Professional Certificates Offer the Skills to Become a Paralegal Right Away
Many adult learners looking for a career change or professional advancement have to make tough choices about where to invest their time and money. The same is true for aspiring paralegals. Entering the legal field requires specific training and skills, so it’s not surprising that many prospective students all ask similar types of questions:
“What key skills do I need to be a paralegal?”
“Should I get a paralegal degree or a certificate?”
“Which matters more to employers?”
During a recent information session for the Paralegal Studies Certificate Program, program instructor, Stefanie Plaumann, and program manager, Michelle Dowling, had the opportunity to respond to these questions and share their insights on the level of education students need to succeed in the paralegal field.
“I just want to make sure that they [paralegals] can make my life easier,” said Plaumann, who is also a practicing attorney. “Paralegals should step in with the legal skills and know-how to find answers to questions without a steep learning curve, pairing their abilities of critical thinking and problem solving with their legal knowledge. Where they get that knowledge, I don’t have a preference. I just want to make sure they are good legal writers and are proficient in the legal research programs we use.”
Plaumann emphasized the importance of understanding the legal lexicon and the writing conventions of legal documents as key abilities to ensure prospective paralegals are career-ready and able to contribute immediately. “It’s a different way of communicating, learning how to think and speak like a lawyer,” said Plaumann. “In the time it would take to explain to someone how to draft a particular legal document, I could write it myself, so having someone who can jump right in with a very small learning curve in the law is very important when hiring a paralegal.”
Given the need to possess good critical thinking and writing skills, the decision to pursue a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree versus earning a paralegal certificate may depend on how strong a student is in these areas.
“With an associate’s degree, what you’re adding is the general studies,” Dowling said. “We think of our program as the equivalent of a major. If you already earned a degree in say, art, but now you want to become a paralegal, our program offers all the courses that make up the equivalent of a major. So, it gives you a second lease on the general studies courses you’ve already taken.”
“I think there’s a lot of value in doing our program,” Dowling said. “but it’s not the same as an associates degree. A degree takes two years of work and expense, but you also get the general studies experience.” And, with that experience, an opportunity to hone your writing and problem-solving skills.
So, while technical legal skills, writing and critical thinking are all abilities necessary for effective paralegals, the path you take to gain these skills may differ depending on your needs and current abilities.