How to Choose a Paralegal Education Program
This pamphlet has been prepared to assist you in choosing a quality paralegal education program which will give you the knowledge, skills and assistance you need to start you out in your new career. The following organizations have participated in the development of this pamphlet:
- American Association for Paralegal Education
- American Bar Association
- Standing Committee on Legal Assistants
- Association of Legal Administrators
- Legal Assistant Management Association
- National Association of Legal Assistants
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations
These organizations represent approximately 20,000 legal assistants, 500 legal assistant managers, 7,500 legal administrators and 300 paralegal education programs across the country. These groups and their members share the common interests of encouraging high standards in paralegal education and providing information about the field and paralegal education to the public.
Before 1968 and during the early years of the paralegal profession, most legal assistants were trained on the job. The first paralegal courses in the U.S. were offered in 1968 and by 1971 only eleven paralegal training programs existed. Today, it is estimated that over 650 programs are operating in the United States. This tremendous increase is the result of the rapid growth in the number of paralegal jobs and the need for well-trained professionals.
There is, however, a great deal of variety in the types of programs available and in the level and quality of instruction provided. As you consider a career as a legal assistant, it is important for you to evaluate any prospective paralegal education program in light of your own background and goals.
To be a qualified legal assistant/paralegal requires specialized training. Today, in the vast majority of cases, this training is provided by formal paralegal educational programs offered by colleges, universities and other institutions of higher learning.
Types of Programs
Because of the wide variety in the way in which law firms and other paralegal employers utilize the services of legal assistants and because there is no governmental regulation of legal assistants or mandatory specialized accreditation of paralegal programs, paralegal education is not standardized. Generally, programs fall into one of the following categories:
- Four-year baccalaureate programs with a major or minor in paralegal studies.
- Programs offered by proprietary institutions, usually 3 to 18 months in length, awarding a certificate.
- Post-baccalaureate programs, usually 3 to 12 months in length, awarding a certificate.
- Two-year community college programs, usually awarding a certificate or an associate degree.
These diverse programs also have different admission standards, ranging from open admissions (a high school diploma or equivalent) to highly selective admissions, such as a baccalaureate degree with a 3.00 GPA. Some programs also require entrance examinations.
Most institutions offer part-time evening programs for students who work; many also have full-time day or evening programs. Some programs are offered for college credit, some for continuing education credit and some are non-credit.
Two-year (Associate Degree) programs
An associate degree (Associate of Arts or Associate of Science) is conferred after the successful completion of two years (about 60 semester or 90 quarter units) of formal education. These programs are offered at community colleges and some four-year colleges and universities. The curriculum generally includes general education coursework such as English, mathematics, science, history, social sciences, and humanities in addition to 15 to 30 semester units of paralegal courses.
Four-year (Bachelor's Degree) programs
A baccalaureate degree (Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science) is awarded after the successful completion of four years (about 120 semester or 180 quarter units) of formal education. A student usually majors or minors in paralegal studies taking 18 to 45 semester units in that area. The remainder of the coursework is comprised of general education and electives.
These programs are offered by private profit-making colleges (often business schools) which generally offer a certificate upon completion of the course of study. The length and curriculum of these programs varies widely, but may usually be completed in three to eighteen months. Most often, a high school diploma is required for admission.
Post-graduate programs, often offered through a college's extension or continuing education division, ordinarily lead to a certificate and range from eight to 24 semester units in length. The general education component is fulfilled by a student's having a degree at entry. Most of these programs may be completed in one year or less. Some colleges award continuing education units which are nationally recognized, standard units of measurement adopted for post-secondary programs and educational courses not carrying college credit. Other colleges have credit-bearing certificate programs at the post-baccaluareate level.
Most paralegal programs cover the following subjects in addition to requiring general education either as part of the program or before it. The depth of coverage of each subject varies according to the structure and length of the program:
- an introductory paralegal course(Overview of law and the paralegal field)
- litigation or civil procedure
- legal research and writing
- legal ethics
- specialized courses in one or more areas, such as: ? real property/real estate transactions
- wills, trusts and estate planning/probate
- family law
- business and corporate law and practice
Other subjects frequently offered include taxation, bankruptcy, contracts, commercial law, family law and torts. Many schools also have one or more classes covering computer applications for legal assistants.
American Bar Association Approval
Seeking ABA approval is voluntary on the part of the institution. There are some quality programs that have chosen not to seek approval. However, the ABA guidelines are useful in evaluating a program you are considering, and in helping you to decide whether it will meet your needs.
Of the estimated 650 paralegal programs nationally, 184 have been approved by the ABA as of February 1994. To be considered for approval, a program must meet standards adopted by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants. Briefly, the guidelines for approval require a college-level program which:
- is part of an accredited educational institution.
- offers at least 60 semester or 90 quarter units (or the equivalent) of classroom work. These units must include general education and at least 18 semester (or 27 quarter) units of legal specialty courses.
- has an advisory committee with attorneys and legal assistants from the public and private sectors.
- 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 legal library available.
- has appropriate facilities and equipment.
Assistance in Finding a Program
Once you have made your career decision, assistance in identifying the programs in your area can be obtained from a number of sources:
- State and local bar associations
- Paralegal associations (The two major national associations are the National Association of Legal Assistants [NALA] and National Federation of Paralegal Associations [NFPA®]. They may have a local chapter in your area.)
- Local Colleges and universities
- Employment agencies which specialize in placing legal assistants
- American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistants (The Committee has a list of programs which may be in your local law library or may be obtained directly from the ABA.)
- American Association for Paralegal Education (The AAfPE has a membership directory which is available from Association headquarters.)
- Legal Assistant Management Association (This organization has members in law firms and corporate law departments throughout the United States and Canada.)
- Individual legal assistants, attorneys, law firms and corporate legal departments.
How to Evaluate a Program
In evaluating the quality of a paralegal training program and whether or not it might suit your needs, consider these factors:
- The educational objectives of the program should be stated clearly in the program literature, which should be available to you upon request. General and specific training objectives should be provided.
- The reputation of both the umbrella institution and the program itself should be considered. Look to the educational standing of the program with the general public and the legal community.
- Admission standards and the level of education required for acceptance into the program will tell you the academic level of the program and whether or not you would be eligible.
- ABA Approval indicated that the program has met the standards set forth in the Guidelines and Procedures for Obtaining ABA Approval of Legal Assistant Education Programs, as amended 1992. This gives some level of assurance of quality and reputation.
- Membership in AAfPE shows that the program administration is interested in current developments in paralegal education and in offering a quality program.
- The qualifications of the program administrator and whether the staff is on campus full or part=time will give you an idea how much supervision and leadership the program has.
- Inclusion of experiential education such as internships or cooperative education.
- The placement record will tell you if graduates find legal assistant positions, what type of work they perform, and what firms employ them.
- The composition and qualifications of the faculty will determine the content, level and quality of instruction. Look for experienced attorneys who utilize the services of legal assistants, and experienced legal assistants.
- The curriculum itself should include both theory and practical skills courses. Examine the required legal courses, the number of elective legal courses and the amount and kind of work required in courses. If you are interested in a particular area of law, be sure the school offers it.
- The student services which are available, such as orientation, student and alumni organizations, tutoring, counseling, and financial aid, may tell you if the program will provide you with the individual assistance you need.
Choosing the right paralegal education program will have a profound impact on your new career. You have many options from which to choose. Choose carefully and give yourself the best chance to succeed in this exciting new career.
American Association for Paralegal Education
2965 Flowers Road South, Suite 105
Atlanta, GA 30341
Fax (770) 458-3314
American Bar Association
Standing Committee on Legal Assistants
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Association of Legal Administrators
175 East Hawthorn Parkway, Suite 325
Vernon Hills, Illinois 60061-1428
Legal Assistant Management Association
638 Prospect Avenue
Hartford, Connecticut 06105-4298
National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc.
1516 Boston Avenue, Suite 200
Tulsa, Oklahoma 74119
Fax (918) 582-6772
National Federation of Paralegal Associations
One Parkview Plaza, Suite 800
Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181
In an effort to encourage the dissemination of the information in this pamphlet the participating associations grant the user permission to copy this pamphlet with the request it be copied and distributed in its entirety to maintain the integrity of the contents and information provided, and that the user attributes this material to the participating associations.