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Do You Need Formal Paralegal Education?

Do You Need Formal Paralegal Education?

Since paralegals have only been around as a prominent profession since really the 1970s, and grew somewhat organically from a need within the industry for basic, non-specialized legal work, the nature of formal paralegal education has been slow in becoming uniform.  

This lack of consistent academic requirements can be linked directly to the nebulous definition of what a paralegal is.  And if the time comes where the position of paralegal becomes more regulated than it is now, then education will almost certainly become a prerequisite for licensing.

Formal paralegal education can be acquired on a number of levels, depending primarily on the prospective paralegal’s level of education.  Typically, associates degrees can be acquired over a very limited period of time, sometimes after only a year (it depends entirely on the level and amount of coursework required, and the ability for the student to commit full time or part time to their education).

Less common, but still very viable, are bachelors degrees in paralegal studies.  Often, people hiring in the paralegal industry will look to an applicant’s background to determine suitability based on the kind of legal work that their firm operates in, so a varied liberal arts background offered by a bachelors degree will always appear more lucrative than an associate degree focusing strictly on paralegal work.

Masters degrees are also available in paralegal studies, but are often not as popular because of their typically elevated cost.  However, masters degrees, combined with bachelors degrees, make potential applicants for paralegal positions more attractive than those with only bachelors or associates.

Finally, some paralegals also enter into the field after acquiring a law degree but have not passed the bar. 

The Truth About the ABA Approval Process

The Truth About the ABA Approval Process

 

Due to the varied means by which one can pursue training to become a paralegal, the American Bar Association has set upon a course of approving institutions and programs which provide training to perspective paralegals.  

The American Bar Association, or ABA, is a voluntary legal organization who membership numbers into the hundreds of thousand, whose main purpose is to set a voluntary code of ethics to be practiced by all members. 

Though they are not a government affiliated organization, they are adherence to and requirements to a certain level of ethical behavior means that membership by a legal professional in the ABA is seen as significant measure of quality and status.

The ABA has also historically involved themselves in the accreditation of law schools, which has become vitally important, as many state bar exams will restrict a potential lawyer from taking the bar exam if they did not graduate from an ABA accredited institution.   The oversight and approval of paralegal training and education programs are overseen by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Paralegals.

The ABA approval process is long and comprehensive, and features a detailed overview of a program’s curriculum, teaching personnel, tuition policies, and even makes on-site evaluations of the program.  

When an organization meets with initial approval,  it still must go through a seven year trial process where it expected to maintain its standards under ABA guidelines, during which time they will submit interim reports to the Standing Committee. 

Some organizations do not seek approval from the ABA, and can do so for a multitude of reasons, which could simply mean that their organization is not able to meet ABA standards, but there are other reasons, as well.  

Generally, most programs that offer paralegal studies as part of an academic institution, such as community college or a university, will pursue ABA approval in order to maintain a certain level of academic reputation. 

Generally, training with a program that has ABA approval is highly recommended for anyone looking to receive an education in becoming a paralegal.

 

American Association for Paralegal Education

American Association for Paralegal Education

 

Since the paralegal profession emerged back in the 197os, the means and standards by which education of paralegals has been undertaken has been varied to often extreme levels, as no set standard is really required in most jurisdictions for an individual to be a paralegal. 

However, as the profession has grown, organizations such as the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) have tried to set an elevated standard for paralegal education based on a set of quality-based criteria.

Initially founded in 1981, the AAfPE has set out to become the leading oversight body of paralegal education programs, to a level more ambitious than that of even the American Bar Association because its increased focus on achieving a level of standardization, not just accreditation. 

To meet AAfPE guidelines must adhere to the goals of the organization, which promotes high standards of paralegal education, work with other paralegal educators to improve methods of paralegal education, participate in annual AAfPE conferences, promote and disseminate research on the paralegal profession, and promote cooperation with other organizations, such as the ABA, which share a mutual  

One of the set goals of AAfPE remains standardization, which it tries to do by establishing a set level of competencies recommended of paralegals which will complement the various means by which a paralegal can receive their education.  

The AAfPE especially calls for a diversity of knowledge, and requires members of its organizations to offer a diverse selection of classes to their perspective paralegals, so as to promote specialization in the field amongst new paralegals.

One means by which the AAfPE has tried to implement a set of core competencies has been through the desire for creating what the group calls a model syllabi, which would establish a minimum level of learning and knowledge that would be shared by all educated paralegals.  

It should be noted that the AAfPE does not promote strict regulated standardization, but supports limited standardization by specifying a level of quality all member organizations are expected to strive for.

Presently, institutions of higher learning, such as universities, colleges, and private programs with membership in the AAfPE total well into the the hundreds, with many more joining all the time.     

 

What are the Basic Qualifications for Paralegals?

What are the Basic Qualifications for Paralegals?

The qualifications required of a paralegal can vary dramatically throughout the legal industry, for three specific reasons.  There are rarely any standards which delegate expressly what a paralegal can do or is supposed to do.  

Often a paralegal who works for one firm may completely differ in responsibilities and duties from a paralegal in another (or even from another paralegal within the same office!)  The third reason, is that because paralegals are often not licensed positions, there are no set standards of education required to gain a job as a paralegal. 

Primary, what any organization hiring paralegals is going to look for is a basic understanding of administrative work, either in the form of training or experience.  

Experience in typing, writing, filing, organization, and correspondence is primarily going to be a must for anyone working in an office capacity.  Usually then, anything that indicates training has been received in administrative services or software application would be beneficial to a resume.

Also, displaying a background in a specific field that could be applied to law can make one desirable, especially to a firm that has expertise in that area.  And thought it may seem obvious, a paralegal must display either an adequate knowledge of the law or an enthusiasm for it.

Fundamentally, at least some training in paralegal work, even if it is a concentrated multi-week course can be beneficial, but for someone who is looking for on the job training, it can be almost as important to have administrative credentials as well as background of knowledge that an employer can take advantage of, as well as a stable work ethic. 

What any potential paralegal needs to show is fundamental capability which can overrule either a lack of experience or training.