of your legal assistant education. They allow you to leave the rarified halls of an educational institution to see what the real world is like. If you are interested in specializing in a particular area of the law, an internship provides an invaluable education.

One thing you should be prepared for, however, is the possibility that you won't like an area of the law as much as you thought you might. In my opinion, this doesn't make an internship any less valuable; indeed, it's better to "waste" a semester at a job you don't like than spend several years at it.

Before you choose an internship, however, you will take many classes and exams. Keep yourself open, as you take your substantive law classes, to the possibility of being surprised. You may never dream that criminal law or real estate law will interest you. Once you study them, however, you may find them fascinating.

Getting the Most Out of Your Paralegal Classes

The law is a discipline in which concepts build on one another. For this reason, the law lends itself well to an outline style of notetaking. For example, your notes from an evidence or trial practice course lecture on admitting evidence at trial might look like this:
  1. Admitting Evidence
  • Only if Relevant-if it tends to make a fact more or less likely than without it
  • FRE 401-all rel. ev. Admitted
  • All rel. ev. must be:
  • Probative-relationship between ev. and fact
  • Material-link between fact and sub. law
  • May be excluded if prob. value is outweighed by danger of:
  • a) unfair prejudice-HOW DECIDE??
  • b) confusion of issues
  • c) misleading jury
  • d) delay, waste of time or needless (because cumulative)
  1. Direct v. circumstantial ev.

If you haven't had much experience with outline formats, the table of contents of your textbook can be an effective starting point. Notice that this student has made use of abbreviations to make notetaking go faster. Students in this course have already been introduced to the Federal Rules of Evidence, which is abbreviated FRE (line LA.l.)-

Also, this student has developed a habit of abbreviating repeated concepts rather than writing them out each time. So the word relevant becomes "rel." and the word evidence becomes "ev." "Sub. Law" (line I.A.2.b.) is substantive law, a concept that repeats in several classes. Some of these abbreviations you will come up with on your own; some have become standard in the law.
  • K = contract
  • A = defendant
  • ri -plaintiff
  • V. = versus, as in Brown v. Board of Education. Also, lawyers usually say V rather than
  • "versus."
  • e.g. - for example
  • i.e. - that is
  • /. = therefore
  • Most compilations of laws and cases are referred to in some abbreviated fashion, such
  • as;
  • FRE = Federal Rules of Evidence
  • CFR = Code of Federal Regulations
Notice that this student also made a note to find out more about LA.3.a., unfair prejudice. This concept was not entirely clear to the student, and this note serves as a reminder to investigate further.

I was a great fan of colored highlighters in law school. I had different colors for the plaintiff, the defendant, and the judge, state law versus federal law, and the new rules versus the old. Remember, the reason you are taking notes is to give yourself a concise and clear summary of each class session.

Whatever method makes it most clear for you is a good method. Because learning the law involves building concepts one on another, it is important to attend class regularly. It is also vital to be prepared, but if for some reason you are unable to prepare, don't use that as an excuse not to attend class.

You need to do both, but one is better than neither. Each instructor conducts class differently, but to the extent that it is appropriate, I urge you to participate in class. It is also helpful to briefly read over your notes as soon after class as possible, so you can make sure you understand everything you've written.

Preparing for Exams

Begin preparing for an exam by reading over your notes. Look for any areas that you indicated you didn't understand at the time, and make sure you understand them now. If you don t, talk to your instructor or do some extra reading until the concept is clear. Then try making an outline of the class. If you are an outlining expert, you've essentially done this-ail you have to do is put each day's notes in order. But if, like most of us, your notes are a little sloppier, you might want to start fresh in creating an outline. (This can provide some extra computer practice!)

Sometime when you're in a bookstore, take a look at Emanuel Law Outlines or Smith's Review or the Black Letter Law Series. These are commercial study aids for law students-don't be alarmed to discover they're several hundred pages long-but they will give you an idea of what an outline for an entire course looks like. (Law students' textbooks are quite different from most paralegal texts; it probably would be a waste of money for you to purchase any of these books.)

Most important, the evening before the exam, relax, eat a good dinner, and get a good night's sleep. In the morning, eat a good breakfast (and lunch, if it's an afternoon test). Try to take a walk or get some other light exercise, if you have time before the exam. Most of all, stay calm and have faith in yourself and your abilities.

Networking with Students and Instructors

Part of making the most of your training is taking advantage of the interesting people who are sitting next to you in class and who are teaching your classes. These people all have experiences and knowledge that can be a benefit to you. You can help each other by studying together and sharing informal information (sometimes called gossip) that is part of every educational experience. You can also share all the latest lawyer jokes. And after graduation, these are the people who will help you get your first job and keep you sane in the workplace.

If the program you're in offers social events, take advantage of them as often as you can. If the events offered don't appeal to you, suggest others. Or arrange something on your own. When I was in law school, the big social event every week was "law night" at a local bar. As I was in my mid-thirties, this wasn't very interesting to me. So a friend and I founded a nontraditional-age students' organization. We had a potluck once a month, which was held at an hour we were more comfortable with and allowed us to include our families. Some of the students who participated are still my closest friends.
Finally, make it a point early in your academic career to get to know the folks in your counseling and placement offices. These people know the answers to almost all your questions, and they are an invaluable resource.

Your paralegal education is the first, essential step on the road to becoming a paralegal. But don't view it simply as something to get through, as an ordeal you must overcome before you can begin work and start your real life. School is the time to learn as much about the profession and yourself as you possibly can. Along the way, you will make friends and contacts-sometimes they'll be the same person-who will be equally valuable to you as you finish school and embark on your career.

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