A Guide to Quality Paralegal Education

INTRODUCTION

History and Diversity of Paralegal Education

Education has played and continues to play a vital role in the development of the paralegal profession. Although "on the job training" remains an important element in developing successful paralegals, the role of higher education and formal paralegal education is increasingly important in the growth and development of the paralegal profession.

In only three decades, paralegal education has evolved from a handful of programs to several hundred across the United States, from brick and mortar institutions to on-line and hybrid programs. Paralegal education is recognized in several foreign countries including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. This dynamic growth has been marked by great diversity -- in terms of the type of educational institution (community colleges, public and private four-year colleges, and proprietary schools) and the level of the education (Associate Degrees, Baccalaureate Degrees, Baccalaureate Degrees with a paralegal minor, post-degree certificates, and Masters Degrees). Additionally, some programs offer a general curriculum with classes in the major areas of paralegal practice, while others offer specialization in particular areas of the law, such as; civil litigation, corporate/business, real estate, family law, and domestic relations. This variety is in response to differing regional needs to which those programs respond, varying student populations they serve, as well as the overall structure of public education in the specific state.

Student populations vary by academic needs and expectations, together with the degree of maturity and experience with which they pursue their academic work. The differences among student populations influence not only their selection and the content of paralegal specialty courses, but also often dictates their general educational needs. Such differences continue to intensify, as our population seeks to expand horizons and employment opportunities. Consequently, educators must be able to respond to students’ actual needs as they become apparent. With more adult learners, especially veterans, schools are faced with a student population that generally reflects the general population in their geographic area. Geography accounts for much of our educational diversity. Each region experiences its own ebb and flow in the development of legal specializations. A high demand for expertise in immigration law may currently exist in California, for example, but less so in Oklahoma, where the law surrounding oil and gas development or Native American issues may have greater urgency.

Geography accounts for much of our educational diversity and each region experiences it own legal specialization. A high demand for expertise in one area, such as immigration law, is often due to geographic location. Other such areas would include maritime law in coastal areas, and water law in the arid regions.

Local business cycles affect educational focus. One year's boom in corporate mergers and acquisitions might bring next year's growth in bankruptcy practice. Similarly, an overheated market in real estate lending may eventually lead to new demands for paralegals experienced in foreclosure procedures. Reform of tort law may affect the way in which that area of the law is practiced. To serve students well, educational institutions must be able to adapt to a constantly changing legal landscape and offer legal specialty courses to prepare them to assist lawyers in these areas of law.

Recently, paralegal educators have detected another trend requiring flexibility and creativity in curriculum design. More and more graduates are seeking and are finding paralegal employment outside the traditional law office setting. Opportunities in corporations, governmental entities, and other law-related settings are as law office employment becomes more limited and specialized in some regions. Freelance or contract paralegal opportunities are also increasing as the trend to down-size legal departments in governmental agencies and law firms continue. The law office is no longer the only employer for which paralegal students must be educated, creating new educational obligations for educators.

Another source of change and diversity is on the horizon. Various states are considering regulatory schemes that would affect local paralegal students as well as the curriculum. Careful study of the proposals made by state legislatures, state bar and supreme court committees in the last several years reveals only one commonality among them: no two are alike. Given the differences that already exist, no one can assume uniformity among future state regulatory schemes. In years to come, schools may have no choice but to conform to their own state's.

Paralegal education will continue to experience changes. As we establish common goals and agree on today's minimum educational standards, we must allow schools to respond to local trends to meet the unique needs of their own student populations and local legal environment.

While recognizing the need to maintain diversity and the flexibility of trends in the legal environment, the American Association for Paralegal Education (“AAfPE”) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations believe that all programs should incorporate the basic guidelines in this document. These principles provide a strong foundation upon which to build a quality paralegal educational program and something to which all educational institutions should aspire.

SPONSORING ORGANIZATIONS

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. was formed in 1974 as a federation of eight existing local paralegal groups to promote the growth and development of the paralegal profession. Recognizing the importance of education in the continued growth and development of the paralegal profession, NFPA® created an Education/Accreditation Task Force in 1986. In 1994 that task force was reorganized and renamed the Education Committee.

The American Association for Paralegal Education was established in 1981 to promote high standards for paralegal education. In 1992, it formed a special Task Force on Core Competencies to develop a listing of the fundamental competencies that high quality paralegal programs should be teaching in their core curriculum. After two years of work, AAfPE's Board of Directors unanimously adopted the task force's recommendations in October of 1994. In response to the 1995 membership survey, the Board of Directors began the task of drafting a set of educational standards for membership approval.

Today, NFPA has an elected coordinator who is the liaison to AAfPE and education institutions across the country. The Education Coordinator reaches out to educator and students to promote NFPA and its education policies.

This document draws upon the above-cited work of both organizations and represents a join effort to identify and publicize a common set of nationally recognized standards as to the various elements that should be included in paralegal educational programs.

GOALS OF DOCUMENT

This document is designed to provide assistance to paralegal educators, prospective students, and employers. Both AAfPE and NFPA acknowledge that there are limitless possibilities when designing paralegal programs and that reasonable minds will disagree as to which program designs are best suited to prepare well-educated students. The curriculum found in this document should serve as a strong foundation on which to build a quality paralegal program and something to which all educational institutions should aspire.

Educational institutions researching the feasibility of offering a paralegal program can use this document in its initial research and in the ultimate design of its educational program. This document should assist programs already in existence as each program is periodically reviewed to determine if curriculum changes are appropriate.

It is hoped prospective students can use this document to analyze the curriculum of all the educational institutions they may be considering to determine if the programs will adequately prepare them for employment as paralegals.

A second goal of this document is to explore the variety of program offerings and encourage prospective students to seek the educational situation that best meets their personal needs and goals.

Employers can gain insight into the variety of educational credentials represented by candidates for paralegal positions. Those seeking to hire paralegals can use this document to familiarize themselves with the types of programs available and the standards of quality in paralegal education.

PARALEGALS

Specialty Practice Areas

Many paralegals specialize in a particular practice area of the law. Specialization can be achieved through a general paralegal curriculum and on-the-job training, or through selecting legal specialty courses. Some of the most common specialties for paralegals include the following:

Administrative Law
Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR)
Appellate Practice
Asbestos Litigation
Bankruptcy and Debt Collection
Business/Corporate
Collections
Computer Litigation
Construction
Contract Administration
Criminal Law
Domestic Relations/Family Law
eDiscovery
Employment Benefits
Environmental Law
Foreclosure
Immigration
Intellectual Property
Labor/Employment
Litigation
Paralegal Management/Administration (related career)
Personal Injury/Medical Malpractice/Product Liability
Probate and Estate Administration
Public Benefits
Real Property
Securities/Municipal Bonds
Tax
Workers Compensation

(See the National Federation of Paralegal Associations' "PARALEGAL RESPONSIBILITIES" (PDF) for a comprehensive analysis of these specialty areas.)

Paralegal programs should build upon their core curriculum by requiring students to successfully complete legal specialty courses designed to teach the specialized knowledge paralegals need to know in order to work in one or more of these paralegal specialty areas. Some paralegal programs may combine the core courses with a single specialty area while others may offer a wide variety of alternative specialty courses. Depending upon the length of the academic term and the number of class meetings involved, some specialty areas may require the completion of more than one course. The decision as to which specialty areas are offered should be based on job opportunities in the local market and the availability of faculty expertise.

AAFPE membership requirements include that 18 semester hours at a minimum be devoted to the combination of paralegal core and specialty courses. NFPA recommends a minimum of 24 semester hours be taken in these areas.

Roles and Responsibilities

Paralegals have a variety of backgrounds, experience, education, duties and responsibilities across a broad range of practice areas. Only statutory or court authority and a supervising attorney's determination of the paralegal's competency limits the type of tasks a paralegal may perform. Paralegals perform the same functions as attorneys except those generally prohibited by unauthorized practice of law statutes, i.e., accepting clients, setting legal fees, giving legal advice, or representing others in court. The delivery of legal services by non-lawyers before many federal administrative agencies is a well-established practice. Some jurisdictions now allow paralegals limited appearances in specific courts, for specific motions and hearing.

Because the law is complex and often ambiguous, paralegals must be intelligent with an analytical and logical mind. They must be able to recognize and evaluate relevant facts and legal concepts, and have the ability to organize, analyze, communicate, and administer. Other interpersonal skills paralegals should possess are the ability to resolve conflicts, negotiate, and relate well with many types of personalities, often when they are in distress.

As paralegals became more integrated into the legal team and the work delegated to paralegals became more substantive in nature, attorneys began to include time paralegal services in fee petitions permitted by state or federal statutes. In the early 1980s, courts began to recognize that paralegals were separate from support staff and encouraged attorneys to provide legal services in the most efficient manner possible. Courts awarding fees for paralegal services consistently point out that if the work had not been done by paralegals, the fees charged would be based upon paralegal rates.

Ethics

An understanding of ethics and professional responsibility is critical to paralegals. The expanding role of the paralegal in the delivery of legal services, the evolution of technology and its use in the legal industry, and the increasingly complex and dynamic legal environment make it essential for every paralegal to be firmly grounded in ethical principles. Paralegals must be well-informed about the specific rules governing their conduct and the conduct of the lawyers with whom they work.

Further, paralegals must be cognizant of the sometimes hazy boundaries of the practice of law and conduct themselves in a way that does not inadvertently violate those boundaries. They must be able to identify a potential conflict of interest arising from their professional work or personal interests and know how to address it in a way that protects the interests of their firm and the client(s) involved. They must fully understand the intricacies of the attorney-client privilege and the broader duty of confidentiality and act carefully to preserve each client's privacy. They must uphold the highest standards of competency, professionalism, and integrity in all of their work and in their communications with others.

Both NFPA and AAfPE believe that paralegals should uphold a professional level of ethical standards. In 1993, NFPA created and adopted a Model Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility (NFPA Model Code). This code provides paralegals with ethical guidelines and standards for professional conduct to which every paralegal should aspire. In 1997, NFPA incorporated disciplinary rules into the Model Code for the purpose of providing a mechanism by which the rules of conduct set forth in the Model Code could be enforced. The resulting document consisting of both the rules of conduct and the disciplinary rules is known as NFPA's "Model Code and Guidelines." The Model Code is updated as warranted by case law and any changes to rules of court may require. Through its Ethics Board, NFPA provides opinions and information in response to inquiries about ethical actions and activities.

Required Skills

Paralegals perform substantive legal work that, absent the paralegal, would be performed by an attorney. The depth of knowledge and sense of responsibility that paralegals bring to the work environment make them a vital part of the legal effort. The following are basic fundamental skills and character traits that are essential for an effective paralegal:

Honesty: No one should be in this profession unless they are trustworthy. The practice of law is a fiduciary undertaking, for both the paralegal and the lawyer.

Loyalty: Like honesty, this trait emanates from character and is demonstrated over time.

Analytical Skills/Good Judgment: Analytical ability and good judgment are key qualities necessary to being an effective paralegal. Nowhere do we gain more insight into good judgment making than through our mistakes. Extreme care is crucial when it comes to making moral and ethical decisions regarding the paralegal's work.

Knowledge: A paralegal acquires knowledge through formal paralegal education as well as from professional experience. It is imperative to continue to learn and grow to achieve the highest standard of excellence in one's chosen practice area.

Communication: It is vital to communicate simply and clearly in concise and precise language, whether oral or written.

Organization: Lawyers depend upon their paralegals to provide organization of the case.

Attention to Detail: A paralegal must be detail-oriented. Minor details that are overlooked can spell disaster at a critical moment in a case.

Motivation: The paralegal must desire to be and to do the absolute best.

Empathy: Every paralegal must possess compassion for individuals, understand and respect the circumstances or problems which may confront each client, and commit themselves to professionally serve the client to the best of their ability.

Employers Expectations

The goal of a paralegal educational program is to provide a student with the information and skills necessary to successfully function as a paralegal. Some employers are partial to hiring college graduates because of the level of discipline a degree represents. Also, employers want paralegal graduates to know how to accomplish specific legal tasks mastered previously through practical course assignments.

A degree and/or a certificate demonstrate a candidate's personal commitment to the profession. Even though a firm or corporation may offer excellent opportunities for advancement, the paralegal is ultimately responsible for his/her own education and career growth. A paralegal must take an active role in his/her own development.

There are several other important factors unrelated to education that employers consider. Many place a high priority on quick learning ability and flexibility. Qualified candidates must be able to adjust to continually shifting priorities and the rigors of legal "corporate culture."

The issue of professionalism is important to paralegal employers. Employers expect paralegals to be professional in both attitude and demeanor.

Excellent organizational skills are highly valued. Employers favor paralegals with initiative and self-motivation. Paralegals must anticipate attorney needs and have the ability to solve problems without direct supervision.

Mastery of personal computers and technology have become essential for paralegals. Most work environments are highly automated. Keeping abreast of technology is an ongoing challenge. While paralegal candidates may not have specific knowledge of the software to be used in every law firm/department, they must be familiar with similar or comparable software products. Successful applicants understand a computer as a tool for organization, research and communication.

A good attitude is essential! If a paralegal student/candidate is difficult to deal with, inflexible, unwilling to learn something new or lacks self-confidence, he/she should not pursue a paralegal career.

Working Environment

The legal profession has experienced monumental changes over the past decade. There has been a dramatic increase in technology and the availability of information. The practice of law has become increasingly focused around substantive specialty areas. In addition, the computer age has allowed the mass production, marketing, and standardization of legal services and forms. Legal disputes are being removed from the traditional court system and resolved using alternative methods such as mediation and arbitration.

The paralegal profession has experienced explosive growth since its inception in the 1960's. With that growth has come a substantial increase and evolution in roles and responsibilities.

Traditionally, paralegals have performed substantive legal work under the supervision of, or accountability to, an attorney within a law office setting. However, today they may work not only in a law office, but within a variety of corporations or other business organizations, or in governmental entities such as courts and administrative agencies. Many paralegals have established their own businesses and, acting as independent contractors, contract directly with attorneys to provide services. There are also certain circumstances where paralegals practice, without the supervision of or accountability to an attorney, pursuant to authority granted to them by statute, court rule or administrative regulations. Examples are appearances before Federal Administrative Agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Federal Energy Commission, Internal Revenue Service, U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Social Security Administration. Regardless of their working environment, paralegals are prohibited from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

The obvious consequence of the changes that have taken place is blurring the line between what constitutes “practicing law” and what is permissible business and professional activity by paralegals and other non-lawyers. Paralegals have identified various opportunities that were not available in the past and expanded their roles to use their legal background effectively and to forge new career paths. Non-lawyers such as ombudsmen, real estate brokers, mediators, arbitrators, special advocates, and estate and trust officers have been performing legal-oriented services successfully, satisfactorily, efficiently, and less expensively, all to the public's benefit. As previously stated, some paralegals act in a representative capacity before administrative agencies at the local, state, and national levels. With the increased use of computers in law firms, corporations, and the courts, paralegals are entering the ranks of litigation support managers, computer consultants, and programmers, and have successfully created a union between technology and the legal community.

With change comes opportunity. Future career paths for the professional will continue to proliferate as paralegals seek to identify new ways in which their legal talents and skills can be applied.

CURRICULUM

The main goal of a paralegal program is to develop competent paralegals. In order to accomplish this task, a paralegal curriculum will often consist of three kinds of courses:

  • general education (e.g. writing, math, social sciences, humanities, etc.)
  • non-legal specialty courses (other useful electives); and
  • legal specialty.

Legal specialty courses encompass both legal courses that should be present in every program and legal courses that are designed to teach a specific area of the law. Regardless of the type of course, the curriculum must emphasize critical thinking, communications and practical skills. AAfPE has developed the concept of required core competencies. This concept allows for the diversity present today in paralegal programs.

General Education

In order to function effectively, paralegals must have a sound grounding in basic general education courses. These courses help to develop basic academic skills and introduce students to some of the concepts and knowledge that educated people are expected to know. Additionally, general education courses tend to develop communication skills, both written and oral, as well as critical thinking and analytical skills. The knowledge and skills derived from general education and related education are essential to the success of an entry-level paralegal.

General education requirements are a part of most college and university degree requirements. A meaningful general education component should be included in non-degree paralegal programs. The American Bar Association requires a minimum of 18 semester hours of general education for approval of a program. AAfPE membership requirements include a minimum of 18 semester hours of general education. NFPA recommends a minimum of 24 semester hours be taken from a combination of the general education and useful elective categories (see below).

The general education component of a paralegal's education should include courses in written and oral communication, mathematics, natural sciences (anthropology, biology, chemistry, geology, physics), humanities (art, foreign languages, literature, music, philosophy, theater), and social sciences (economics, history, political science, psychology). The titles of these courses may vary and some may utilize an interdisciplinary approach that integrates knowledge for several different traditional courses.

Other Useful Electives

Courses in accounting, business communications, computers and related technologies are strongly recommended. If students do not take these courses prior to their enrollment in paralegal courses, the paralegal courses should include units designed to teach relevant knowledge generally included in these courses.

Core Competencies

Because paralegal programs offer courses in a wide variety of formats and in a wide range of time periods, this document does not attempt to list specific course names. Similarly, we recognize that paralegal programs differ widely in the nature of the academic background and skills of their student body. For that reason we do not attempt to determine a specific number of credit hours that must be devoted to "core or major courses." Rather, this document endorses the American Association of Paralegal Education's CORE COMPETENCIES FOR PARALEGALS (See Appendix B) which lists the specific competencies that these core or major courses should teach, leaving it to the individual institution to structure its core courses to include instruction in these skills and knowledge. NFPA is not only supportive of core competencies but also advocates that there are specific legal practice areas that should be included in a core curriculum.

Legal Specialty: Practice Areas

The legal specialty courses must be taught so that the substance and practice of law are balanced. The "what" of law must be integrated with the "how" and "why" of the subject. For example, in a Wills and Probate course, it is essential that a paralegal student understands the complexities of a valid will. This fundamental knowledge must be accompanied by the practical ability of drafting a will. The student must understand the serious ramifications of a person not fulfilling the intrinsic and extrinsic requirements of a valid will. Ethical implications should also be taught as it relates to what a paralegal is prohibited from doing.

Several legal specialty courses should be included in every paralegal curriculum. An introduction course that gives an overview of the legal system and the paralegal profession is essential. A summary of the substantive areas of law, plus a presentation of basic information about the paralegal profession, should be the main components of the course.

In order to develop specific paralegal skills, a core curriculum should consist of the following: legal research, legal writing, litigation, legal ethics, computer applications in the law, and an internship.

A legal writing course is an extension of the legal research course. (Some curriculum successfully combines these classes into one course.) The primary focus of the legal writing course is for each student to learn the skill of clear, direct expression and communication of legal concepts, principles and practices. Mastering the art of composing letters to clients and drafting legal documents is an essential skill that needs to be stressed and realized. Computerized legal research should also be included in these courses.

The details involved in taking a case to trial, including the filing of pleadings, summarizing depositions and drafting motions, are important elements of a litigation course.

Computer applications in a law course should cover the use of word processing, database, and spreadsheet programs, as well as how to use specific legal application software. Students must clearly understand the impact of technology on the practice of law.

A legal ethics course should stress the ethical rules a paralegal must follow. As with a legal writing course, an ethics course can stand alone or be a major part of other courses, such as the litigation.

Finally, an Internship focuses on hands-on training for the paralegal student. This course provides an opportunity for a student to work in the legal environment as part of their educational experience and to apply what they have learned.

NFPA recommends a minimum of 24 semester hours be taken in the areas of paralegal core and specialty courses and that any formal paralegal education may be a part of, or in addition to, a four-year degree program. Courses that NFPA believes should be included in a core curriculum are Litigation/Civil Procedure; Legal Research and Writing; Real Property Transactions; Business and Corporate Law; Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning; Family Law; Torts; and Contracts. Exposure to additional theory/practice areas may be beneficial depending on the local legal market.

Depending on the structure of the paralegal program, other substantive paralegal courses, such as Administrative Law, Bankruptcy Law, Criminal Law, Debtor/Creditor Rights, Elder Law, Environmental Law, Immigration Law, Intellectual Property, Labor Relations/Employment Law, Law Office Economics and Management, Pension/Profit Sharing, Social Security Law, and Tax Law may be offered as legal specialty courses.

The incorporation of specific paralegal skills with legal theory must be the essential ingredients of each course. While there are many types of paralegal programs in existence, a common thread distinguishes the stronger academic programs as having an emphasis on solid legal specialty courses.

AAFPE membership requirements recommend that a minimum of 18 semester hours be devoted to the combination of paralegal core and specialty courses. These hours include substantive and procedural law, the American legal system, the delivery of legal services, law offices and related environments, the paralegal profession, legal research and writing, ethics, law-related computer skills, and legal interviewing and investigation.

Program Types

Because of the variety of paralegal education programs available, each person should analyze which type best meets his/her individual needs. The three basic types are: two-year degree, four-year degree, and a certificate (See NFPA’s position statement relating to short-term programs). The associate and bachelor degree programs are similar in that both provide general education courses, as well as the legal specialty courses. A Certificate program generally provides the legal specialty courses; however, general education courses are usually prerequisites for admission to the program, and often a Bachelors degree in required for acceptance into a Certificate program.

NFPA recognizes that a two-year degree in paralegal studies is acceptable to employers in some markets as the minimum criteria for individuals to enter the paralegal profession. However, NFPA recommends, based upon current hiring trends and surveys, future practitioners have a four-year degree to enter the paralegal profession.

AAfPE recognizes the diversity of needs in the legal community, as well as the diversity of student needs, through the development of the CORE COMPETENCIES FOR PARALEGALS (See Appendix B). Paralegal job competencies are stressed, leaving the educational structure and course length to the schools. This allows flexibility to provide suitable curriculum for a particular region and/or type of individual for which the programs are designed.

It is the philosophy of AAfPE that a person is qualified as a paralegal with (1) an associate or baccalaureate degree or equivalent course work; and (2) a credential in paralegal education completed in any of the following types of educational programs: associate degree, baccalaureate degree (major or minor), certificate, or master's degree.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE PROGRAMS: Many paralegal programs award an Associate of Arts Degree with a Paralegal Certificate or an Associate of Applied Science Degree in paralegal studies upon successful completion of the program. These programs usually consist of 60-64 semester hours, and approximately half of these academic credits are general education requirements. The remaining 33 hours could consist of paralegal courses. Many programs also require a general computer course for all paralegal students that emphasizes word processing, database, and spreadsheet skills. Some associate degree programs have articulation agreements with bachelor degree programs.

BACHELOR DEGREE PROGRAMS: This type of program usually consists of 120-128 semester hours resulting in a bachelor degree. About one-fourth to one-third of these academic credits are paralegal courses, with the remaining hours in general education and required courses. Some programs may offer a bachelor degree with a minor in paralegal studies. Academic credits acquired in a bachelor degree are normally transferable to other four-year universities.

CERTIFICATE PROGRAMS: Many paralegal certificate programs require an associate or bachelor degree as a prerequisite. Others require a general education component that together with required paralegal courses, approaches the equivalent of an associate degree. Career changers, who have completed a degree in another field of study and now wish to become paralegals, often find certificate programs most appropriate for their needs. Certificates are offered by colleges, universities and proprietary schools. Some award continuing education units and/or college level academic credit ' others are strictly self-contained programs without any credit or transferability. Some programs have articulation agreements among "like-kind" schools.

MASTER DEGREE PROGRAMS: These programs usually consist of 36 semester hours resulting in a master degree. The majority of the academic credits are paralegal or related courses. Entrance into a master degree program generally requires a bachelor degree and acceptable GRE, MAT or LSAT scores where required. Master degrees are often considered career enhancement rather than entry into the profession.

Internships

Internships provide students with an opportunity to apply their skills in a practical setting and help students develop a professional orientation. They provide the student with experience working directly in the legal system with other legal professionals. Internships serve a purpose not met by other course work because they give the students direct involvement with the legal process and legal professionals. Such experiences should be closely supervised and should provide meaningful paralegal work.

The internship is often a required course. It helps maintain the balance between practice and theory in a paralegal program. Students in internship expand their classroom knowledge and skills through work experience. The course promotes additional interaction with the legal community, which in turn assists students in their job search.

The academic integrity of the internship can be maintained by requiring students be assigned substantive tasks and responsibilities to apply the skills and knowledge they have learned in the classroom. Providing prospective legal supervisors with information about typical paralegal duties can prevent interns from being asked to perform clerical tasks or unrelated activities that do not serve the purpose of an internship program.

OTHER EDUCATIONAL ASPECTS

American Bar Association (ABA) Approval

Seeking American Bar Association (ABA) approval of a paralegal program is entirely voluntary on the part of an educational institution. To be considered for approval, a program must meet standards adopted by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants. While there are some quality programs that choose not to seek approval, the guidelines do provide a basis by which to evaluate or design a program. Very briefly, the guidelines for approval require a college-level program to:

  • Be a part of an accredited educational institution
  • Require at least 60 semester or 90 quarter units (or the equivalent) of classroom work. These units include 18 semester (or 27 quarter units of general education and at least 18 semester (or 27 quarter) units of legal specialty courses;
  • Have an advisory committee with attorneys and paralegals from the public and private sectors;
  • Have qualified, experienced instructors;
  • Have adequate financial support from the institution in which it is situated;
  • Have adequate student services including counseling and placement;
  • Have an adequate library available; and
  • Have appropriate facilities and equipment.

REGULATION

Many states have reviewed the question of whether paralegals should be regulated. The various forms of regulation, including registration, certification and licensing, have been included in studies and proposals by state legislatures, courts, and bar associations. Although there has been much activity in this area over the past ten years, no state has yet implemented a mandatory program. (See NFPA’s Regulation page)

Even though there is no mandatory form of regulation, there are tests on the market that provide credentials to paralegals. NFPA offers two such tests: The Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE), and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE). These exams provide a credential for entry level and advanced paralegals. The criteria to sit for the PCCE and PACE, as well as exams offered by other organizations, vary from provider to provider. Several states have developed state-specific competency exams through a cooperative effort in part with the state bar associations and various paralegal associations. Currently, the decision to take any examination to obtain a credential is strictly voluntary.

Educational program directors must keep abreast of the ever-changing legal and labor markets to determine the impact, if any, of activities within the state to regulate the paralegal profession as well as the professional testing that is offered, be it voluntary or mandatory.

APPENDIX

For a list of resources, visit:
American Association for Paralegal Education www.aafpe.org
American Bar Association Standing Committee on Paralegals http://www.americanbar.org/groups/paralegals.html
National Federation of Paralegal Associations www.paralegals.org (you are here)

modified 12/30/2013

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