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Everything I Know About Law
Paralegals share their
experiences about tackling that difficult first year
Have you ever wondered what law school is really like? Do you question whether you could attend while working and still manage the demands and finances of carrying the extra burden? Are you filled with doubts that keep you from looking into law school in the first place? If so, this article may help to dispel a few of the myths and detail a handful of realities regarding what it’s like to attend law school.
After 20 years working as a paralegal in California, I recently completed my first year of law school at Santa Barbara College of Law in Santa Barbara, Calif. While there is still much to learn and experience, I would like to share my thoughts on the typical first year of law school. What follows is a compilation of my personal experience, details on what you can expect, tips on what to consider when contemplating attending law school, and the input and thoughts of other paralegals who have either traveled the same road or share the journey with me now.
Reasons to Attend Law School
The most common reasons paralegals give for deciding to go to law school include salary motivation and realizing they are no longer challenged by current work assignments. Let’s face it, after 10 or 15 years of litigation, corporate or transactional work, many paralegals perform the same tasks as an attorney except giving legal advice and appearing in court. After passing the bar, these paralegals can, in many cases, significantly increase their salaries.
Ernest Davila, a former attorney prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston who also previously worked as a paralegal, said when he realized he was doing as much work as an attorney and being paid significantly less, he became motivated to begin law school. “The attorneys I worked for at the time saw the good, substantive work I was doing and encouraged me to become an attorney,” Davila explained.
The obvious advantage you have when studying law is your existing knowledge of terminology, civil procedure, research and writing. During the first two years of schooling, while other students without legal backgrounds are struggling to understand terms, learning how to read and brief a case, sweating and weeping in confusion, you can zoom directly to the content of the course and understand the elements of the law more quickly as a paralegal law student. This is a key advantage.
Legal assistants like Meghan Behrens, a paralegal at the Santa Barbara County Counsel’s Office and a second-year law student at Santa Barbara College of Law, said law school was always a goal for her. She explained that her experience as a paralegal simply confirmed her feelings about becoming a lawyer were on target. “Being a paralegal definitely has helped me [in working to become an attorney],” Behrens said.
A word of caution however: Beware of coming into law school with a “know-it-all” attitude. You must realize that while paralegals are more superior in their knowledge of legal procedure than the typical, inexperienced law student, practical legal experience isn’t always applicable in law school where the subject matter is almost entirely theoretical.
Davila said his expectations of law school didn’t mesh with the realities.
“I expected it to be different. I thought it would be more like what I was doing as a paralegal — preparing documents, conducting research. Instead, that first year was just constant reading and [discussion of legal theory],” Davila said.
Janet Lammers, a paralegal with 15 years of experience who is also currently attending Santa Barbara College of Law, said the paralegal work assignments she received were substantive and complex.
However, she said she felt frustrated because she could only go so far on a particular assignment before she got stuck and had to turn things over to an attorney. She said as a paralegal, she became an expert at the procedural process, but didn’t thoroughly understand the law. The disparity between procedure and theory was what motivated her to enroll in law school.
Can I Work and Attend Law School Too?
While it’s a given attending law school requires a big commitment of time and is ideally done on a full-time basis, many people can and do work full time while attending an evening law school program. If you are an organized person, have self-discipline and are not prone to procrastination, you can succeed at both. Many law students work — the only limitation is your desire. However, if you can forego work for a time and focus all your attention on law school, you can certainly succeed with less stress on your plate.
“For me, there is more pressure from classmates who are not paralegals. They seem to think, ‘Oh, you are already in the field of law. You have it so easy,’” Behrens explained.
“In truth, I think the people who have the best chance in law school are those who are not working (who are full-time students),” she said.
If you can’t attend school full time, and must work while in law school, the best advice is to have a realistic attitude and expectation of your performance. You can’t work, attend law school and still expect to always be at the top of the class.
“When I went to law school, the level of the other students who had excelled in their undergraduate studies was high. But in law school, you are just another face in the crowd initially,” Davila warned, noting the fight for top grades is an uphill struggle in the first year of law school that is a world apart from undergraduate work.
However, once you pass the bar, you are a lawyer just like the person who graduated at the top of the class. Your practical paralegal experience may even be more attractive to potential employers and make up for any lack of honor-role status.
Employer support for employees attending law school varies widely. Some will encourage, offer to answer questions, clarify legal issues, or even review written papers prior to submission to your professors. Some may allow you to have a flexible work schedule to accommodate your classes and exams. Other firms may conclude your school commitment and eagerness to leave work promptly at 5 p.m. detract from your dedication to your job.
In addition, it’s important to note that some firms only hire top students from American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law schools.
If you work at one of these firms while attending law school, you may find your employer acts in a manner that makes you feel your education is second class. Since each firm is different, only you can evaluate what kind of roadblocks may be in your way and how to best overcome them.
One legal assistant I know, who completed law school at a non-ABA-approved school, was hired at the firm where she previously worked as a paralegal, but only as a contract attorney. She was told she would not be hired as an associate, nor would she have the ability to be on the partnership track like other associates who were hired following graduation from ABA-approved schools.
After several years working in this capacity and laying a solid foundation of professionalism and skill, she was finally moved to an associate status.
Do You Have What it Takes?
One reason some paralegals automatically believe law school
isn’t an option for them is that it often requires a bachelor’s degree
to get accepted into law school. While many ABA-approved schools do
require a bachelor’s degree as an admission requirement, the actual ABA
Standards for Admissions under Standard 502(a) states having a
bachelor’s degree, “or successful completion of three-fourths of the
work acceptable for a bachelor’s degree.” This means if you have three
years of college education, you might be able to meet this standard and
be admitted to an ABA-approved law school.
In California, only 16 out of 34 law schools are ABA-approved, which means the chance for a paralegal without a bachelor’s degree to be admitted to law school is good. However, you should consider that following this course could significantly inhibit your ability to find employment as a lawyer. Only four state bar associations in the United States (Alabama, California, Connecticut and Maine) admit graduates from non-ABA-approved law schools, thus limiting available options for nondegreed paralegals in states other than the four listed here.
Each state bar sets criteria for education requirements for law school admission. For example, California requires only two years of college or passing a college level equivalency examination before beginning the study of law. This means if you have an associate degree or attended college for a couple of years, you might be able to attend a California law school.
ABA-approved institutions also require students to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Most non-ABA-approved schools, however, have no LSAT. Although, in California, non-accredited schools do require you to pass the First Year Law Student Test, also known as the Baby Bar, before you may continue your studies, according to the state bar. Check into the requirements of schools in your area to find out more.
Another option for obtaining a law degree involves online legal education programs, where class discussions occur in professor-led chat rooms or on bulletin board discussions. The study time and reading materials are the same, but chat room discussions of legal topics with other students are typically less time consuming than in a physical classroom setting. For many people, if distance is a factor in attending law school, this is an option to study law in a more flexible setting while avoiding travel. One such online school is Concord University School of Law. Concord has a physical office in Los Angeles and can be accessed at www.concord.kaplan.edu.
Concord’s curriculum takes four years and it isn’t ABA-approved. Therefore, graduates are only able to sit for the California Bar Exam. Before a graduate of Concord can sit for a bar exam in other states, they must practice law in California for five years. Such requirements may make this particular option less attractive for those paralegals who wish to immediately practice outside the state following graduation. A little searching on the Internet may result in other, more viable online law schools in your own state.
ABA vs. Non-ABA Law Schools
Understanding your future goal as an attorney and the impact of choosing to attend a law school that is or isn’t ABA-approved is important. Unless you live in Alabama, California, Connecticut or Maine, you don’t have the luxury of such a choice.
If your goal is to work in a top law firm in a metropolitan area or in a Fortune 500 company, hiring requirements may eliminate graduates of non-ABA approved law schools from being considered.
Behrens, whose law school isn’t ABA-approved, said she is comfortable with her educational decision. “The Santa Barbara College of Law isn’t ABA-approved, but it is [accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California]. I think if I wanted to work in a big firm, they probably would not look at me. But I’m not leaving Santa Barbara. I want to work for the government … and I know a lot of people in government work who went to non-ABA-approved schools,” Behrens explained.
She also noted that her school offers night classes which allow her to continue to work as a paralegal while she attends law school. According to Behrens, the only law school in the area that is currently ABA-approved is too far from her home and doesn’t offer the night classes she needs.
Davila, who went to law school at the University of Houston, which is ABA-approved and was so when he graduated in 1988, said ABA-approval can be a complex choice each law school candidate needs to consider for him or herself. At San Jacinto College, where Davila is currently a paralegal educator, the school is currently undertaking the process of obtaining ABA-approval for its paralegal program.
“I wouldn’t say attending a non-ABA-approved law school is necessarily a bad thing depending on the overall quality of the program. However, it could be a negative when it comes to employers who are looking at candidates from ABA-approved schools as well as from non-ABA-approved schools,” Davila said.
There are other options to review when considering law schools, including being hired at the firm where you currently work, seeking employment in the public sector or in a district attorney’s office prosecuting criminal cases, opening your own office, doing contract work for other attorneys at home, or doing work outside the traditional law firm or legal department setting.
Obtain a book on alternate careers for attorneys or do some creative thinking on how to market your skills with a law degree. Ultimately, the decision of what school to attend and whether ABA-approval is necessary is up to you and your individual career goals.
The best course of action is to approach the situation from an attorney’s perspective: Do your due diligence. Contact law schools that are both ABA- and non-ABA-approved and ask to speak to some recent graduates. Ask those graduates about their experiences as working attorneys and how their ABA-approved education or lack thereof has either helped or hurt them. Also, contact a few law firms in areas in which you might consider one day working. Find out what hiring practices those firms have regarding law school programs, specifically where the firms stand on ABA-approval. Then weigh those comments against your own ambition and choose carefully.
Myths and misconceptions you may have about attending law school after having worked as a legal assistant might include:
Personally, I learned I needed to confront a few myths of my own. One such myth is that your family is your bedrock of support and solace in times of law school-related stress. This isn’t always the case.
I actually experienced added pressure from family and friends because I was constantly told I would do great in law school due to my experience as a legal assistant.
While such comments were intended to be supportive and ease my stress, they only made my situation worse because it seemed everyone expected me to whiz thorough law school and make top grades because I already knew it all.
During the first semester of school, I quickly realized despite 20 years of experience as a paralegal, I didn’t know it all. I also came to recognize I didn’t completely understand all the legal theories I had been cutting and pasting into those legal pleadings all those years. Luckily, reality sets in for family and friends after you explain law school exams are graded on a curve and you are being compared to other students who are attending full time.
As a result, some of the pressure tends to subside once the reality of your first year sets in for yourself, your family and your friends.
Dealing With the Financial Burden
While costs can vary, attending law school may not be too far out of reach when you consider the available loans, grants and scholarships. Numerous scholarships for re-entry students, single parents or students who represent a particular minority or vocational background are available. Internet and library research can provide you with a wealth of available scholarships and grants which often lapse or go unclaimed due to a lack of applicants.
Typical costs for a non-ABA-approved law school range from $8,000 to $10,000 a year. ABA-approved law school tuition can be double or triple such costs.
If you incur student loans of $50,000, you will likely make this amount in a year or two after graduation due to increased wages, so don’t let the financial fear hold you back — you are making an investment that will pay off big later on. Investigate your financial options with the financial aid office at the school you are considering.
What Is Law School Really Like?
Typically, homework and class preparation consists of reading case summaries and preparing case briefs.
For a three-hour class that meets weekly, expect to have about 50 to 100 pages of cases to read and brief. This may consist of 10 or more cases to brief and each one may take you 30 minutes or more to complete. It’s not uncommon to spend four to eight hours per class weekly on homework alone. If you are taking three classes per semester, this totals 12 to 25 hours weekly on homework, in addition to nine hours a week attending classes, plus any study groups or law-school related activities. This amounts to 20 to 35 hours a week or more for law school, which makes a long week if you also work full time.
Many students purchase study guide books containing briefs of the cases contained in the casebook. It’s important to try to use the briefs in these books to simply check your comprehension of the issues and case holdings rather than as a replacement for doing your own briefs. While this may save study time, it means you spend less time analyzing and learning to think like a lawyer, which may impact your ability to perform well on the exams.
“The main challenge I faced in attending law school was the integration of the practical, hands-on experience I had as a paralegal [versus] the theoretical or classroom [applications] I experienced as a law school student,” explained Eric Schurger, an attorney for the Department of Children and Families in Pensacola, Fla.
According to Schurger, law school is a significant challenge that requires what he called “a near single-minded dedication.”
During the course of an average 15-week semester, you can expect to cover 400 to 600 pages of reading material per class. Multiply that by the number of classes you take and you get an idea of just how much reading you are doing, and this kind of reading is much more difficult than the pleasure reading you may enjoy now.
Preparing an outline of the elements of law covered in your class is another important task to ensure your success. Your ability to prepare a succinct, yet comprehensive outline of everything covered during class becomes the guide you will review over and over as you study the elements of the law, and prepare for final exams.
Many law school students prepare course outlines that comprise 20 to 30 pages, at least initially. As the semester progresses, those outlines are significantly pared down to be more concise study aids.
Class time is typically spent in a procedure commonly referred to as the Socratic method. The professor asks a student to orally brief a case in front of the class and then discussion occurs about the case issues, holdings and applicable law and precedent-setting standard. The pressures to analyze and perform this task orally before other classmates is intimidating.
Some professors use a daunting and insulting demeanor if you fail to properly answer the question. This provides the motivation to adequately prepare for class. While this method is stressful, it develops the skill of thinking on your feet, which develops courtroom attorney skills, so it does play a key role in your legal education.
Grading and Exams
In most classes, grading is based on performance on the mid-term and final exams. Some classes don’t even have a mid-term exam, so your entire grade is based on how you do on the final exam.
In classes that take two semesters, such as torts, contracts, real property, civil procedure and constitutional law, the final exams are generally comprehensive, covering 30 weeks of course content — adding pressure by testing you in May on material you learned the previous September. This is why students spend so much time studying for final exams.
Exams in substantive law classes typically consist of essay exams that pose hypothetical facts and ask you to identify the issues presented, analyze the facts, tell what law is applicable, explain the law, write an analysis and state possible conclusions which may be reached in the case. Some students use the “IRAC” method taught in school, which sets out the issue, the rule of law, the analysis of the facts and law and sets forth one or more conclusions.
Typically, a law school exam for each class will contain three hypothetical questions and allows one hour to respond to each of the three questions, for a total of three hours of testing time.
Stress levels among students can run quite high and competition to get the best grade in the class may either motivate or paralyze you, depending on how well you are at test taking.
Schurger related a story about one practice mid-term exam he took during his first year in law school at the University of Florida.
He explained that a period of time had elapsed in the fact pattern of the scenario he was offered as part of the practice exam, and in his answer he analyzed the computation of time periods under the existing state rules of procedure to apply the statute of limitations as dispositive of the case.
“In correcting the practice examination, the professor told me to just accept his facts as true and analyze from that point. I did much better on the final examination once I suspended my practical paralegal experience and stuck to the theoretical law student experience,” Schurger explained. I recall how fearful I felt when I started and professors told us 50 percent of the people would drop out in the first year.
Looking back on my first year, it doesn’t seem so bad. I worried too much about failing and should have tried to have more confidence.
Davila offered the best advice to paralegals thinking of attending law school: “Don’t let anything or anybody stop you. Don’t underestimate yourself because there will be others out there who will. Don’t expect it to be easy; you will struggle, but you will make it. Keep your eye on the prize.”
Impact on Family, Social Life and Employment
A number of paralegals who are either currently attending or have completed law school were interviewed for this article. While space issues limited the number of people who could reasonably be included in the main story, a number of valuable and insightful comments were made by those interviewed. Their comments reflect how, in each person’s opinion, law school attendance affects personal and family relationships, social life and one’s current job.
Attribution has been removed as some participants wanted to offer an open and honest assessment of attending law school without fear for their reputations as dedicated students and professionals.
Note the various positive and negative comments mentioned — they are all accurate descriptions of feelings I had this past year. Although law school can leave you feeling stressed by the demands on your time, it can also make you feel pleased at how you are growing in your knowledge.
© Legal Assistant Today Magazine