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Do You Have To Go To Paralegal School?
No, you don't have to go to paralegal school to land your first paralegal job. It's a good idea; strategically, you're in a stronger position. But it's not absolutely necessary. That is particularly true for many law firms that hire people who are on their way to law school or graduate school to work as paralegals. These firms believe that paralegals are transitional and are primarily using the position to sample the legal field as a future work place. In other firms, paralegals are viewed more with an eye to longevity with the firm. In these firms, it is quite difficult to land a paralegal job without training difficult, but not impossible. Often, you can find both trends—transitional and career positions working at the same firm, at the same time.
People in other careers—teachers, nurses and legal secretaries, for instance can move laterally into the field without training. The crucial determinant in such lateral moves seems to be that the candidate possesses skills that ensure success as a paralegal. Teachers are skilled at digesting, organizing and articulating vast amounts of information; nurses can be invaluable in medical malpractice litigation; legal secretaries have often learned so much about a particular legal specialty that they can make the jump to paralegal in that specialty with no trouble whatsoever.
If you have already proven yourself as a valuable employee working in a corporation, but seek more interesting work, you may be able to transfer into the general counsel's office as a paralegal. Your knowledge of the business makes you an instantly valuable paralegal even if you have to be trained in certain paralegal functions.
Still, we cannot minimize the importance of paralegal training. The legal world is complex and difficult; to function properly as a paralegal you must learn a great deal. While on-the-job training sounds like a fine way to learn, it can also be harrowing and at times debilitating. If you are the kind of person who enjoys being thrown into situations and having to learn quickly on your own, the on-the-job-training approach may be for you. On the other hand, if you are the sort who likes to feel confident that you know how to perform a task before you undertake it, the basic training of paralegal schools can put you in a much stronger position, both as an applicant and employee.
Choosing the Right Paralegal Program for You
Paralegal training is a booming field. You will be working in a field in which your employer’s lawyers are highly educated; they want to attract employees with good academic backgrounds. Even though many paralegals are hired without a degree or paralegal certificate, or are trained in-house by attorneys, in a competitive job market, the more education you have, the easier time you should have in getting a position.
Types of Programs
There are many kinds of paralegal programs, which range in length from a few months to two years. There are degree programs within universities. Other programs are associated with colleges as "extension" courses of study. Still others are structured more like general trade schools.
Junior colleges usually offer a two-year program. Some offer an associate of arts or sciences degree which incorporates a paralegal certificate.
Many four-year colleges and universities are now offering a B.A. in paralegal studies, which are four-year degree programs.
Graduate and extension programs offer a shorter schedule for those who already possess bachelor's degrees. These programs can last anywhere from four to six months.
Private business or trade schools also offer programs that vary in length.
All these programs have varying admission standards. Some require only a high school diploma (or its equivalent) for admission. Others have much more stringent standards, requiring a bachelor's degree with a minimum 3.0 grade point average. Some programs also require entrance examinations, covering writing and reasoning skills. These examinations are sometimes quite demanding.
Criteria for Choosing a School
While cost is definitely a major consideration for almost everyone, if that is your only criterion, beware! Cost is only a fraction of the total picture. Put on your sleuthing hat and do some investigating. You should look at a number of issues before selecting which school to attend. Some general guidelines for choosing a school are outlined below.
Reputation in the Field
What do law firms and legal departments think of this school?
Who teaches at the school?
Who is on the school's advisory board?
What do other educators, employers, attorneys and paralegals think of the school?
Instructors' Qualifications and Backgrounds
Have the instructors ever taught before?
Are they working in the legal community?
Do they use paralegals themselves?
Do the instructors generally know about paralegal job descriptions?
Are the instructors teaching their legal specialty?
How lax or stringent are the requirements for admission?
Do you need any specific educational background?
Do the law firms and legal departments you are interested in accept this school's graduates?
How many of the school's graduates are placed in positions?
Does placement of the school's students normally occur immediately after graduation?
Where do the school's graduates find jobs?
How long does it take for them to find positions?
Does placement take a longer or shorter period of time than at comparable schools?
Ask to talk directly to graduates. Get their feedback.
Conduct a telephone survey of firms and corporations to find out their opinions of the school.
Does the school offer a curriculum that is relevant to the paralegal practice in your region?
Does the curriculum adapt to and reflect the current changes in the law?
Does the school teach practical procedures as well as substantive law?
Is the school on a solid financial footing?
Ask for an annual report.
Check with the Better Business Bureau or local Chamber of Commerce to find out if there have been any.
How long has the school existed?
Student Services Available
Is specialized tutoring available?
What kind of financial aid is offered?
Is there an active alumni association?
What services do the student organizations provide?
Usefulness of the Library
Does the school have relevant materials and books for your use?
Does it look as though the school has made an investment in proper training materials for its students?
Cost of Tuition and Course Materials
Find out whether scholarships (or assistance with tuition) are offered.
If you are choosing a private school or graduate course, shop around to find out whether the school is competitively priced.
The school's tuition and fee charges should fall within 10 to 20 percent of those at comparable schools. If they are higher, try to find out why.
Junior colleges usually are the least expensive.
Is the school a reasonable distance from your home?
Will you be hampered because you have a great distance to commute every day?
Importance of a Comprehensive Curriculum
Of course, the paralegal curriculum varies from school to school. However, the following courses should be included in order to give you a well-rounded legal education:
introduction course to provide an overview of the law and the paralegal field
legal research and writing, including training on the use of either Lexis or Westlaw legal research databases
legal ethics the obligations owed to the client and how to avoid appearances of impropriety
substantive courses those that teach the "whys" of various areas of law, such as contracts, torts and property, in which the student is required to read legal opinions and "brief" cases
procedural courses those that teach the "how to" of law and specific rules governing the lawyer's activities
Course content should include the way things are done, so that the student will gain an understanding of areas such as the litigation process, corporate maintenance, real estate closings and/or administration of probate.
The school should also offer specialty certificates and courses. The most common specialty certificates are for litigation and corporate practices.
Additional courses in other specialty areas can include:
wills and trusts—probate
computerized litigation support
real estate and property law
ERISA and pension planning
international trade law
Some paralegal candidates prefer programs offering a specialty certificate rather than a general one. For paralegals wishing to work in smaller law firms where paralegals are usually required to know several areas of law several schools offer a generalization program. It's certainly true that many experienced paralegals find job satisfaction through specialization. On the other hand, specialization certificates are less available.
HOT TIP: If typing and clerical courses are offered, BEWARE! As a general rule, paralegals at a professional level are not required to perform secretarial duties. If a school offers such courses, it is probably not a professionally oriented paralegal program. Don't, however, confuse a computer training course for paralegals with secretarial training. While both require use of a keyboard, there's a world of difference between the two!
What path you choose all depends on your own unique wishes and desires concerning the type of firm or corporation you wish to join.
More than just a few have now moved into other practice areas, and to smaller firms. Investigate the legal field thoroughly before you decide.
As of February 1990, approximately 140 schools nationwide have received ABA approval. The American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Legal Assistants originally decided to use an approval system for paralegal schools to help standardize the curriculum. The approval process is voluntary on the part of the school. Many schools that have fine programs have not sought ABA approval. Check with the law firms and legal departments you may wish to work for to find out ahead of time whether they require their entry-level paralegals to have a certificate from an ABA-approved school.
To be approved by the ABA, paralegal schools must adhere to the following guidelines, which are contained in the booklet, "How to Choose a Paralegal Program." This booklet is published by the American Association for Paralegal Education, in conjunction with other national paralegal associations.
The guidelines for approval require a college-level program which:
is part of an accredited education institution;
offers at least sixty semester or ninety quarter units (or the equivalent) of classroom work. These units must include general education and at least eighteen semester (or 27 quarter) units of legal specialty courses;
has qualified, experienced instructors;
has adequate financial support from the institution in which it is situated;
is accredited by, or eligible for accreditation by, an accrediting agency recognized by the Council on Post Secondary Accreditation;
has adequate student services including counseling and placement;
has an adequate library available;
has appropriate facilities and equipment.
After thoroughly evaluating and investigating the legal assistant programs available in your area, choose one that meets your own personal criteria for cost, location, etc., but most importantly, where you feel you will get the best education.