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All That You Want To Know About Paralegal Training Programs

published January 29, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
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( 6 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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Thirty years ago, there was really only one way to receive paralegal training: on the job. Some paralegals began as legal secretaries and gradually took on more and more responsibility; others had bachelor's degrees and actually were hired as paralegal trainees.

Should You Enroll in a Training Program?


Most people interested in becoming paralegals will need some kind of formal training. If you have a bachelor's degree, it is possible for you to get a job as a paralegal without any further training; this will depend a great deal on the market in your area. If most of your job rivals have some kind of specialized training, you will find it difficult to compete with, for example, only a liberal arts degree. Certainly, your situation-because of classes you took or assistantships you held while in college, or even work outside of college-may make you very competitive.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) estimates that 85 percent of legal assistants receive some type of specialized paralegal training. In addition, even if you find an opportunity for on-the-job training, that can be a lonely and limiting way to receive your training. As Audrey Casey, a former paralegal, noted, "I wish I'd had that opportunity [specialized training] because ifs much more isolated and difficult, doing it on your own." So in most cases, your first step toward becoming a paralegal should be choosing the institution you want to attend to receive your training.

Types of Training Programs

There is such a variety of training programs available in the paralegal field that it is tempting to lay down some hard-and-fast rules you can use to help you make your choice. Unfortunately, that method ignores the fact that there are many kinds of training programs partly because the market for paralegals varies greatly from place to place. The key is finding out the norm in the market in which you plan to work.

Certificate Programs

Among all the choices of programs, there is the greatest variety within certificate programs. Many times, these programs are offered by proprietary colleges-that is, they are private, for-profit institutions. Some of these schools are called, or, used to be called, business schools. In most cases, the length of these certificate programs range from 3 to 24 months. These programs may only require a high school diploma for admission; however, many certificate programs are intended for students who already have an associate or bachelor's degree. In some cases, students who have significant exposure to the law, such as working as a clerk or secretary in a law office, may attend a certificate program even without a degree.
Another type of certificate program is the post-bachelor's certificate, offered at a four-year college or university. These certificates are offered by the continuing education or extension divisions. The courses may or may not bestow college credits and are intended for someone who has completed a bachelor's degree and needs only paralegal-specific training. Many of these programs can be completed in a year or less.

Associate Degree Programs

The associate degree is received after a student completes a two-year program at a community college, proprietary college, or a few four-year colleges and universities. One-quarter to one-half of the classes are law courses, and the remainder are general education classes in, among others, English, math, science, and the humanities. Most students will have the opportunity to choose as many as two classes per semester; most of the curriculum is predetermined, however.

Advice on Applying to a Paralegal Program

Bachelor's Degree Programs

Bachelor s degrees are conferred by four-year colleges and universities. A student is expected to complete about 120 semester hours of work; from 18 to 45 of those hours will be in paralegal studies, depending on whether the program is a major or a minor in paralegal studies. A bachelor s program usually combines general education, business, and legal courses. If you are just finishing high school, a four-year liberal arts program allows you time to mature and provides skills that are necessary for the workplace. However, for some people, four years is simply too great an investment in time and money. If that describes you, it might still benefit you to get some information on any four-year programs in your area. In the long run, the more education you acquire, the greater your chance for career advancement will be. Even if you start out with an associate degree, you may some day decide to go on for your bachelor's. Often the credits you received during your associate program may be transferred to a bachelor’s.

Master's Degree Programs

Master's degree programs are not the same as post-bachelor s certificate programs. Both, of course, require a bachelor's degree for admission. A master's program, however, may also require completion of a graduate school admissions test, such as the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) or even the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). Upon completion of the program, you will be granted a Master of Arts or science degree (different universities use different designations). Master's programs usually take a minimum of two years to complete and frequently require completion of a thesis or similar project for graduation. If you can afford the time and money to obtain your master's degree, it may enhance your employability. Because the phenomenal growth of the legal assistant field translates into more training programs that are graduating more paralegals, setting yourself apart from other paralegals may help you in your future employment. On the other hand, in some markets you may be considered "overeducated" when employers have the option of hiring paralegals with an associate degree.

One caveat about master's degree programs: Some of these programs are intended to provide top-notch training to paralegals. On the other hand, they may be intended to give legal training to people who are already successful in another profession-in other words, people who are not intending to seek a career as a paralegal but feel their current position would be enhanced with legal training. Programs are usually quite clear about which type of student they were created for. The curriculum of a master's program is similar to an undergraduate curriculum, except that the core courses (in English, science, math, and the humanities) are not included, just the legal courses. Here is the curriculum from Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, where students may obtain a master of arts in legal studies, specializing in general legal studies, dispute resolution, or law office management and technology. Students must complete 36 credit hours of graduate-level courses. They also are required to complete a master's thesis on an approved topic.

Distance Education

Distance education-which used to be called correspondence school-is also an option for paralegal training. There is a certain amount of variety among these programs. Some rely very heavily on the computer, providing interactive lessons. Others allow you to read texts and take exams at your own pace; these may also be supplemented with videotapes. You need to be very organized and dedicated to succeed in distance education, and some people shy away from it for those same reasons.

The skills you learn to be successful as a distance education student are the exact skills you need to be an effective paralegal. Organization, self-reliance, motivation, the desire to learn, the will to succeed, and the ability to solve problems and make decisions are all a part of the distance education and paralegal processes. Success as a self-directed student demonstrates to your employer that you are goal-oriented and have the ability to work independently. Employer surveys taken over the last ten years have indicated overwhelming satisfaction with graduates of accredited paralegal distance education training programs.

By its very nature, distance learning provides a greater possibility for fraud than a school that is established in a particular place, but that is no reason to avoid distance learning; many schools are quite well respected. If home study seems like the best option for you, just be careful in choosing a program. Find out as much as you can about the faculty and how available they will be to answer your questions. Ask for the names of former students whom you can contact for information about their experiences with the school. Get complete information on the course of study, and compare it with the curricula of schools you know to be reputable. Make sure that the distance education school you choose is accredited by an organization such as the National Home Study Council or the Distance Education and Training Council. The U.S. Department of Education can tell you about other accrediting agencies. Finally, check with the Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, or the attorney general's office in the state where the school is headquartered to see if the school has had complaints lodged against it.

Ethics Courses

In addition to legal courses, it is very important that a program offer courses in paralegal ethics. Each state has rules that govern the unlicensed practice of law; essentially, only trained attorneys who have been admitted to the Bar of a particular state can give legal advice. This means that if you are not a member of the Bar, you may not counsel clients as to the law. This is not always as clear as it may seem. As a paralegal, you may, for example, help someone fill out a bankruptcy form. You may not, however, help them decide which kind of bankruptcy to file; that constitutes giving legal advice.

A Personal Assessment

As you can see, many variables come into play when comparing paralegal training programs; in addition to the type and length of the program, cost, location, and reputation of the school must also be taken into account. So how do you begin to determine which program is right for you? Start by taking stock of yourself. You have to figure out what you need to get out of a paralegal training program in order to find the one that's right for you. Use this worksheet to determine the kind of program that is right for you. This assessment looks at four areas:
  • Education. How much education will you have completed prior to entering paralegal training? Are there areas of your education that are particularly strong or weak?
     
  • Choosing a specialty. Do you have work or educational experience that will make you particularly attractive to a certain kind of employer?
     
  • Where to get your training. Are you willing to move to a new city to receive paralegal training? Maybe you want to move; maybe you'll have to move.
     
  • Your schedule; your demands. How much are you willing /able to pay for your paralegal training? Do you need other special services, such as help with transportation or child care?
Analysis of Your Skills

Successful paralegals possess certain skills. You may have some of these skills now; if you don t, you’ll need to seek out a paralegal training program that will teach you the skills you are lacking. For each skill, consider whether, at this time, it is one you already have, one that needs some work, or one that you need to learn. It will help you get the most out of your paralegal training if you are honest with yourself now. All of these are skills that a good paralegal program will address and give you the opportunity to brush up on. Organization, prioritizing, independent thinking, and the ability to concentrate on several projects at the same time are vital to a successful paralegal. Legal research skills will be taught in paralegal programs, but if you feel that your general research skills are lacking, you will want to make sure your program affords you the opportunity to improve them. Analytical and investigative tasks that paralegals undertake are specialized to the law-and you'll learn them in a good program. It will be easier for you, however, if you already have abilities in these areas. The point of this list is for you to look at the work you need to do in order to succeed as a paralegal and make sure that the program you choose gives you the opportunities to do that work. The two single most important components of an excellent paralegal program, in my opinion, are training in communications and in computers. It is absolutely vital that you are able to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing. And in even the smallest, most rural law offices, computers are becoming more and more common, and dependence on computer research is growing every day.

Choosing a Specialty

Do you have work or educational experience that will make you particularly attractive to a certain kind of employer? It may seem a little premature to be talking about employment when you're just worried about where to go to school. But what you want to do as a paralegal has a great deal to do with where you decide to receive your training. And what you want to do as a paralegal depends a lot on your background. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to get a good general legal education. Indeed, a general legal education is what most paralegal training programs offer.

Nonetheless, your background may influence your career choices. Do you have any medical training or experience? You might be perfect for a law office that does a lot of medical malpractice. You could take a course in tort law to prepare.
If all of your attempts to find training in a particular specialty seem to fail, go have a chat with the placement counselors in the programs you are interested in. Ask them if they have ever placed someone in your field, what contacts they have, and how much work they are willing to do on your behalf If their answers satisfy you, consider attending the school, even if it lacks the course you want. Remember, your personal background already gives you an advantage in the field. And it is always possible you will discover you like another area of the law better.

Where to Get Your Training

A great many people leave their hometowns when they go off to college or graduate school; people are more apt to attend a two-year college close to home. This doesn't mean you can't move across the country to attend a community college. It is worth your while to consider this issue seriously. It is highly desirable to attend a program that is located in the geographical area in which you want to work.

Another advantage to attending school in the market in which you want to work is that you learn the laws of that area Laws can vary a great deal from state to state, and it is to your benefit to learn the local law. Finally, attending paralegal school in the state in which you want to work allows you to make contacts for future job hunting.

If you can't attend a program in the place where you want to work, you're not out of luck. If you know where you are going to end up, research that area to find out what kind of training most paralegals receive, and duplicate it as best you can. If you're not sure where you are going to end up, it's up to you to make the most of the education you do receive. Are you unable to attend an ABA-accredited school? Try to attend one that at least meets ABA standards. Also, rely on your internships and the faculty of the school you attend. Most of these people will be lawyers, who just may have attended law school with, or in some other way, know an attorney in the town where you end up. Well-trained paralegals, with good references from their internships and professors, are always in demand.

Your Schedule, Your Demands

The final point on your personal inventory is resources. Let's say you could attend a paralegal program in your hometown or one in a town 30 miles away. In addition to all the other comparisons, transportation now becomes an issue. No matter which school you attend, child care may be an issue for you. You not only need to get information about any help the schools can give you in these areas; you need to have serious talks with your family and friends about any help they're willing to give.

Part-Time Attendance

By attending classes part time, you can spread the cost of the program over a greater period of time. Schools often charge students based on the credit hours they are taking in a given period. If full-time students take twelve hours and you are taking six, it will cost you half as much for that period. Of course, it will take you longer, and ultimately you will both pay the same amount; you can just take longer doing it. As a part-time student, you will also have more flexibility in your scheduling. This can be a great help, for example, with child care. Finally, a part-time schedule allows you to work, even full time, while you go to school. Make a list of any special time concerns you have and how you will deal with them. For example, if your spouse or partner can take care of the children, but only if you take classes in the evening, you will have to find a program that offers evening classes. On the other hand, maybe you will need to take classes only while your children are in school; night school won't work for you. If you've decided that you need to keep working while you attend class, you'll need to find a program that will allow you to attend part time and that offers flexible scheduling of classes. Every time you think of one of these "obstacles," jot it down. Then consider how you can solve the problem. If you need to, brainstorm with a friend or relative, or simply call a school in the area (it doesn't even have to be a paralegal school) and ask an admissions counselor what other students in your situation have done.

Here are some things to think about in considering your schedule and your demands:
  • Children. Are you solely responsible for child care? Who can help you with child care? Family? Friends? Professionals? Who can help you with emergency child care? Is child care available through your paralegal school? Because of the age of your children, are you restricted to attending classes only at certain times of the day (such as when they are in school)?
     
  • Transportation. Can you walk to school? Can you take public transportation? Can you join or form a car pool? Is your car reliable? What will you do in an emergency?
     
  • Finances. Have you considered non-tuition expenses? Textbooks and supplies? New clothes for your internship? Food expenses?
     
  • Employment. Will you be working while you attend paralegal training? Full time? Part time? What constraints does your job put on your schooling? Scheduling classes? Scheduling study time? Are your work hours flexible? How will an internship affect your current employment? Will you be forced to quit your job? Can you schedule your job around your intern ship?
     
  • Support. Is your family supportive of your decision to become a paralegal? Will family members help you when you need it? Are your friends supportive of your decision to become a paralegal? Can you count on them for material and spiritual support?
Making the Final Decision

By now, with the help of your personal inventories and the list of schools, you should have narrowed down the number of schools that you are considering. You may be lucky enough to find the final decision quite easy; if not, here are some things to keep in mind while evaluating the programs on your finalist list. You can get most of this information from the program catalog, which the school will be happy to send you. You may have to call an admissions counselor to get answers to some of your questions. Don't be shy about asking for information. Remember, you are the consumer; the schools are interested in selling their program to you.

Is the School Accredited?

ABA accreditation is voluntary, and the process can be quite expensive. For these reasons, many fine programs choose not to seek ABA accreditation. There are more than 1,000 paralegal programs in the U.S.; 217 of these are currently accredited by the ABA. However, many schools model their programs on the ABA guidelines. These guidelines are useful in distinguishing one school from another. The best schools will follow the ABA guidelines fairly closely. In order to be considered for ABA accreditation, a legal assistant program must be a post-secondary school program that:
  • is part of an accredited educational institution
     
  • offers at least 60 semester hours (or the equivalent) of classroom work These courses must include general education classes and at least 18 semester hours of law courses
     
  • is advised by a committee comprised of attorneys and legal assistants fi*om the public and private sectors
     
  • has qualified instructors who are committed to paralegal education
     
  • has student services available, including counseling and placement
     
  • has an adequate legal library available
     
  • has appropriate facilities and equipment
These ideals are expressed in very general language (get used to it, this is how lawyers talk!).

Make sure that even if the program isn't accredited by the ABA, the school is accredited. There are a variety of accrediting agencies, depending on the kind of school in question. Examples include the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), New England Schools and Colleges (NESC), and Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). In addition, in some states the program itself may be accredited or approved by the state bar association.
Are the Faculty Qualified?

The faculty should be comprised of people who are committed to paralegal education and who are up to date on changes in the legal assistant field. This may mean practicing attorneys, but it really isn't necessary for everyone on the faculty to be a practicing attorney. Practicing legal assistants, and former attorneys and paralegals, who are dedicated to paralegal education, are perfectly fine instructors.

What Resources Does the School Offer?

Try to get a feel for the student services that are available. These should include, at a minimum, counseling and placement. In a small school, the teaching staff may take most of the responsibility for these tasks. Just make sure that the staff seems as committed to those parts of their job as they are to teaching. A faculty made up of only practicing attorneys and paralegals might be hard to find when you need one-on-one attention. Make sure they are at least expected to have regular office hours. Finally, make sure that the program you are interested in has access to a decent law library, such as one at a law school or courthouse.

Certification

Note: When you are job hunting, keep in mind the difference between having a certificate (because you graduated from a paralegal program) and having certification (either CLA or PACE). Employers may be confused about this, and when they advertise for a "certified" paralegal, they may actually mean a legal assistant with a certificate.

Making the Most of Your Training Program

Internships

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 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 note-taking.

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 (some times 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.

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.

Right now, everybody here takes the same law courses, and are, you could say, "specializing" in the business skills they want to use on the job. Somebody who is just starting out in a career, who's coming from high school or a home environment, would probably take the Paralegal-Office Management course, because they're going to get a position more easily with those office skills. The other two are Paralegal-Accounting, so you have accounting and taxation skills as the specialty, or Paralegal Business Management, which is paralegal plus management.

published January 29, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
( 6 votes, average: 4.5 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.

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