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As we’re sure you’ve noticed over the past several months, here at The Paralegal Society, we’re pleased to feature guest bloggers on our forum. We love to give paralegals, new and experienced, a platform; a place where they can speak out and be heard by their paralegal peers.  Today, we’re going to hear from Taye Akinola, a dynamic career-changer paralegal student who hails from the lone star state of Texas.  The focus?  Paralegal education.  Sit back and enjoy, TPS members…Taye has the floor.  

Taye Akinola

By: Taye Akinola (Guest Blogger)

After looking for a job for almost ten months after obtaining my master’s degree with no potential job prospects on the horizon, I told myself I needed a back-up plan. I realized I might need to change careers (and possibly go back to school). I wanted to pursue a career, which would allow me to use my critical thinking skills, as well as my research and writing skills. That is where the paralegal profession came in. I read various online articles and blogs about the job growth in this field and how this fits well for those who like to read, write, and conduct research. So I started perusing different paralegal studies programs to determine which one would be a good fit for me.

ABA vs. Non-ABA Paralegal Programs. I decided to approach this endeavor methodically and strategically. One of the first websites I went to was the American Bar Association (ABA) website to see if they had any recommended programs for students who were interested in becoming paralegals. I initially thought I was shooting in the dark because I assumed the ABA would not have any information regarding the field, let alone programs, but I was surprised (and simultaneously disappointed) when I discovered they had information regarding both, the field and its program within the United States.

Why was I surprised? Because they had a list of ABA-approved paralegal studies programs divided by state and alphabetically, so it made my search for ABA-approved programs that much easier! How fantastic!

I was disappointed because I knew there were more paralegal programs that could benefit from the ABA-approval status. Based on my Google search, there are between 500–700 paralegal studies programs—probably more. Within that search, there are approximately 250 paralegals studies programs that have ABA-approval status (meaning 250–450 lack ABA approval). I have to admit I was taken aback at these numbers. I thought that obtaining ABA status showed prospective students that the schools with ABA approval took the time and effort necessary to meet rigorous requirements set forth by the ABA. I naturally assumed schools would jump at the opportunity.

Educational Standards. I am sure when people see the paralegal buzz word “standard” in a discussion regarding the future of the paralegal profession, some people resist. I know some people even balk at the idea. Some contend there is no need for regulations or some kind of set standards. I know many people have different opinions and perspectives on regulating paralegal studies programs and the profession. However, in today’s highly competitive global job market and the evolution of the paralegal profession, I believe it is necessary.

Paralegal studies programs on every level need to be regulated. With the flux of paralegal studies programs popping up all across the country with twelve-weeks ‘crash course’ training, six-months online training, one-year training, and so on, there need to be some of standard to maintain the integrity, if not the professionalism of the paralegal field. Granted, obtaining an ABA-approval status is not mandatory for the programs and it is often at the program and/or school’s discretion if one wants to pursue ABA-approval for one’s paralegal program.

Does an ABA approved school make a difference? After furthering reading differing opinion articles and blogs about ABA-approval programs and how it solely depended on prospective employers when it comes to the value of ABA-approval status, I was puzzled. So I decided to look through the job postings at law firms, corporations, and federal agencies to see what they look for in terms of education qualifications and several postings —not all— state an ABA approved paralegal studies program is preferred, if not required.

Another observation made was regarding the incorrect usage of the term, ‘certificated’ and ‘certified’ and this is coming from employers, but that topic warrants a separate article. The general consensus I have observed was that it depends on the employer whether an ABA-approval status has any value to their bottom line. There must be some kind of consistency if one wants the paralegal profession to elevate into a respectable profession. And I believe that should change.

Does an ABA approval of your paralegal program matter to employers? Among discussion forums, there is always the recurring question, “Does the ABA-approval paralegal programs matters to the employers?” and the answers are as diverse as the members of this group, but the consensus usually ends with this conclusion: “It depends.” I would want to change that answer to: “Yes, it does matter because it shows the professionalism and high standards of our field.” And I think one of the main reasons why lawyers are confused with ABA-approved and non-ABA-approved programs is because there is no consistency. No standards and expectation of what we want for the paralegal education programs.

Lack of Standards Can Breed Subpar Education. There are some programs that prey on unsuspecting students, guaranteeing them that they will know everything there is to know in a matter of weeks or months. These are the very same programs that do not offer internship opportunities and scrimp on the basic understanding of what a paralegal is supposed to be competent in: strong legal research, legal writing, and legal critical thinking skills. From my observation, it is these programs that prey on students to make a quick buck. They are taking advantage of compiled data and news articles which state that the hiring of paralegals will surge to 28% by 2018. Where are the standards? The regulations for paralegal education programs?

Why ABA-Approved Program Mandates Are Imperative. By mandating a school (non-profit or for-profit) to seek ABA-approval would reduce mediocre programs and demand that a certain criteria be met to better benefit those who want to become paralegals and know that when they graduate from an ABA-approved program, they will be recognized as competent as the next person. Of course, there are some ABA-approved programs better than others in terms of faculties, post-graduation employment data, and cost of the program, but what I’m referring to here is a minimum standard for paralegal education. Educational programs should at least give the potential student a fighting chance when he or she wants to pursue a career as a paralegal.

I believe by simply mandating the programs that offer paralegal studies, it would elevate the profession into new heights. It would show our potential bosses (i.e. lawyers) that the field is serious about the educational training of their paralegals as the ABA is serious about the educational training of their lawyers. It would also minimize the confusion among lawyers on the difference between non-ABA-approved programs and ABA-approved programs. I am not saying graduating from an ABA-approved program would guarantee one a job, but why can’t we, as paralegal professionals, strive for educational standards among our peers and the programs that want to provide it?

Times Are Changing. One could argue, “Well, it doesn’t make a difference. Experience is all that matters.” And that argument is plausible. But the legal services industry is changing. More clients are demanding quality legal services at a reasonable rate, performed by legal professionals with appropriate credentials. Many legal hiring managers are taking notice of that. Clients are now scrutinizing their invoices from their respective law firms and perusing law firms’ website to find out more about the lawyers and paralegals that they employ.

Higher educational standards will lead to a unified front among paralegal professionals and students within the field. Hiring managers and attorneys will understand that we take our education and profession seriously. Once that sense of integrity, pride, and professionalism spreads like wildfire, it would lead attorneys and other legal professionals to view us in a professional capacity. It is important to show our commitment to the field and legal professionals (primarily, attorneys) will have a greater respect for the field; and hopefully one day, allow us inclusion into their respective legal circles (i.e., state and national bar associations).

This moment is now. The moment to analyze paralegal education programs to ensure that high standards are set in order to provide paralegal students, like me, a fighting chance in the real world. I am a paralegal student. I aspire to be a paralegal (and a really, really good one) and I will be. The time for change is now.

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Taye Akinola is currently completing his graduate certificate in paralegal studies program at Texas State University-San Marcos. He is also a paralegal intern within the City of Austin Law Department in Austin, TX. Taye holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, master’s degree in deaf studies, and a graduate certificate in deaf history. He is interested in pursuing the intellectual property field, as well as corporate law and administrative law. He is very eager to begin his career as a paralegal.

TPS readers, we know this is a major topic of discussion in the paralegal world today.  What are your thoughts?  We’re looking to hear from students and experienced paralegals alike!  What do you think of paralegal education?  What is your personal experience with education in the paralegal realm?  Do you feel changes are necessary?  Is everything perfect just how it is?  Sound off!  We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

A special thanks to Taye for sharing this article with us.  He’s a mover and a shaker, and in our humble opinion, one brave paralegal student for stepping up and sharing his thoughts with our readers!  Thanks, Taye.