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.