What makes a quality paralegal program?

If you are searching for paralegal schools, you have many options. Private colleges, public universities, community colleges and online schools are available in most areas. How do you know which ones are better than the rest?

As someone who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Paralegal and a Master of Science degree in Legal Studies in addition to leading paralegal programs at Minnesota School of Business, Globe University and Broadview University, I think I know something about quality paralegal schools.

Educational Standards

Every quality paralegal school should model their program after the skills that paralegals need in the workplace. Courses should teach you critical thinking, legal writing, legal research, legal drafting, communication and legal technology.

Some people suggest that you only look for American Bar Association (ABA) approved schools, but it isn’t a foolproof way of finding a quality school. Some excellent programs are not on the ABA’s list. If you only look at the ABA list of schools, you will be missing out on excellent paralegal education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only approves only 270 paralegal programs of over 1,000 paralegal schools. A good question is why does it approve so few programs. Some programs choose not to through the process or are not eligible because their programs are offered fully online. It’s always good to ask the school why they do or do not have ABA approval.

I would suggest better criteria for a quality school is whether the school is a member of the American Association for Paralegal Exudation (AAfPE). AAfPE is the largest organization devoted entirely to promoting quality paralegal education. AAfPE set standards for paralegal core competencies and educational standards. Over 450 paralegal schools are members of AAfPE.

Practical Experience

Another sign of a quality paralegal program is practical, hand-on assignments built into the program. Theory is good and needed. You learn how to be a brain surgeon without understand the brain first. The same is true for paralegals. You have to have a good foundation of the law and learn those critical thinking skills before you start researching, writing and drafting pleadings. Being a paralegal is different from being a lawyer so the education should be different too. Students should ask about what they will be doing in their classes that is simulated paralegal work. Employers are looking for these skills.

Access to Technology

Paralegal schools should teach you how to perform legal research using the case and statutes books and electronic sources. Access to Westlaw, Lexis Nexis or other research tools is critical. Look for a school that teaches you how to research and then gives you plenty of practice. Learning legal research is like learning another language. It’s hard at first. It’s only with practice that you become good at it. If you don’t use it, it takes longer for it to come back to you.

You should also get access to other legal technology while you are in school. You will learn about electronic discovery, billing and timekeeping, litigation support software, and case management software. Experience with legal technology while you are in school will help you when you get your first paralegal job. No matter what software is that the lawyers are using, you can adapt to it if you understand what the software is supposed to do.

Internships and volunteering

In today’s job market, people are looking for paralegals who are able to hit the ground running and handle the fast pace work in a law firm. A good way to know if you can handle the job is if you have experience. Where is a paralegal student supposed to get experience while in school? One answer would through volunteering with a non-profit organization that provides legal services to those that cannot afford an attorney. Another way would be an internship. A paralegal internship should be a time for you to practice what you have learned in school. Under the supervision of a lawyer or a paralegal, you can try writing, researching and drafting documents. Over the length of the internship, you should take on more difficult assignments. A good internship is balance of doing the same tasks more than once so you improve at what you are doing and getting a variety of experiences working on all parts of a case or for different clients. Avoid internships where you are doing the same things every day or do only administrative work like answering phones or making copies.

Once you have decided what paralegal school you want to attend, the rest is up to you. Ask questions in class so you understand how to do your assignments. Make sure you meet paralegals in your area. Find out how they got their jobs and how their paralegal classes helped them. Research the type of paralegal job you would like some day. When you are ready, you will have the tools to find your first legal job.