ABA approval: raising the bar

ABA approval: raising the bar

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Paralegal education programs that are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) have gone that extra mile toward providing a consistent high standard of learning in the paralegal field. Not only do they need to meet defined, demanding standards for ABA approval; they need to be reapproved by the ABA on a regular basis to maintain their ABA-approved status.

The ABA Approval Process

The ABA has a Standing Committee on Paralegals, and within that committee is an Approval Commission which sets standards for paralegal education. A schools that wishes to have its paralegal education program approved by the ABA must complete a specific approval process. This process includes self-evaluation reports from the school itself, along with an on-site evaluation of the program to verify compliance with ABA guidelines.

In addition, no program is approved until it has been in place for at least two years and has successful graduates. A record of this is reflected in the exhibits that must be submitted to the ABA Standing Committee as part of the approval process. These exhibits include data such as:

  • Student enrollment by year and degree
  • Number of graduates by year and degree
  • Advisory committee members by category, name, primary employment, type of business, etc.
  • Paralegal program faculty composition by year, gender and racial-ethnic background
  • Curriculum for each program option
  • Legal specialty courses

This is only a sampling of the information that a school must provide to demonstrate that its program meets ABA Guidelines. The ABA then reviews these materials and contacts the program director if more information is needed.

After the ABA determines from the exhibits that a particular program appears to meet its guidelines, an on-site evaluation of both the program and the institution is scheduled. This on-site review is conducted by two-person team; members of this team can include representatives of the Standing Committee or Approval Commission, experienced paralegals, paralegal managers and directors of ABA-approved programs. This review can take one to two days.

After the visit, the review team submits a report to the Approval Commission for review and action. Then, the Approval Commission’s recommendations are submitted to the Standing Committee on Paralegals. If everything is in order and the program complies with ABA guidelines, the Standing Committee submits its recommendation to the ABA House of Delegates, which gives the program final approval. This initial approval is for seven years; then, the program must apply for reapproval in order to retain its ABA-approved status.

As you can see, this is an intensive process that evaluates the quality of paralegal programs, and only accepts those that meet specific standards consistent with ABA-approved guidelines. And, to make sure that quality is maintained, approved programs submit interim reports to the ABA. As of 2013, there were over 275 ABA-approved paralegal programs nationwide.

How important is it to get an education through an ABA-approved program?

Although ABA approval demonstrates a paralegal program’s high standards and consistency, an ABA-approved program is not necessarily the only way to gain a good paralegal education. Even the ABA concurs that there should be an array of ways that an individual can gain competence as a paralegal. This is reflected in its definition of a paralegal: a person “qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” Thus, you can see that the ABA recognizes that there are qualified paralegals who do not necessarily have a paralegal education, but who have become competent and effective through on-the-job training or years of experience.

Benefits of ABA-approved Program

Relevance

An ABA-approved program has been developed not only by the school, but with input from paralegal associations, local bar associations, experienced paralegals, paralegal managers, law firm representatives, corporations, government agencies and other organizations that may hire paralegals. In other words, there has been an assessment not only of the need for paralegals, but of the specific skills and knowledge needed by paralegals in the real world. As a result, an ABA-approved program has been designed to meet very real needs of law, business and government. In addition, a required advisory committee comprised of professionals and educators drawn primarily from the school’s local community helps ensure that such a program remains relevant.

Ongoing Investment

Schools that successfully complete the ABA approval process have shown a definite commitment to their program through research, assessments, meeting with the stakeholders, completing the application process, covering expenses for site evaluation teams and paying application, processing, renewal and other fees. This is a considerable investment and many students have greater confidence in their education when they know that they are not the only ones investing in it. And, this investment is far from over once a school has been approved: ABA Guidelines require that schools have the finances to maintain their paralegal programs, including funds for facilities, staff, equipment and other essentials.

Quality, Rounded Education

A program that is ABA-approved must meet specific requirements for classroom hours and emphasize not only courses related to law, but a solid foundation of general education courses. In addition, these programs all stress the need for developing strong oral and written communication skills.

In assessing a paralegal program, the ABA takes many things into consideration, including:

  • Instructor qualifications and experience
  • Course syllabi
  • Textbooks
  • Instructional materials
  • Instructional support
  • Specific library resources including state codes, legal encyclopedias, law dictionaries, periodicals, local and state bar journals that apply to the paralegal professional and paralegal textbooks
  • Student resources
  • The location of classes and resources
  • Counseling and job placement services
  • Adequate classroom facilities

ABA programs seem to uniformly understand that a good paralegal isn’t someone who just knows the nuts and bolts of forms and legal definitions. Thus, these programs strive to develop the person as a whole.

What kinds of schools offer ABA-approved programs?

Because of the rigorous guidelines and evaluations that must be met to obtain ABA approval, one might assume that only law schools or larger four-year institutions have ABA-approved programs; however, the ABA has gone to great lengths to ensure that a quality paralegal education is available on many levels. Technical colleges, two-year community colleges, four-year colleges and universities and law schools are all able to develop paralegal programs and apply for ABA approval.

So, if your funds are limited and you need to attend a small community college that is close to home, you needn’t think you have to compromise on your education. A less expensive school with an ABA-approved program could give you a good grounding in the basic skills of a paralegal and prepare you to enter the workforce without the debt you’d take on if you studied at a private school.

What if I can’t or don’t want to go to an ABA-approved school?

Not all states have ABA-approved schools, and there may not be an ABA-approved school near you. That should in no way deter you from acquiring a quality paralegal education. You can look at the schools you are considering in the same way that the ABA does. Most schools are more than eager to answer any questions you have and you can make a list of things to consider when selecting a program, including:

  • Faculty qualifications and professional experience
  • Course descriptions
  • Library facilities
  • Modern research tools such as Westlaw and LexisNexis
  • Defined program goals
  • Student services such as tutoring, career counseling and job placement services
  • Internship programs or cooperative education programs in clinics
  • School accreditation
  • Professional associations of which the school is a member
  • Hiring statistics of past graduates
  • Cost
  • Living arrangements

A well-rounded paralegal program, whether ABA-approved or not, should have courses in substantive law, as well as legal courses in specialty fields such as torts, estates and wills, family law, real estate law and criminal law. You should also look for general education courses that cover the humanities, social sciences, math and science, and courses that teach legal technology, office procedures and management.

The paralegal profession can be rewarding, both financially and in offering personal fulfillment, and it has a higher projected growth rate than many other professions. As such, it is also becoming a profession in which more individuals have become interested, and it can be competitive. An individual who has applied himself or herself to learning and developing practical paralegal skills–regardless of whether these skill are learned in an ABA-approved program–usually has an edge in getting the better jobs.

What do employers want?

Although having an ABA-approved education is not absolutely necessary, you should be aware that many employers see completion of an ABA-approved program as a plus, as do some paralegal professional associations when qualifying candidates for certification. As in law, your education and future career are worth the research. It’s a good idea to spend some time online looking at the job opportunities for paralegals and legal assistants in your area. Make a list of the qualifications these employers are looking for and plan your education to give them what they want.

To be a highly paid paralegal you need a foundation of a good education and may need to pick a specific area of the law for your specialty courses. For many, an ABA-approved program provides the foundation they need to get to where they want to go.

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