How to Pick a Paralegal Studies Program in Alabama
Congratulations on your decision to enroll in paralegal studies in Alabama and begin your journey that will result in a rewarding profession in legal services. However, it’s important that you find the best school so that you will receive the extensive training that you require to succeed. As you probably understand, the legal field is among the fastest growing occupations in the United States, and more and more educational choices are becoming available, both on campus and online. But with so many alternatives to choose from, where does one start? Some potential students start by looking for schools within driving distance of their homes. Of those options, they look for the program with the most affordable tuition. Although cost and location are important considerations when picking a college, they are not the only qualifiers you need to consider. Things such as accreditation and the reputation of the school need to be taken into account as well. Later on in this post we will review a list of questions that you need to ask potential paralegal schools so that you can assess and compare every one prior to making your choice. But first, let’s take a look at what a paralegal does and the educational alternatives that are offered to earn a paralegal certificate or degree.
Alabama Paralegals and Legal Assistants
Paralegals and legal assistants for the most part both fill the same job positions and responsibilities, only with different titles. However, legal secretaries are not the equivalent of either of those two positions and belong to a different job classification. Both paralegals and legal assistants assist Alabama lawyers with a diverse array of job duties, such as maintaining client files, legal research, drafting legal documents and communicating with clients. Their particular job duties are based upon the type of legal firm where they are employed. For example, a legal assistant for a criminal law firm might assist with trial logistics or delivering files to court. In private firms, a paralegal’s work is usually billed by the hour as are the lawyer’s. And the same as attorneys, they must conduct themselves with a high level of professionalism and comply with a strict standard of professional ethics. As stated, their duties can be diverse in support of the practices where they are employed, but some of their regular activities might include:
- Investigating and fact checking cases
- Conducting research on pertinent laws and cases
- Composing correspondence and legal papers
- Submitting legal papers with opposing counsel or the court
- Helping attorneys prepare for trial and stay organized with their cases
- Organizing and maintaining legal files, documents and additional records
With all of their duties, the role of a paralegal can be complex and quite challenging. However, what they are not legally authorized to do is give legal counsel and advice or represent a client in a legal proceeding. But paralegals are not limited to clerical or administrative functions more applicable to the job of a legal secretary. Legal assistants truly are the right hand support systems for Alabama lawyers. And since they do so much of the legal preparation and ground work, lawyers are able to handle a much larger volume of cases or clients than they could otherwise.
Paralegal Programs and Certification
As we previously covered, paralegals are basically the same as legal assistants, with paralegals arguably having more professional sounding job titles. In any case, for either position the educational prerequisites and job prospects will be the same. The quickest means to launch your career as a legal assistant is by earning a certificate, which may involve as little as six months to complete. Most entry level positions do require an Associate’s Degree, which offer a more extensive education and may be obtained at numerous Alabama community colleges in 2 years. For an even more comprehensive education, 4 year Bachelor’s Degrees are an option also. Once you have earned either a degree or a certificate, you might want to proceed and get a certification. Although it is not a legal requirement in Alabama to practice as a paralegal, certification may not only help increase your career opportunities, but help establish you as a professional also. Some of the highly regarded certifying agencies in the profession are:
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations
- American Alliance of Paralegals
- National Association of Legal Assistants
- National Association for Legal Professionals
By graduating with a degree or certificate from an accredited Alabama program (we will discuss the advantages of accreditation later) and earning a certification, you will have taken 2 essential first steps that will help ensure your success as either a legal assistant or a paralegal.
Paralegal and Legal Assistant Online Classes
Paralegal and legal assistant online schools have become more common in Alabama and may be a good option for those looking for convenient access to classes as well as accommodating scheduling. Online programs can be particularly appealing to individuals who continue to work while earning a certificate or degree. As an added benefit, online classes can sometimes be less costly than on campus options. Even secondary expenditures for such items as commuting or study materials may be reduced or eliminated. One caution, not all online schools are accredited, which we will address in greater detail later. But at a minimum accreditation helps ensure that the training you obtain is of the highest quality. So check to make certain that the program and school you are reviewing are accredited by a highly regarded organization, such as the American Bar Association. But if you are disciplined enough to study in a less supervised and conventional environment, then obtaining your degree or certificate online might be the ideal option for you.
Things to Ask Paralegal Programs
Once you have a better understanding regarding what paralegals do and what academic options are offered, you can start the process of assessing schools. But considering that there are numerous programs available at Alabama junior and community colleges, as well as vocational and trade schools, you must know what questions to ask so that you can compare each one. This is particularly true if you include all of the online paralegal degree and certificate programs as well. If you are like most potential students, you will begin by searching for schools within driving distance and then comparing their tuition. But as we have previously covered, there are other significant factors to think about as well, such as accreditation and the reputation of the schools. So let’s take a look at a few of the questions you should be asking the schools you are considering so that you can thoroughly vet each one and make your final choice.
Is the Paralegal Program and School Accredited? The paralegal program and school that you choose need to be accredited by a respected accrediting agency such as the American Bar Association. If it is an online school, it can also get accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, which focuses on distance or online learning. Accreditation will not only certify that the education you will obtain will be of the highest standard, but it will show potential employers that you are a qualified professional also. Numerous Alabama law firms will only employ entry level paralegals that have graduated from an accredited program. Also, financial assistance and student loans are usually obtainable only for accredited programs.
What’s the Program’s Reputation? Research what the rankings and reputations are for the Alabama legal assistant schools you are contemplating. This is of particular importance if you are new to the profession with no previous experience, since employers will need to make a decision based on the caliber of your training exclusively. Verifying that the school you select is accredited is a good first step. Checking school rating reports, such as those provided by U.S. News and World Report, can help confirm school quality of education and rankings as well. You can also contact several law practices that you may be interested in working for after graduation and ask what schools they recommend. Remember that even if a school is not the most highly ranked, its paralegal program may still have an outstanding reputation.
Does the School Sponsor Internships? Internship programs provide students an opportunity to experience working in a law practice or other Alabama legal establishment while still in school. They can also offer an avenue for students to begin creating contacts within the legal community. Ask if the paralegal programs you are considering provide internship programs, especially in areas of the law that you have the most interest in pursuing upon graduation.
Is Job Placement Help provided? You will probably wish to secure employment quickly after graduation, but finding that initial job in a new profession can be difficult without support. Ask if the paralegal programs you are considering have job placement programs and what their placement rates are. High and rapid placement rates are a good indication that the schools have sizable networks and great relationships with Alabama legal services employers. It also confirms that their graduates are well regarded and sought after.
Where is the Campus Located? Since laws vary from state to state, it may be a good idea to select a paralegal school located in Alabama or the state where you wish to practice after graduation. In addition, it will be necessary to create relationships in the local legal community, perhaps through an internship program. This is all the more reason to obtain your education in the area where you choose to work. Also, if you go to classes at a community college, most require a higher tuition for students that live outside of their districts. So you might want to initially look at those schools that are within your local region.
What is the Complete Cost? Paralegal programs can vary in price based on the credential obtained and the amount of training provided. Having said that, tuition will not be the only expense for your training. Remember to include the cost of supplies, books and commuting to classes to your budget as well. Financial assistance might be accessible to help reduce some of the expense, so don’t forget to contact the school’s financial aid department to find out what is offered in Alabama. Needless to say that if you choose to attend an online school, a portion these supplementary expenses, for instance for commuting, may be reduced or eliminated.
Do the Class Times Accommodate your Schedule? A number of legal students keep working while getting their training and require flexibility in class scheduling. If you can solely attend night or weekend classes in Alabama, verify classes are offered at those times. Also, if you can only attend on a part time basis, make certain that the program you select makes available that option. Finally, ask what the procedure is for making up classes missed as a result of work, illness or family emergencies.
Select the Best Legal Assistant Degree Program in Alabama
Enrolling in the best paralegal educational program is a vital first step to guarantee your success in the rewarding field of law. As we have addressed in this article, you have the option of attending classes on campus or you can attend them online in the comfort and privacy of your home. Paralegal education programs are made available in various lengths and formats. Several types of public and private institutions provide paralegal education, including community and junior colleges, four year colleges and universities, in addition to trade and vocational schools. Your choice of a paralegal program will have a pronounced influence on your opportunities for success in your new career. Since there is a broad range in the quality of schools, pick wisely. Give yourself the greatest possible chance to be successful in this exciting profession. But regardless of how you decide to receive your training and earn your degree or certificate, by asking the questions that we have presented you will have the ability to examine each program and make your ultimate decision. And with the ideal education you can accomplish your career goal to become a successful paralegal in Alabama.