How to Choose a Paralegal School
Once you have decided to attend a paralegal program you now have to choose a paralegal program for yourself. How do you know which is right for you? There are a number of factors to consider, but a few are most important:
- Program quality and reputation
- Placement record and employment assistance.
Let's take a look at each of these important considerations.
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 choose a few that interest you. Write away for their catalogs, and study them carefully. But don't limit your investigation to reading brochures. Always 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 are 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?
A school with fine facilities could still offer a poor education, if it doesn't have an equally fine faculty. In choosing a paralegal program you need to consider who is teaching at the school. 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. You are looking for a right paralegal school for yourself.
Experience And Reputation
In choosing a paralegal program, experience counts for a lot. Over the past several years, many paralegal programs have opened, and there's unevenness in quality. The length of a program alone doesn't assure a quality education.
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. Then decide for yourself if it is the right paralegal school for you. 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.
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.
According to experts in this field, a good paralegal program must cover three main areas:
- Legal research- How to look up statutes and cases? How to use all the research tools at your disposal?
- Substantive legal concepts- What are torts? What are contracts? How does the criminal justice system work?
- Practical skills- How to draft a will, handle an estate, complete a tax form, etc.
An aspiring paralegal should steer clear of crash courses that promise to make you a paralegal in forty-eight hours.
What's most important for a paralegal are practical skills and training. Paralegals do not decide legal issues. They simply fill out documents and make telephone calls. That's why it's important that you choose a paralegal program where paralegals, and practicing attorneys who work with them, do the teaching. One major criticism employers have of beginning paralegals is that they don't know how to write. It is important for paralegal courses to teach writing skills. If you intend to do probate or tax work, you must learn some accounting as well.
Choosing A Paralegal Program For Training
Let's say you are considering three-month intensive programs, 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.
Short-term intensive programs are also a good bet for college graduates and older people who want to change careers. Intensive programs offer more in-depth training. In intensive programs you have only your paralegal studies to work on. You don't have to worry about other courses, like you do in a college program. And in a short duration you can learn a marketable skill.
Then there are many large firms that prefer college graduates. For college graduates, it is recommended that they consider intensive programs.
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 compile 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 contact, you might cross it off your list. No school can guarantee you a job, but the right paralegal school should 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 choosing a paralegal program. 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 scholarship, 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.
In summary, then, consider a number of factors when choosing a paralegal program: cost; location; reputation; course offerings; faculty; placement record and assistance; and facilities. If you are a college graduate, a returnee to the job market, or a person who's set on working in a big city law firm, you'd probably do best to attend a post-college, intensive training program. If you haven't completed or attended college, if you have experience in a legal environment, and if you'd be happy working in a smaller city or a small law firm, a community college or four-year legal studies program might be your best bet. Consider your options carefully.
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