New Year, Old Issues

It’s always nice to start out the new year with new stuff, but, alas ( a very old word but it works here  – besides I also am old), the first item that has caught my attention this year is (1) left-over from a Paralegal Jobs & Continuing Education group LinkedIn Discussion Board, and (2) about an issue that seems to re-occur on a regular basis despite efforts from Marianna Fradman of the NYCPA, myself, and many others at clarification.

The discussion starts when a prospective paralegal student asks, “I am looking to go back to school to be a paralegal. Can anyone give me some inexpensive school names? … Also interested in schools that do payment plans. Thank you in advance.” The first response states, “Depending on where you live, it is best to check the American Bar Association, and the section that shows ABA Accredited, meaning that they approved that school and you will be hired once out of school. These days that’s important…” and another adds, “Accrediatation is everything. if if isn’t approved by the ABA its NOT worth the money.” These comments are incorrect on several levels.

First, the ABA does not provide accreditation of paralegal schools. Accreditation is provided by regional accreditation organizations. For example, the University of Mississippi and other SEC schools are accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The ABA approval is obtained by some paralegals on a voluntary basis. If a school claims to by accredited by ABA or that graduates are ABA certified, the school is, at best, misleading its students.

The ABA does not even provide certification. Here’s Marianna Fradman on that topic:

I’m on my soapbox today with a pet peeve. I noticed that some paralegals are putting “ABA Certified Paralegal” on their resumes, social media or announcing it to friends and employers. Here’s a suggestion: Stop now while you still can! Save yourself some embarrassment or even keep yourself from getting rejected from a job!

The ABA does not offer certification. Certification is a process of taking a very rigorous exam that is based upon work experience and knowledge. It is not your final exam in paralegal school. Generally, you need to meet certain educational and work experience requirements, submit an application for approval, pay a fee and take the exam in a secured environment.

For example, The Organization of Legal Professionals, OLP, offers a certification exam in eDiscovery.

Second, as I’ve stated here before, many ardent discussions occur on the internet as to whether ABA approval is beneficial to programs as a marketing device or to graduates as a tool for gaining employment. I suspect that the answer depends on more on geography than anything else.  This is not to say that there should not be some firm criteria for assessing a good paralegal program. Indeed, I argue in many posts here for the need for uniform educational standards.  However, it is not at all clear that the ABA should be the organization making these determinations, at least not in isolation. AAfPE does have representatives on ABA committees and does provide members for site review committees, but has little to no control over final decisions by ABA regarding its conception of the proper way to educate paralegals. Within AAfPE (American Association for Paralegal Education) there is some ongoing discussion about whether the ABA is the correct institution to be “approving” paralegal programs: does it make sense to have lawyers rather than educators determining what makes a good educational program, even if the topic being taught it law? (AAfPE has some good information on choosing a paralegal education program and a list of its members here.)

Third, the fact of the matter is that ABA can often be out of step with advances in education. For example, the Masters Degree program at George Washington University – one of our country’s most prestigious institutions (and I think at last count the most expensive to attend) cannot obtain ABA approval because it relies on online education. Yet, it would seem that if online education was in itself bad, GWU would know about it. Many other institutions meet all of the ABA requirements for approval but do not seek it because it is a tremendous drain on resources, both in terms of money and personnel. The costs of obtaining ABA approval are substantial and must be either passed on to students or deducted from other parts of the budget.

This is confusion is just one of the many problems arise from the current state of the paralegal profession’s development. As I previously noted here, and more extensively in The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient, and Professional, even attorneys can be confused leading to must frustration for both paralegals and attorneys on the legal team.

Those interested in paralegal professional identity, regulation, certification, and education should check out the fine articles included in The Empowered Paralegal Professionalism Anthology.

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  • It is always interesting to see that paralegal profession is of demand in various jurisdictions. We are providing legal services in Misissauga, Ontario and noticed the same issues about education. In my opinion school that is not accredited by a governing body is not worth spending money on.

  • Clifford C. Smith says:

    “[A]s to whether ABA approval is beneficial to programs as a marketing device or to graduates as a tool for gaining employment.”

    It’s probably a bit of both. My concern with the ABA being involved in education is their conditioning paralegals to not develop beyond working under the supervision of a lawyer. That’s my main objection.

    If, alternatively, the ABA were to move in the direction of encouraging paralegals to develop independenly, then I would be open to it. Such a direction could be along the lines of paralegals working for lawyers – while also developing their own state or federal administrative practice on the side. California is the only state that has recognized this differentiation under BPC § 6450(a), specifically where a paralegal may represent “clients before a state or federal administrative agency if that representation is permitted by statute, court rule, or administrative rule or regulation.”

    Therefore, a California paralegal has the option of working for a law firm that can bill them out as an advocate before state or federal administrative agencies when the need arises; or otherwise, the paralegal can develop their own adminstrative practice, as well as freelance for lawyers. Essentially, it provides an opportunity for growth, development and the building of advocacy skills that could easily be extended to other areas relating to access to justice.

    As it stands, the ABA is only involved in paralegal education that keeps paralegals in a confined role, where no expansion is permitted, which limits paralegals as a group.

    Even law schools have moved away from the anachronistic ABA model, where “87%” of law schools “now offer joint degrees, with J.D./M.B.A. being the most common.” [Source: WSJ Law Schools Offering More Practical Skills Courses in Weak Job Markets. (July 2012)].

    My idea of paralegal education is varied programs offered by varied providers (inclusive of the ABA) that encourages professional autonomy and growth, so paralegals have the option of working for a law firm, working independently, or a bit of both.

    Education without options: is really no education at all.

  • Nick says:

    The statement is not quite true…California has them. Listed on ABA site..

    ABA Approved Paralegal Education Programs

    just $.02 worth.

    Graduates of approved schools can be billed out at a higher rate than similar graduates from no approved schools.

  • admin says:


    This is a list of ABA Approved Programs in California. No one is saying that there are no ABA Approved Programs in every state. The point is there’s a difference between accreditation and ABA Approval. While the ABA Approves programs that meet its guidelines, it is not the same as accreditation or certification. The former can only be done by an established accreditation agency. The ABA does not do it and does not claim to do it.

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