For the record, Pls Hndle Thx should not be viewed as a straight-up advice column. Rather, PHT represents Above the Law’s irreverent reinterpretation of the conventional advice column, and the “advice” offered therein should be taken with (more than) a grain of salt. Alas, judging from some of the reader comments and blogosphere reactions, Marin and Elie’s comments were taken seriously — and viewed as insulting to paralegals, which was definitely not their intent.
Based on the intense reaction (and traffic) to that controversial column, however, we learned that many people are interested in a more serious story about how educational credentials will affect the search for paralegal positions. Here it is….
For this post, we reached out to two prominent figures within the paralegal world:
- Gary Melhuish, Manager of Litigation Support Services at Ballard Spahr and Past President of the International Paralegal Management Association; and
- Chere Estrin, Editor-in-Chief, KNOW: The Magazine for Paralegals.
Our questions and their responses appear below. (We made minor edits for length, clarity, and conformity to ATL style.)
If someone wants to become a paralegal, is an Associate in Arts (A.A.) degree sufficient? Or is a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree preferable?
MELHUISH: Unlike law school for attorneys, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all educational path for paralegals. I am going to focus on people who are choosing to become paralegals as a career, rather than people who inhabit paralegal jobs as a testing ground prior to law school. (There is a valid role for the latter, particularly in Biglaw, and they don’t necessarily need to have specific paralegal training to perform the tasks we hire them for in larger firms.)
The level of education necessary to gain entry into the paralegal field is greatly influenced by the geographic location of the firm and the person’s individual goals. Educational institutions that offer paralegal programs are best able to respond to the specific requirements of the local legal community and any state regulations that have been put in place. Over the past five years, I have been serving as a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals Approval Commission. I have visited paralegal training programs in places as diverse as Los Angeles, California, and Big Rapids, Michigan. Some schools offer A.A. degrees, others B.A. degrees, and some have post-baccalaureate certificates. But the common denominator is that they have strong ties to the local legal community and understand the level of training which is desired by employers for their new paralegals. Much like a first-year attorney, no one expects that an entry-level paralegal is going to have all the skills necessary to be successful. But the education, at whatever level the local legal community deems appropriate, gives them the necessary vocabulary and experience to become valuable to the employer.
Certainly a B.A. degree will offer a higher number of entry-level opportunities to a potential paralegal than an A.A. However, many paralegals who get the A.A. degree continue to work towards a B.A. once they have their first legal job. It isn’t such a stretch since many of them earned their A.A. degrees by going to school in the evenings. While there are a number of us who started our paralegal careers right out of college, there are a high number of paralegal students who are pursing their second or third careers. They are accustomed to juggling full-time employment and continued education. I always encourage young paralegals who have not completed a B.A. to get one — it certainly is the standard in most large cities/large firms and offers the greatest options for mobility — but the BA does not necessarily need to be in paralegal studies. An A.A. in paralegal studies with a B.A. in allmost any field of study is extremely marketable.
ESTRIN: An A.A. used to be sufficient. However, most employers would rather see a B.A. degree plus a certificate from an ABA-approved school. There are about 1,000 paralegal schools in the U.S. and only about 200 are ABA approved. There are now about 13 states with educational requirements for hiring, mandatory continuing legal education and more. In some states, such as California, a paralegal without a B.A. degree must have an attorney who will, in effect, “sponsor them.” An A.A. degree is sufficient in certain parts of the country — third- and fourth-tier cities. An A.A. does not hold up very well in major metropolitan areas and definitely not in the major firms. No major firm that I am aware of accepts paralegals without a B.A., and many of them require a B.A. from a top school.
What factors should a candidate consider when choosing among educational options in the paralegal field?
ESTRIN: The A.A. degrees are phasing out around the country in lieu of the B.A. degree. One negative is the vocational schools that have sprung up. Some of these are misleading, charging a huge fee and not getting paralegals jobs. They have no admissions requirements other than a GED. It’s a big black mark as far as I am concerned.
MELHUISH: In selecting a potential training program (and degree option), a student should be looking for a few things:
- Is the school ABA approved? An education program which has gone through the ABA approval process has demonstrated a particular level of commitment to the overall education of paralegals. There are minimum credit requirements for both general education and legal specialty courses that help to insure that a student is given a thorough exposure to basic legal concepts while developing critical thinking and practical skills. Schools that choose ABA approval make a substantial investment of time and money to meet the standards. Certain employers specifically require that a person have an educational credential from an ABA-approved program.
- What are the graduation rates and “placement” rates for the program? A good program, whether ABA-approved or not, should be able to provide evidence that their graduates are working in paralegal or related jobs. Where their graduates are working speaks volumes about their educational program. And if their graduates are getting jobs, the degree option being offered (A.A., B.A., Certificate) must be working.
- Does the education include an internship or practicum? Many programs require that students work in law firms as part of their education, which gives them both practical experience and the opportunity to impress a potential employer (read this as the paralegal equivalent of being a summer associate — only without the summer associate social outings). Hands-on experience is essential for paralegals; it’s what differentiates us from the attorneys. Attorneys know why; paralegals know how.
- Does the education presentation format match your learning style? Many schools are offering on-line or other alternative forms of education. Is that learning style compatible with the student? Alternative presentation styles don’t work well for everyone. And overall, attorneys tend to be more skeptical of the quality of on-line educational programs. At the end of the day, law is still a business with a high level of interpersonal contact, and those skills are honed in a classroom – not in front of a computer.
- What is the total amount of time you are required to commit to the education? Since there are no particular requirements for an institution to call themselves a paralegal school (only about 270 of the schools in the U.S. have decided to seek ABA approval), there is ample space for “weekend wonder” programs to entice students to become paralegals without sufficient training time or experience. Some of these programs are offered in continuing education programs by major colleges and universities that are slapping their names on pre-packaged education developed and presented by a third-party vendor. Schools that claim that you can become a paralegal in 10 weekends generally aren’t the places that hiring managers are going to call when they want to fill a position.
What opportunities are available to paralegals or individuals with paralegal training? And does this vary by firm type — e.g., Biglaw vs. non-Biglaw?
MELHUISH: The opportunities for paralegals, much like lawyers, become more varied once you have the experience. Unlike lawyers in large firms who tend to get focused on a particular practice area early in their careers and rarely make radical changes, paralegals — even in large firms — have a greater ability to make leap into other areas of law if they are so interested. I believe that this comes about since there isn’t a set career path set or expected of paralegals.
For a traditional law firm attorney, the path goes: law school, associate, partner, retired partner, dead! Everyone knows what the next step should be if you are going to stay in the firm. Paralegals end up in all sorts of different roles in law firms — in large firms they end up in recruitment, marketing, litigation support, office management. My experience is that lawyers tend to look at experienced paralegals with a more open mind as to the types of roles that they can play. Without preconceived expectations, paralegals are able to find niches which complement their talents and interests in a traditional law firm setting with more ease than attorneys. And as noted in some of the comments to your posting, they usually get there without a back-breaking level of debt.
In my 30-year career in the legal industry, I have taken a post-bac paralegal certificate and been able to work in three major cities for two national law firms and a large bank, assisted attorneys in multiple areas of the law, taught in a major university’s paralegal studies program and been a speaker at educational conferences for attorneys and paralegals. For 20 years, I have been a manager of paralegals, and in the past five years, I have been in charge of litigation support professionals. There’s a real career out there for people who take on the challenges that exist and continue to open up for paralegals. The degree is just the first step.
ESTRIN: There is a tremendous difference in paralegal opportunities depending upon education and size of firm. In some of the law boutiques and smaller firms, paralegals have responsibilities from “womb to tomb,” so to speak. They draft documents, attend trial, prepare closing documents, prepare settlement agreements, do client intakes, attend trial, and conduct some legal research (always a touchy area with attorneys). Generally speaking, these paralegals have a much broader scope of duties; they are not the document jockeys that some people make them out to be. In fact, many more-seasoned paralegals in firms of all sizes are actually doing what was deemed first- and second-year associate work prior to the recessions in 2001 and 2008. I know many, many paralegals who actually train first-year associates. It’s the big secret that law firms carry and associates will not talk about.
Paralegals have created a hierarchy and paralegals without much education don’t tend to get too far. They tend to do routine and repetitious assignments in firms that are not necessarily rated the highest. (I am speaking generally now, please understand.)
Paralegals with B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees go much further. The field is only just now creating more rungs on the ladder, beyond just entry-level, mid-level and senior level. For years, the paralegal programs in firms were closely patterned after associate programs. Also bear in mind that, generally speaking, the average age of a paralegal student is 36-38 — this is someone who has had another career, and brings a lot of business experience to the table. It’s generally a second or even third career for most people.
In major firms, the work is different for paralegals. Paralegals work mostly in a phase, rather than handling a case from beginning to end or a matter. For example, a litigation paralegal in a major firm will most likely NOT be working on an answer to a complaint, as in a small firm. They will most likely be relegated to the discovery phase. This is no longer a position of just organizing documents. Paralegals are expected to know technology (which most attorneys do not); how to design a database (not just be an end user); understand e-discovery in both substantive and technology (attorneys are only expected to know the substantive end); and much more. The assignments are sophisticated and well beyond many first- and second-year associate levels. A corporate paralegal will work on incorporations and closings.
Understand that things changed with the downsizing or “rightsizing” of law firms in the past 10 years. Because firms no longer hire hordes of associates, the work had to go somewhere — so it went to the paralegals. Clients got work done by a competent, well-trained person, at a lower rate, and became used to that.
I have a friend at a major firm who earned $400,000 last year. Her position? She was a corporate paralegal who moved into account management for a group of lawyers. She is the liaison between the attorney, billing, and the client. She fixes things, essentially. She has been at the firm 20 years. She trains younger associates.
I know other paralegals in boutiques that used to have ONLY partners and paralegals. The paralegals carried out the transactional work. Paralegals there make around $150k – $200k. These are highly trained, sophisticated paralegals well respected by lawyers and clients.
Sure, there are personal injury mills, and there are paralegals who function in these mills. However, the ratio of paralegals is generally 1 to 5 attorneys. So for every paralegal in a mill, there are 5 attorneys. And believe me, they depend upon that paralegal to get their work done.
Paralegals in both mid-size and larger firms have opportunities to move up, and the degree is a big factor. Paralegal managers in major firms handle not only workflow but recruiting, training, and budgets. They have responsibilities for making sure that the department makes a significant profit. They have budget responsibilities as any other manager of a department. They are responsible to see that those budgets are met. These paralegal managers came up through the ranks and can make around $150k to over $200k. (See the most recent IPMA Salary Survey.)
There is another paralegal I know who moved up through the ranks and is now the firm-wide marketing director of a major, top ten law firm, making well over $200k. She got there because of her skills. These paralegals are leaders in the field and represent the bulk of the paralegals.
We thank Gary Melhuish and Chere Estrin for sharing their insights with us. There are some excellent career opportunities within the paralegal field, paralegal pay is on the rise, and if you pursue a paralegal degree rather than law school, it’s less likely that you’ll wind up with six figures in educational debt.