Today, there is an estimate of 600 paralegal education programs in the United States. Paralegal education programs are offered in many formats and lengths. Various kinds of public and private institutions offer paralegal education, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, business colleges and proprietary institutions. The variety of institutions makes it possible for persons with diverse backgrounds to enter the profession. The most common types of programs are:
Associate Degree Programs. These programs are offered by two-year community colleges, some four-year colleges and universities, and some business schools. Upon successful completion of 60-70 semester units, a student earns an associate degree. The curriculum usually consists of approximately 1/2 paralegal courses and 1/2 courses in general education and related areas. In selecting a program, prospective students should consider whether they might continue their education to earn a four-year degree at another college and, if so, should investigate the transferability of courses in the programs they are considering.
Bachelor Degree Programs. Paralegal education is also offered by four-year colleges and universities which have a paralegal studies major, minor, or concentration within a major. These programs are usually about 120 - 130 semester units, including 30-60 semester units in paralegal and related courses. Upon successful completion of the program, the student is awarded a baccalaureate degree.
Certificate Programs. Various kinds of educational institutions offer paralegal certificate programs ranging from 18-60 semester units. Longer programs usually include both general education and paralegal courses, similar to associate degree programs. Certificate programs are usually designed for students who already hold an associate or baccalaureate degree.
Master's Degree Programs. A few colleges and universities that offer undergraduate paralegal degree programs are now offering an advanced degree in paralegal studies. Other universities offer advanced degree programs and law-related areas such as legal administration and legal studies.
The American Bar Association has a program of approving legal assistant training programs which meet their guidelines. 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. For further information about the ABA guidelines, contact the American Bar Association, Standing Committee on Paralegals, 321 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60654-7598. A directory of the ABA approved paralegal schools may be found on the web site of the American Bar Association (www.abanet.org). Click here to visit the directory.
The web site of the American Association for Paralegal Education may also offer some helpful information for you including a roster of member institutions, and a which was adopted by the AAfPE membership in October of 1998 and updated in 2001.
Evaluating Educational Programs
Here are some important factors to consider in evaluating the quality of paralegal programs:
What is the reputation of the institution and the paralegal program?
The general public and the legal community should hold the institution offering the program and the program itself in high regard. Check with people you know in the community, in the legal field, and in higher education for information.
What services are offered to students?
Assistance should be offered in these areas: orientation, tutoring, academic counseling, financial aid, career information and counseling, and placement assistance. Information on the placement rate and job satisfaction of graduates should be available.
What facilities are available to students?
Programs should have a legal research library, computer laboratories, and properly furnished classrooms. Facilities should accommodate students with disabilities.
What activities are available to students?
Students should have the opportunity to participate in such activities as honor societies and volunteer work in the legal community. Information about paralegal associations and continuing paralegal education should be available.
What is the mission of the institution and what are the goals of the paralegal program?
The mission and goals should be clearly stated in the institutional and program literature. You should assess whether the mission and goals match your individual needs.
What is the content and nature of the curriculum?
The courses should teach practical job skills in conjunction with the underlying legal theory. The curriculum should cover legal research and writing, litigation, ethics, contracts, business organizations and torts. Courses should develop students' critical thinking, communication, computational, computer and organizational skills, and competency to handle ethical issues. Programs should offer an experiential learning component such as an internship, practicum, or clinical experience.
What are the graduation requirements?
Students should be required to take both paralegal and general education courses unless students have completed general education prior to enrollment.
What are the backgrounds of the program director and faculty?
The program director and members of the faculty should possess appropriate academic credentials. Most program directors have a law degree or formal paralegal education; some have advanced degrees in related areas. Many have experience in the legal field. Faculty members should have expertise and experience in the subject areas they teach and experience working with or as paralegals. The program director and faculty must be committed to the role of the paralegal in the delivery of legal services.
What are the special considerations of enrolling in a distance education program?
A growing number of educational institutions and other providers are offering paralegal courses and/or entire paralegal programs through distance education. Prospective students need to supplement the above criteria with additional factors when evaluating these offerings. You should find out the type of distance delivery system used, such as interactive video broadcasts to distance sites, telecourses, or web-based courses on the Internet and determine whether the institution provides training to students in using the system and technical assistance throughout the course. You should find out how much interaction takes place among teachers and students during courses and through what medium. Additionally, you should assess whether you are well-suited to learn through a distance delivery system which requires a high of degree self discipline, self motivation, and independence.