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Attorneys pounding the pavement seeking employment are armed with law degrees and bar results, but what can paralegals do to stand out among the competition? Experience always counts when looking for a job. But the factor that could tip the scales these days, according to a dozen teachers and placement directors, is education. Not only will education give a job applicant an edge, they say, but it also could lead to a promotion down the line. “A four-year degree is going to open the door or shut the door for you,” says Kim J. Cantu, education vice president with the Dallas Area Paralegal Association. “I’ve seen students with a four-year degree in home economics beat out paralegals with 20 years’ experience.” Gail Armatys, co-founder and administrator of the Center for Advanced Legal Studies in Houston, also says that a formal education makes a big difference for career paralegals. “From what we found, they [employers] want people to have a minimum of an associate degree plus paralegal training,” Armatys says. “They want that degree and that understanding of the law.” The job of paralegal or legal assistant requires no formal training or licensing. In Texas, the only requirement to be a paralegal is to work under the supervision of an attorney, according to Norma Hackler, executive director of the Legal Assistants Division of the State Bar of Texas. Paralegals can perform many of the same tasks as a lawyer, but they can’t practice law, which includes giving legal advice and representing a client in court. The profession began to develop in the 1960s and, for about 20 years, the majority of legal assistants trained on the job. The first paralegal course in the United States was offered in 1968, and three years later, there were 11 training programs in existence, according to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Today, however, there are more than 650 programs, the organization says. Generally, these programs fall into one of four categories, according to the NFPA and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE): � Associate degree programs usually are offered by two-year community colleges, but some four-year universities and business schools also offer these studies. Generally, a student earns 60 to 70 semester hours, approximately half in paralegal courses and half in general education courses. � Baccalaureate degree programs award a student a major or a minor in paralegal studies. The number of hours needed for a four-year bachelor’s degree averages 125 hours, with anywhere from a fourth to half of those hours in paralegal and related courses. � Certificate programs are offered by various institutions, including community colleges and proprietary schools. The length and curriculum of these programs vary widely — some require as few as 18 semester hours of study while others call for as many as 60. Community colleges often have the certificate option only for students who already have college degrees and who take only paralegal-related courses. Proprietary schools frequently have two courses of study for the certificate: one for students with degrees that covers just the legal topics; and the other for students without degrees that also includes general education courses. � Master’s degree programs in paralegal studies are offered by a few colleges. Other universities offer advanced degrees in law-related areas, such as legal administration and legal studies. A 1999 survey by the NFPA shows that 21 percent of all paralegals nationwide have an associate’s degree, 53 percent have a bachelor’s degree and 8 percent have a master’s or J.D. Eighty-three percent of the approximately 120,000 paralegals in the United States have received some formal paralegal training, according to the survey. HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE Some of the most knowledgeable paralegals around are those who trained on the job prior to the popularization of formal training programs, according to several industry experts. However, today, having a formal education is more important when it comes to getting started in the field or moving up the ladder, according to officials with schools, firms and paralegal organizations. Holly Coe, president of the Paralegal Source, a recruiting firm in Austin, Texas, says most people entering the field have gone through a formal education program and many have a college degree. “I think that the consensus is, the more educated the better,” says Coe, who was a senior litigation paralegal for more than 10 years. In fact, the NFPA recommends that future paralegals have a four-year degree to enter the profession and 24 semester hours of legal specialty courses to enhance their abilities. “NFPA recognizes that a two-year degree with an emphasis in paralegal studies is acceptable to employers in some markets as a minimum criterion for individuals to enter the paralegal profession,” the organization states on its Web site, www.paralegals.org. “However, current trends across the country, as illustrated through various surveys, indicate that formal paralegal education has become a requirement to secure paralegal employment and that a four-year degree is the hiring standard in many markets.” In Texas, the larger firms typically want more education, while experience and ability can trump formal learning at smaller firms, many in the field say. At Houston’s Vinson & Elkins, applicants for legal assistant positions must have a four-year college degree just to get an interview, Mark Hanson, director of administration, says. Once hired, the Houston-based firm trains them, he says. “Our view is that people with a college degree have developed the analytical skills and writing skills that give them the base that we’re looking for,” Hanson says. At Carrington Coleman Sloman & Blumenthal in Dallas, paralegals also must have at least a bachelor’s degree to work there, paralegal coordinator Jean Foster says. A paralegal certificate is preferred but not required. Beginning paralegals are called case clerks at the firm and can be promoted to paralegal. Those who are hired as paralegals, rather than as case clerks, generally have at least five years’ experience, Foster says. At the five-lawyer firm of McClanahan & Clearman in Houston, there are no set specifications for legal assistants. Two of the firm’s three legal assistants are college graduates and have their paralegal certificates. The third was promoted to legal assistant after proving herself on the job and is going to school for her certificate. Partners Randy McClanahan and Scott Clearman say they’re most interested in whether a paralegal can do the work. “At a little firm, it’s much harder to hide than at a big firm,” says McClanahan, who used to work at Baker Botts. “People who do the job here have to demonstrate their abilities. I’d rather have someone who’s bright and dependable over someone with a fancy degree whom I don’t know anything about.” Clearman says it would be difficult to do his job without his legal assistant. “Defense attorneys call her before they call me if they need something,” he says. GEOGRAPHICAL DIFFERENCES Marcia Rogers, operations manager for the Fort Worth, Texas, office of Legal Network, a legal staffing service, says educational requirements for jobs can depend on where an applicant is looking. In Dallas County, Texas, employers prefer legal assistants with considerable schooling, often requiring a four-year degree and paralegal training, she says. Experience, however, sometimes can substitute for part of the educational requirement, she adds. Rogers says that firms in Tarrant County, Texas, are more willing to accept an applicant with a paralegal certificate but no college degree or one with a long work history. “In Tarrant County, experience weighs [heavily],” she says. David Jaroszewski, coordinator of the legal assistant program and chairman of the business technology program at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, agrees that employers at larger firms are more interested in a four-year degree, while solo and smaller firms care more about what a person can do. “It goes back to the size of a firm,” he says. “Some will hire applicants with a bachelor’s degree and train them. Others want the job skills, particularly the smaller firms. They want experience more than a degree to hang on the wall.” Jaroszewski, whose school offers a two-year associate’s degree in legal assisting, encourages all his students to continue their education, regardless of where they want to work. “As an educator, I want them to aspire to the four-year degree,” he says. “It makes that student more marketable. They have new avenues open to them because they pursued that education.”

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