After you’ve decided to become a paralegal, you still have some choices to make. Bachelor’s, Associate’s or Certificate? Online or traditional brick and mortar college?
There has been a heated debate in the last few years on the legitimacy of ABA approved online paralegal programs and whether it can fully replace traditional classroom style learning. Proponents for the classroom based learning argue that the interpersonal skills learned on campus are necessary for a well rounded graduate while supporters of the distance learning method counter that those skills can easily be learned on the job. Obviously there are pros and cons to each side so let’s address those.
If you’re keeping count, it would seem that the traditional colleges win hands down. In fact, statistics show that the annual salary of a paralegal is higher if they have received their degree from a traditional school. But these are not all weighted the same. For many people, classroom learning is not an option due to rural location or time constraints. There are several things to keep in mind when comparing the two. Online paralegal certificate programs vary wildly. Some promise graduation in 10 weekends while others offer 3 month schedules. Some consist of 8 classes and others require 11.
Even Kaplan, one of the leading distance learning colleges, states that online courses aren’t for everyone. Self motivated and adult learners will get the most out of this style of learning. If you are the kind of student who usually sits in the back of the classroom and plays on your phone, distance learning may not be right for you. It is easy to get distracted while sitting in your own house.
You certainly (hopefully) wouldn’t be cooking dinner or soothing a crying baby while in a classroom but these situations arise when learning from home. Also, if you lose your internet connection in the middle of a lecture or Q & A session, it’s like missing the class. Although it is easier to cheat since every test is an open book test. And since instructors can’t read your body language through a chat box, lectures can’t tell if they’re losing the audience with monotonous speeches about intellectual property law.
However, communicating with your professors and classmates is fairly easy due to the many technologies that online colleges employ. Voice chat, video and voice chat, text chat, and message boards are all methods of asking questions and getting help when you are enrolled in one of best accredited online paralegal programs.
As mentioned before, each college has its own required course load. Here are a few of the possible online paralegal courses you would have to take:
This is by no means an exhaustive list and every college is different. The ABA requires 18 credit hours in the areas of general education (math, science, language arts) and 18 hours in the legal specialty area. Non ABA approved paralegal programs can make up their program however they want since they are not governed by any agency.
However, upon graduation, students should be able to write at a college level, demonstrate competency in oral communication, have appropriate computer skills (word processors, spreadsheets, databases, online research, email, etc, and have attended a paralegal focused classes in litigation, legal writing, legal research, probate, real estate law, and any other legal specialty classes needed to complete their 18 hours. Classes in law office management and computer systems as well as internships is recommended. Basically, you should know how to write drafts, do legal research, know how to use a computer, and be knowledgeable in the basics of law.
When deciding on an online program, it is important to choose an ABA accredited paralegal program. Not only will you get a better education and be more prepared for your paralegal career in the long run, but many law firms won’t hire paralegals that went to a school that wasn’t ABA accredited unless that have substantive experience. While getting a degree in three months seems great, it would be a waste of time and money if you are not able to find employment after graduation or realize you have no idea how to do your job and possibly cost clients their homes or freedom. There are many paralegal schools online with ABA approval such as Texas A & M, Georgetown University, the University of Tulsa, and Arkansas State.
Non-ABA Approved Schools
|School||Price||Type of Degree||Time Requirement|
|George Mason University||$1,095||Certificate||14 Weeks|
|Boston University for Professional Education||$3,495||Certificate||14 Weeks|
|Duke University||$6,995||Certificate||156 Hours|
|University of California-Berkeley||$7,000||Certificate||6 Months|
|Kaplan University||$13,356||Certificate||36 Credit Hours|
|Kaplan University||$33,390||Associate's||90 Credit Hours|
|Kaplan University||$66,780||Bachelor's||180 Credit Hours|
ABA Approved Schools
|school||price||type of degree||time requirement|
|Delaware County Community College||$11,050||Certificate||1 Year|
|Union County College||$9,996||Certificate||Unknown|
|Illinois Central College||$8,558||Certificate||Unknown|
|Community College of Philidelphia||$13,800||Associate's||8 Months|
|Edison State College||$12,979||Associate's||Unknown|
As you can see, the prices for a paralegal classes can vary wildly. And most surprising is that accredited paralegal programs don’t really run that much more. Especially considering a course as short as 14 weeks compared to one that runs for an entire year. Many of these colleges with flashy commercials stating that you can get a paralegal degree online in less than 4 months are just trying to get a quick buck and then spit you out into the workforce.
There is an important distinction to note though when it comes to online paralegal schools. The ABA requires certificates only be awarded to students who have completed a bachelor’s program and are looking for post graduate education. Whereas the degree mills will basically hand a certificate to anyone who can pay the tuition. Many, if not most of the ABA approved paralegal programs offer bachelor’s programs as well.
You know the pros and cons of online schools vs traditional colleges, you know why you should pick an accredited school, and you have an idea of what it will cost. But what will your paralegal education actually entail? What books will you need? Will you be the oldest student there? What will you actually be doing? Do students still use pencils? The answer to all of these is no.
DO – Orient yourself with the technology. You will be using a lot of different software to attend classes, communicate with professors and peers, perform research, and complete assignments. You don’t want to miss a due date because you couldn’t find the sort button in Excel.
DO – Log in as soon as you have access. This will give you a chance to get a feel of the system you will be working on. Play around, find what all the buttons do, and get familiar with it. Also, MAKE SURE YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT CLASS. That isn’t something you want to figure out a week into the course
DO – Introduce yourself. This is usually the part of the semester that every student hates because you have to stand up, say your name, and what your favorite childhood cartoon was. This is much easier. You will be working with these people for a while and since they can’t see you sitting in the back of the room, you need to stand up and make yourself known.
DO – Order your textbooks. Do this as soon as possible as well so you aren’t falling behind on assignments because you can’t turn to page 42. When ordering, double check the edition as these are often updated, usually every year, to keep new textbook sales up. Generally it just involves rearranging the pages. Seriously, what new information did we discover in the past year about Greek mythology?
DO – Prepare your schedule. Pull out your calendar or calendar app and mark out the time when your class meets. Add 30 minutes to each end. If this conflicts with anything, move that thing. Also, note the dates of deadlines, quizzes, tests, picnics, etc. Time management is key to distance learning because it is so easy to get distracted or skip class. This isn’t English 1, this is your future career and it’s not just for a grade, this is the information that is going to help you in your future job. Make sure that your family, roommates, significant others know not to bother you during these times.
DO – Be active in conversations. Again, no one can see you not participating and you may not get the help you need so if you have a question, ask it. Just don’t troll. These people are here for an education, just like you.
DON’T – Think that because this paralegal course is online that it isn’t as important as a “real” class. You will be studying the same materials, taking the same tests, and be held to the same standards that students in traditional schools are. In fact, distance learning classes are often harder because you have less accountability to show up, pay attention, and do the work. It is much easier to get chewed out by an instructor online than to be shamed in a classroom. Take this seriously because everyone else is.
DON’T – Try to attend your classes at Starbucks. Not only is it rude to take up a seat for hours after buying one small coffee but the distraction circus that is a coffeehouse is not the most conducive environment for learning. If you need to get out of the house, go to a library and find a desk in a quiet area.
DON’T – Wait til the last minute on every deadline. Computers crash, internet connections fail, and emails get lost. Unlike a traditional classroom where you can hand in a paper, If you’re out of time, you’re out of luck.
DON’T – Ask questions that have already been answered or are easily found with a quick internet search. You’re wasting everyone’s time and bandwidth. Research is a large part of a paralegal’s duties and job description, so you’d better get good at it now.
Depending on your class time and class size, you will usually sign into your school’s system to browsing through the roughly 75 new posts that are submitted every day. About 30 minutes before your class is supposed to start, you’ll sign in and welcome everyone, see if everyone else completed the assignments, and generally chit chat.
This is also the time for bathroom breaks and soda refills. Once class has begun, you will be watching and listening intently while taking notes and asking any questions you may have in the appropriate chats (as long as they aren’t easily found answers. Don’t be that guy). Once class is over, questions will be answered and probably asked again. This will go on for about 45 minutes. Then you’ll take a break and, depending on your schedule, get started on your assignments. You’ll finish about a quarter of it and tell yourself you’ll finish the rest tomorrow.
Professional certification is a voluntary process by which a nongovernmental entity grants a time-limited recognition to an individual after verifying that the individual has met predetermined, standardized criteria. (Source: Rops, Mickie S., CAE, Understanding the Language of Credentialing, American Society of Association Executives, May 2002.)
Getting your paralegal certification is an optional process but should be one you strongly consider. First and foremost, it proves you know what you are doing and that you are qualified for the job. Second, it makes finding employment much easier.
Because it is voluntary, there will be applicants who don’t have it and you will stand out among them. It shows that not only do you know the job but you will go the extra mile to make sure something is done right. And since there is more than one paralegal certificate, you can make your resume stand out even more. Plus introducing yourself as a certified paralegal just sounds a lot more impressive. It isn’t possible to get your paralegal certificate online without meeting some requirements. There are no online paralegal certification programs other than membership. For certifications require testing, you will have to physically take the test.
NALA – The National Association of Legal Assistants (Paralegals) is the most widely recognized certification in the industry. The test is $125, takes two days, and covers 5 sections:
|Examination Section||Total Points||Percent of Points Required to Pass|
|Judgment and Analytical Ability||150||73.1%|
NFPA – The National Federation of Paralegal Associations is the second most popular certification in the industry. Their test costs $350 and is made up of two parts; 1. general legal issues and ethics and 2. specialty sections.
You must have one of the following:
Yes, I know math. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense. That’s what the rules say.
NALS – The National Association of Legal Professionals (formerly the National Association of Legal Secretaries) offers a paralegal certification exam for $250. There are 3 levels of certification available.
ALS test consists of 3 parts: Written communications, office procedures and legal knowledge, and human relations and judgement
Requirements – One of the following:
PLS exam takes one day and consists of 4 parts: Written communications, office procedures and technology, ethics and judgement, and legal knowledge and skills.
Requirements – To take the test you must have completed one of the following:
PP test is made up of four parts as well and covers written communication, legal knowledge and skills, ethics and judgement skills, and substantive law. Any failed section can be retaken.
Requirements – One or more of the following:
AAPI – American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc. has no test, only a membership fee of $20 per year. However you do still have to meet requirements:
Paralegal internships can vary from mundane coffee-grabbing, copy-making gopher to a legitimate paralegal job without the pay. It all depends on the law firm or the government agency you intern with. But either way, you’ll learn a lot. Some paralegal schools require you to complete an internship before graduation but even if yours doesn’t, it’s still a good idea. If you are going to school full time, internships are possible because the school makes provisions for it but if you work full time and go to school part time, a paralegal internship may not be an option for you.
These internships are generally unpaid but the amount of real world experience you’ll get will more than make up for it. Though you can’t pay your rent with that. Paralegal certificate courses teach you what you need to complete the tasks in your job but what they don’t teach you is how an office works or how many copies to send to the court or what requires a cover sheet or how to fix an Error j32 paper jam from the copier. Its part of what it means to be a paralegal.
Only getting out into the real office environment and failing a few times before you learn what to do will teach you that. And you don’t want your first few months at your new job that you waited and worked so hard for to be full of failures. There are other benefits to internships as well. Office birthday cake, free pens, and water cooler gossip are just a few of them.
One of the biggest takeaways will be the people you meet. People in the legal industry know each other and if you make a good impression, it will be much easier to find a job after graduation. Maybe even right back into where you interned. Finding an internship may be difficult. Here are some methods to try: