POSITION PAPER ON PARALEGAL EDUCATION IN THE U.S.

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1 INTERNATIONAL PRACTICE MANAGEMENT ASSOCIATION (IPMA) POSITION PAPER ON PARALEGAL EDUCATION IN THE U.S. As the paralegal profession has evolved, employers, educators, and paralegals 1 continue to debate the subject of educational criteria. Although there is no consensus on the minimum education required to become a paralegal, this subject is a critical one that will always have a profound effect on the future of the profession. The IPMA 2 brings an important and unique perspective to the debate. Paralegal managers are responsible for recruiting, hiring, training, coaching, and evaluating the performance of paralegals in law firms, corporate law departments, and governmental, judicial, and legal agencies for which they work. No other group involved in the legal profession has more experience in understanding the consequences of recruiting and hiring decisions based on educational requirements for paralegals than paralegal managers. In this paper, the IPMA will address its position on minimum educational standards, paralegal education as a hiring criterion, and the value of paralegal education (principally in the United States). The IPMA will also comment on online education, in-house training, and continuing education. I. MINIMUM EDUCATIONAL STANDARDS A baccalaureate degree should be the minimum requirement for employment as a paralegal. Paralegals have assumed many responsibilities previously handled by lawyers; these require excellent skills in research, writing, and critical thinking, as the basis of a strong academic background. The IPMA also believes that this standard of academic achievement promotes credibility and respect for the paralegal profession. 3 The IPMA is aware that some two-year paralegal institutions maintain that a two-year degree is sufficient to be employed and succeed as a paralegal. They suggest, for example, that a four The IPMA uses the titles of legal assistant and paralegal interchangeably. Founded in 1984 as the Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA), the IPMA is the primary source of information regarding paralegal management. With more than 500 members in the United States and Canada, our members supervise more than 5,000 paralegals. In Canada, the desired minimum educational requirement is a legal assistant certificate although, particularly in Ontario, more managers are moving toward the position that a three or four year undergraduate degree, together with a legal assistant certificate from a community or private business college, is the desired minimum educational requirement.

2 year degree is not necessary for the work handled by paralegals in rural communities or at small law firms. Further, they maintain that paralegals in remote communities do not always have access to four-year colleges and universities. The IPMA s position is that the complexity of the law demands higher learning, regardless of the community or size of the firm in which the law is practiced. (Indeed, these requirements can be more, not less, important in the context of small firms or communities where paralegal responsibilities can be greater than in larger firms or concentrated geographic areas.) At the recommendation of the IPMA, the ABA Guidelines for Approval of Paralegal Education Programs, revised on September 1, 2008, continue to require that paralegal educational programs encourage their students to obtain baccalaureate degrees. Furthermore, the IPMA encourages two-year educational institutions to enter into articulation agreements with four-year schools so that students can complete baccalaureate degrees. The IPMA has frequently surveyed its members concerning minimum educational standards. Respondents have overwhelmingly indicated that a four-year degree should be the minimum requirement for entry as a paralegal. 4 Notwithstanding these strong opinions, the IPMA recognizes that there are exceptional candidates who may not have a baccalaureate degree. In such situations, the IPMA acknowledges that past related work experience and other, unique qualifications may be considered in lieu of the minimum educational requirement, although these situations should be the exception rather than the rule. The IPMA does advocate that each employer exercise its discretion in order to make appropriate hiring decisions that will meet their particular needs. II. CERTIFICATE AS A HIRING CRITERION Various institutions grant paralegal certificates to students who complete post-secondary courses of study. The certificate may represent varying levels of instruction: post-baccalaureate, postassociate, or independent of a degree prerequisite. 5 While the IPMA does not advocate the completion of a paralegal certificate as the sole hiring criterion, our members find that a certificate or degree in paralegal studies, particularly one from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved 6 or regionally accredited 7 institution, strengthens the qualifications of a candidate LAMA (IPMA) surveyed its members concerning minimum educational criteria and survey results have consistently revealed that approximately 70% of the respondents agreed that a baccalaureate degree should be the minimum standard. A post-baccalaureate certificate requires a bachelor s degree as a prerequisite, and a post-associate certificate requires either a bachelor s or an associate s degree as a prerequisite. These certificates are awarded on completion of a specified number of credit hours in paralegal studies; the students are considered to have completed sufficient general education courses in earning their degrees. Some certificate programs, however, have no such prerequisites. Also, because the paralegal certificate is a widely recognized credential, some institutions award paralegal certificates along with the degrees earned. In Canada, a certificate is earned at a community college or equivalent. There is no equivalent in Canada. In Ontario, Canada, the Institute of Law Clerks of Ontario (ILCO) offers Associate training programs through approved community colleges as a requirement for Associate membership in ILCO. Fellowship programs are offered through approved educators as a requirement for Fellowship membership. All such programs are highly respected in the legal community. As defined by the U.S. Department of Education. 2

3 III. THE VALUE OF PARALEGAL EDUCATION It is unrealistic to expect that paralegal educational programs will meet the requirements of every employer, in every situation. However, educational institutions with quality programs can significantly shorten the learning curve of entry level paralegals. These institutions provide a foundation consisting of an understanding of the legal system, procedures and terminology, and knowledge databases, which enable new paralegals to more quickly make a greater contribution to their employers. In addition, individuals who have completed paralegal certificate or degree programs have made significant time and financial investments, demonstrating a commitment to a paralegal career. The IPMA believes that paralegal educational institutions can best prepare their students for a paralegal career by providing a balanced educational program. In addition to oral and written communication skills, this should include a foundation in substantive, procedural and administrative law; legal research skills; and an emphasis on practical skills such as document preparation, information retrieval, and proficiency in one or more subject areas, such as litigation and transactional work. Paralegals should be aware of manual and computerized document organization systems, key aspects of free and cost-based research databases 8, and the preparation of legal documents and correspondence. The IPMA encourages educational institutions to continue with their efforts to consult with paralegal managers and other paralegal employers to develop curricula that respond to the employers needs. At the recommendation of the IPMA, the ABA Guidelines require that managers of paralegal programs be included on advisory committees of paralegal education programs when they are found in the community the program serves. IV. ONLINE EDUCATION The IPMA recognizes that educational opportunities are presented in a variety of formats. Online and hybrid classes can offer students and educational institutions greater flexibility in scheduling, and significant cost savings. Such programs, when structured to take full advantage of current technologies, can provide students with a high-quality, interactive educational experience. Traditional classroom and online learning can both offer opportunities for interaction and discussions among students and faculty. The IPMA encourages educational institutions to ensure that faculty who are teaching online or hybrid courses are fully conversant with the technology used, and that students have the technical background and skill to participate in the courses successfully. It is important for educators to recognize the limitations of technology when designing online courses. V. IN-HOUSE TRAINING While educational institutions provide a foundation, paralegals often need additional training in the practical skills related to their specific positions. To fill this gap, paralegal managers have instituted in-house training programs. In-house training is designed to complement institutional training, by providing exposure to firm culture, practice group needs and legal ethics. The 8 i.e., LEXIS, WestLaw and BloombergLaw, to name a few. 3

4 presence of in-house training suggests an employer that is interested in their client s best interests and in developing their employees to be the best that they can be. In-house training can also take advantage of many of the online resources available and be cost effective. It also allows the individual to fit the training into their own work schedule. VI. CONTINUING EDUCATION The IPMA supports quality programs of continuing education for paralegals. Advanced paralegal training promotes increased paralegal utilization and productivity by providing indepth training and instruction on legal, regulatory and technological changes. The IPMA also encourages academic institutions and providers of legal services to develop high quality programs of continuing paralegal education in specialized practice areas. In a world where specialization is becoming more prominent, continuing education for paralegals is as important as it is for lawyers. An example of this would be the Minimum Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) requirement for paralegals in the State of California. On January 1, 2001, California enacted the California Business and Professions Code, section 6450(d), which requires paralegals to meet the following continuing education requirements: 6450(d). Every two years, commencing January 1, 2007, any person that (sic) is working as a paralegal shall be required to certify completion of four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in legal ethics and four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in either general law or in an area of specialized law. All continuing legal education courses shall meet the requirements of Section Certification of these continuing education requirements shall be made with the paralegal's supervising attorney. The paralegal shall be responsible for keeping a record of the paralegal's certifications. 9 Professional organizations, such as NALA and the NFPA, as well as some states, offer voluntary certification to paralegals meeting certain educational and experience criteria. All of these programs mandate on-going legal education in order to maintain certification. The IPMA believes this type of continuing education (i) allows a paralegal to stay current on today's laws/procedures; (ii) provides a professional standard for the paralegal professional; and (iii) promotes professional development among legal professionals. CONCLUSION The IPMA s position is that a baccalaureate degree should be the minimum requirement for employment as a paralegal. Educational institutions should encourage their students to complete a four-year degree, and the institutions should enter into articulation agreements with other institutions to assist students in meeting this goal. The IPMA does not advocate a certificate from a paralegal educational institution, as the sole hiring criterion. However, a paralegal 9 California Business and Professions Code, section 6450(d). 4

5 certificate or degree, particularly from an ABA approved or regionally accredited institution, does strengthen the qualifications of a candidate. Paralegal education from a reputable program provides a foundation that shortens the learning curve for entry-level paralegals; however, regularly scheduled, quality continuing education is essential to ensure that paralegals remain knowledgeable and current in the profession. May

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