More jobs, less debt than law school: EMU's paralegal program stresses "real world" skills

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

With so many law school graduates facing six-figure debt and a dismal job market, Jill Peterson decided she would take a more practical path to a career in law.

That's why the 55-year-old Ann Arbor resident is earning her bachelor's degree in paralegal/ legal assistant studies from Eastern Michigan University.

"It's a great choice because it gives me an avenue to go into an area I really enjoy without having to invest a large span of time and money going to law school," said the mother of five, whose bucket list included finishing college.

Program Coordinator Nancy Harbour is surprised by the number of people who didn't know EMU offers a major in paralegal studies. Meanwhile, student enrollment in the program has grown from 75 back in 2006 to about 150 today, with many arriving as transfer students from Washtenaw Community College or older students returning for a second degree.

"I think folks are realizing there's a way to get into the law, and to study the law, and to be part of the law without having to go to law school," said Harbour, a former trial attorney who attributes much of her former success in the field to her trusted paralegals.

Ann Arbor attorney Betina Schlossberg said she views paralegals as partners in moving cases forward.

"They know how to organize a file, how to write a brief, how to do research, and what the client meant by that incomprehensible question," she said. "They understand the clients and can almost read the attorneys' minds. In addition, they provide a touch of common sense to the law office. Most of what I know regarding the day-to-day lawyering, I owe to paralegals."

Job market: tight, but growing

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay in 2010 was $46,680 per year, or $22.44 per hour, and employment of paralegals and legal assistants is expected to grow by 18 percent from 2010 to 2020, or about as fast as the average occupation. Competition for jobs will be "strong."

"The job market for my grads is slow," Harbour said, adding that while it's taking longer to find jobs, those who don't go on to law school do eventually find employment.

Most jobs for paralegals are in law firms and corporations.

Mary Steinmetz graduated from EMU's paralegal program in 2005, and works as office manager of The Jackson County Legal News.

"It was a tough and challenging program, but very interesting," said Steinmetz. "Having a legal background and an understanding of the courts and how they work really helps me on the job."

Megan Kilber , who will graduate from the program this month, agreed the program is challenging.

"But that is what makes being a paralegal so marketable," she said. "The program gives you insights into all different areas of the law that the students may want to pursue one day."

Paralegals typically help with legal research, drafting court documents, client and witness interviews, drafting contracts, and trial preparation.

EMU first started graduating paralegals in 1970. The program received American Bar Association approval in 1991, and has had it ever since.

Students can also become paralegals with an associate's degree at a community college.

"By the additional coursework, our program goes into more depth," said Harbour. "Our goal when they graduate is that they get hired. Also, given the market, employers are smart enough to know that they can get someone with a four-year degree and that's what they're asking for."

Many students already have a bachelor's degree in another discipline and enroll at EMU for the 50 credits needed to earn their degree in paralegal studies.

About half of the students who graduate from the program go on to law school, and the large majority are female.

Harbour said paralegals must be organized team players to succeed.

"You absolutely can't practice law as a paralegal, but you sure get inside the law where the action is working with your attorney," she said.

Legal Resource Center: Only one of its kind

The most unique feature of EMU's paralegal/legal studies program is that is the only paralegal program in the country with its own legal center located within a courthouse.

The Washtenaw County-EMU Legal Resource Center opened in 2004 after judges and lawyers noticed that people representing themselves would show up in civil court without the right forms, delaying the process.

"We opened the clinic because we wanted our students to have real life experiences and to meet this need for folks to get the right court forms," said Harbour.

The LRC is a collaborative effort between the courts, bar association and administration of Washtenaw County and EMU. Supervised paralegal students provide free help in four major civil court areas: family law, landlord-tenant, small claims, and probate.

Clients can walk into the Legal Resource Center on the first floor of the Washtenaw County Courthouse and receive the necessary forms.

"I love helping people, and seeing immediate results," said Jill Peterson, who interns there once a week.

Tracy Nothnagel, EMU adjunct professor and one of the supervisors of the Legal Resource Center, said the students gain a lot of people skills. "They get to experience working with the public, working within the court and with court forms and documents," she said.

The LRC averages 300 patrons a month, and is open three days a week.

"So at times we might have only one student in the office and she's trying to juggle two or three or four patrons at the same time, and try to assess their needs and get them the proper forms and copies," said Nothnagel. "It's a lot of multi-tasking, and they gain a wealth of experience."

Published: Thu, Apr 12, 2012

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