Paralegal Education: A Work In Progress

Photo: Brett Lockwood

Photo: Brett Lockwood

SCOPE contributor Brett Lockwood shares his views on the current education options available for would-be paralegal students.

Choosing to enter the field of law should not be made on a whim. Paralegals are expected to be experts on a wide range of situations AND be able to effectively deal with each and every problem. The public sees paralegals as “problem solvers.”

Of course, the training for this near-impossible model begins with entry into a Law Society of Upper Canada-accredited college program.

At the time the Morris Report was released, 26 colleges were LSUC-accredited to provide paralegal studies. These programs are audited regularly to ensure that the high standards of the Law Society are upheld.

I hope to provide a better understanding of the paralegal education and what to expect in a paralegal program. Most importantly, I will highlight the obstacles you will face once you finish, if you do not take the education seriously.

Think Before You Enroll

It is important to analyze which college you will be attending. Paralegal courses are generally one or two years, depending on your own credentials and experience.

It would be a mistake to simply decide that a one-year program is best for you because it is quicker. The course load will be heavier in the one-year program, putting much more pressure on you to learn the ins and outs of the law. Most two-year programs provide some general courses, which will also be useful in your life after school. To simply dismiss a two-year program because of its length would be short-sighted.

While the admission requirements vary from school to school, keep in mind the long hours you will commit, both in class and at home, doing extra work. The location of the school, start dates, and various campus amenities should be considered.

Exam Changes Coming

After graduating and receiving a diploma, you must successfully complete the LSUC licensing process. The Law Society is examining changes to the licensing exam. The Law Society, and the Paralegal Standing Committee, are considering such changes as adding substantive law questions to the licensing exam.

With substantive law added to the examination, the paralegal education process will become even more critical. Anyone choosing a college to attend today should closely examine which colleges have already adjusted their programs to accommodate this examination change. If a college is stuck in the way their course is structured, it may not be the college for you.

Colleges must change the way they teach their paralegal courses to accommodate the licensing exam changes. This is extremely important, as new paralegals are thrown to the wolves after completing completing their formal training.

Extra Effort = Effective Advocate

My own paralegal education provides a frame of reference for the education process, from a licensee’s perspective. I already had a university degree, so I chose the accelerated, one-year program to pursue my paralegal diploma.

The courses were jam-packed into four-month increments; it was clear from the get-go that simply attending class was not going to be enough to make me successful. Long, hard hours after class saw me studying the law and gaining experience in court. Without this extra legwork, there is no way I would be as effective as I am today.

Too often the education process spits out graduates who are not entirely sure of the law, which makes problems for more than just the licensee.

The Morris Report speaks extensively about the issue of competency of new paralegals. Specifically, Recommendation 4 states: “That the Law Society undertakes a comprehensive review of the paralegal training and examination regime, beginning with a re-assessment of the competency profile that is appropriate for the legal services that are permissibly offered by newly-licensed sole practitioners.”

Teaching to the Test

The main concern that I experienced with the college education process was also echoed in the Morris Report, which notes: “It is telling that 70 per cent of paralegals responding to a survey commissioned by the Law Society as part of its five-year review indicated they were satisfied that their college program was adequate preparation for the licensing examination.”

In contrast, half of the LSUC-study respondents were satisfied and 26 per cent were dissatisfied that their college programs adequately prepared them to practice as paralegals. “We are, as it is said in pedagogical circles, teaching to the test,” the Morris Report states.

It seemed to me that the college I attended was geared towards helping paralegals to pass the licensing test, putting in exhaustive efforts to ensure students understood ethics, professional responsibility and procedural fairness. Important, substantive elements of the law would be briefly touched on only briefly.

The standard of teaching and learning contained within the paralegal education process is lacking. There is no doubt about that. While some aspects of becoming an effective (and competent) paralegal are taught well, there are others areas of law that seemed to be simply ignored.

Courses such as Criminal Law were taught in four months — not nearly enough to allow one to fully grasp the importance of representing someone who is facing jail time. Those great paralegals that practice in Criminal Law are effective as a result of experience and their own legwork, not by relying on their paralegal education to get them through a bail hearing.

Change is Needed

While it is not the fault of the individual colleges (they are LSUC-accredited!), it is clear that something must be done to improve the standards. The Morris Report makes specific reference to this, stating “initiatives should be undertaken to improve the standard of learning, professional competence and professional conduct of the paralegal sector.”

Paralegals have expertise in particular areas, usually rivalling that of lawyers. It is evident, however, that without a dramatic change in the way paralegal studies are taught, the LSUC-accredited schools will continue to churn out some bad apples.

The paralegal education process seems to be a work in progress. Paralegals have only been regulated for six years, meaning that there is definitely room for change and improvement. With input and support from the Paralegal Society of Ontario and Licensed Paralegals Association, there is no doubt that education will be re-vamped to the standards we expect.

Paralegals have the opportunity to make our presence known to the public.
To get a foot in the door, paralegals must prove we can hang with the big dogs. It will start from the beginning, with education.

To contact Brett Lockwood, visit Lockwood Paralegal www.lockwoodparalegal.ca or call at 905-597-4788.

Read more of Brett’s contributions to SCOPE.

Read the SCOPE feature on the Morris Report.

Read the Morris Report.

Back to SCOPE Home Page.

6 comments

  1. Daniel Foster - Director of Legal Studies - Metro College · ·

    Regardless of what the Morris Report says, we seem to have forgotten the front line importance of good solid pedagogical methodologies that need to be used to teach future paralegals to be competent in their future practices. Although the substantive content is paramount when teaching law to prospective paralegals, we must also consider the instructional strategies that are used to teach the learning outcomes that are required to gain an understanding of the required competencies that are mandated by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Solid instructional strategies determine the approach a teacher may take to achieve learning objectives. With that said, various instructional methods must be used by teachers to create a variety of learning environments that accommodate the various types of learners. These types of strategies include direct instruction, interactive instruction, indirect instruction, independent study, experiential learning, and good solid instructional skills. In my professional opinion, there are too many colleges with too many teachers that have little understanding of these skills and therefore, the students lack the training required because the teacher did not know how to deliver the content properly – in more ways than one. Even if we increase the hourly educational requirements and make the licensing exam more comprehensive, none of that will matter unless we educate our teachers on how to properly “teach.”

    1. Given the ongoing debate over which are superior, community colleges or private schools, I find it interesting to note that it was a community college dean who stated that the college wouldn’t care if an instructor had an M.Ed. Meanwhile the private school where I teach part time encourages teachers to learn more about teaching.

      That said, four courses into that master’s degree, I can say that from a student’s point of view that people with doctorates in education do not teach any better than the professors who teach Law School, despite the latter having no particular training in teaching. Given that lawyers are trained by university professors with no education in teaching, the primary difference between Paralegal Programs and Law Schools remains required hours, and the prerequisite undergraduate degree required to get into Law School.

      I am not suggesting that students might not learn more from good teachers than bad ones. Part of the problem is that there is little hard evidence regarding what good teaching actually is. (A point discussed recently in the New York Times, here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/03/science/applying-new-rigor-in-studying-education.html ) Even commonly repeated concepts such as learner types and the need to provide information in different ways to assist different types of learners are both unproven, and disputed by those who study education.

      One cannot become a Superior Court Justice without ten years in practice. I’ve just hit that ten year mark, which means that most of the Judges out there graduated before me. That means they went to school before PowerPoint, Google, or affordable laptop computers. Books, lectures, and Langdell’s ‘Socratic’ method fall far short of what would be popular in today’s classrooms. But students still learned.

      If there is ever agreement on best way to teach, I’d hope that teachers would all start using it. Until then, we can remember that the eminent minds in the legal profession — Judges and law makers — all managed to learn the law while being taught by people who are not paedagogical experts.

  2. Ralph Carnovale · ·

    I agree with Ann as well, much more must be done before Paralegals can or should be advocating.
    Also there those of us who do mentoring and it is not paper shuffling.

  3. Anne V. · ·

    There’s a fundamental misunderstanding that seems to have been created by the Morris report. Morris, whatever else his qualifications, is not a legal practitioner, or an educator, so he has no context for his findings. Yes, I’m sure 70% of paralegal students feel ready for their licensing exam and only 50% were satisfied that they were ready to practise (please also note, only 26% were dis-satisfied, which indicates another 24% somewhere in between). But did Morris ask recent law school graduates the same question? Recent medical school graduates? Anybody else??

    Based on conversations I had at the time I graduated from law school, and conversations with other lawyers since, we all knew we were more or less prepared for the licensing exam. We also knew we were not prepared to take our newly minted licenses and walk into defending someone in a murder trial. That preparation was supposed to come through eight months… not 120 hours, eight MONTHS, of practical training. And, quite frankly, articling does not always work as it should, so that your comment:
    “Too often the education process spits out graduates who are not entirely sure of the law, which makes problems for more than just the licensee.”
    Is just as true about lawyers as it is about paralegals.

    I would suggest that anyone who believes that classrooms and texts can entirely prepare a person for the complexity of dealing with real people who have real problems is being unrealistic. There’s reason doctors have to serve residencies that take years. There’s reason articling should be eight months (or more). If paralegals want to hit the ground ready to be sole practitioners, look to longer placements rather than more/better schools.

    That said, I also believe that the students who admit they’re not 100% ready, likely become the best practitioners. It’s the ones who graduate thinking they know everything that are most likely to crash and burn taking their clients with them.

    1. Well said Anne. I agree with what your post and believe that paralegals should have to undergo a different type of “field placement”. 120 hours sifting and filing court files does nothing for the advancement of your knowledge. If it isn’t mandated, perhaps paralegals should take it upon themselves to get this type of training.

  4. Liz Fisher · ·

    Good article. I was fortunate then when I did my Paralegal studies that the instructors and lawyers did not teach to the Licensing Exam but covered the course material very well, but it was in the broad stroke of the spectrum. Yes, and I agree with you Brett that it is a challenge after passing the licensing exam, to feel competent in the areas of law that we can practice in. That’s where I feel a mentoring program for new licensee’s is crucial. Thanks for your article.

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