Grand Valley legal studies program focuses on career and thinking skills

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Grand Valley State University (GVSU) has high expectations of its four-year legal studies students, including that they will understand the theory underpinning the United States legal system and engage in analytical evaluation of legal profession issues.

Legal assistant and paralegal students must meet those and other objectives as part of the Legal Thought capstone course required of legal studies majors as they reach senior status.
Kristine Mullendore, who has been a member of the School of Criminal Justice/Legal Studies Program faculty since 1995, teaches that class and has been instrumental in shaping the program’s high-level curriculum.

She points out that the American Bar Association (ABA) guidelines, which the course has always followed, emphasize critical thinking skills and comprehension of what constitutes ethical behavior along with “mastery of basic investigative and legal research techniques.”

In August 2010, the GVSU program achieved ABA approval.

Mullendore gives credit for doing the hard work in reaching that goal to Assistant Professor and Legal Studies Coordinator Ruth Stevens, who formerly directed the paralegal studies program at Davenport University.

“Getting ABA approval takes a time investment and a commitment of resources,” says Mullendore. “Ruth took leadership of the process.”

Mullendore, Stevens and Christine Yalda, who has been in the School of Criminal Justice (which hosts the legal studies program) since 2004, are the regular faculty members in the legal studies program.

A graduate of Boston University School of Law, Mullendore has both practical and academic credentials. She is a former Assistant Kent County Prosecutor who also worked in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Her scholarship has focused on civil law issues regarding terrorism, and a number of issues regarding women, as well as general diversity.
Grand Rapids Legal News readers and NALS members may remember that in late 2009 she made a highly effective presentation on the status of women in the legal profession for a NALS meeting.

Stevens attended Harvard University for her undergraduate history degree, and received her Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School. She worked for Legal Aid of Western Michigan and UAW-GM Legal Services, before joining Davenport University and then, in 2008, Grand Valley.

The Legal Assistants’ Section of the State Bar of Michigan has given Stevens its Mentor Award in recognition of her work advancing the paralegal profession.

Yalda also received her law degree from Boston University School of Law, as well as both her masters’ and Ph.D. degrees from the School of Justice Studies at Arizona State University. She taught at Arizona State for about ten years before coming to Grand Valley, where she has teaching and programmatic responsibilities in the criminal justice program as well as legal studies.

The three are joined by a variety of qualified instructors as necessary. Mullendore, Yalda, and nine others collaborated on the textbook Justice and Society: An Introduction, which Mullendore notes is well-priced to give students an affordable overview.

In addition to the emphasis on critical thinking skills, Mullendore’s capstone class requires a great deal of group work.While she has instituted a peer evaluation that tends to reduce the number of students not “pulling their weight,” she encourages the group members to deal with such problems directly as part of their skill development.“That’s one of the many things they’ll have to know as they get jobs,” she says. “It’s really critical to form interpersonal skills because that will be expected of them later on.”

Mullendore emphasizes that if paralegals fill positions in traditional legal firms, they will have to work under close attorney supervision in order to comply with the law.

Though there are no legal studies-specific employment figures, the College of Community and Public Service, within which the School of Criminal Justice resides, reported an 83% employment rate for 2009-2010 graduates. An additional 12% went on to graduate school.

Mullendore is cautious about the implications of such data, noting that there is no guarantee of employment because it is dependent on conditions outside the university’s control.

Guarantees aside, she is enthusiastic about the potential for legal assistant careers.  “Legal assistants and paralegals have only really existed for 30-40 years as a separate field, which arose out of the recognition that there were many talented people who didn’t want to become attorneys. Lawyers banded together to create programs that develop the skills of paralegals and legal assistants. They are useful, helpful, and I would say integral members of a legal team,” Mullendore says.

“But the legal studies degree has wider applicability, not just working for a traditional law firm,” she continues. “Graduates might work for nonprofits as grantwriters or in development offices, or for any company that regularly needs someone familiar with the law. There are so many compliance issues; we’re such a highly regulated society.”

Some of the four-year graduates go on to enter law school, but they may also seek careers in legal administration or alternative dispute resolution.

There is an internship required for graduation, and Mullendore says that students are placed in a wide variety of settings, which further exposes them to the variety of careers they may enter.

In fact, Mullendore is so excited about the possibilities that she and husband James, an attorney in Greenville, have started a scholarship fund for legal studies and criminal justice students. An application form for that scholarship as well as others is available at http://www.gvsu.edu/cj/major-activities-108.htm by clicking on the links.

GVSU students may also seek a minor in legal studies, which the program’s literature says “is not intended to prepare students to work as paralegals,” but is appropriate for students who go on to law school or who want to deepen their understanding of the law.

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