This article, authored by Fleeson Gooing paralegal Cheryl Clark, originally appeared in the May 2016 edition of the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association. It is reprinted here by permission.
As technology innovations continue to permeate the legal profession, paralegals have realized tremendous opportunities to develop the skills needed to apply these tools to benefit the lawyers they work with. In response to market demands, paralegal educators are adapting their programs to keep up with industry demands. Paralegal programs are becoming more popular. The availability of continuing legal education courses related to technology are increasing. Office managers are changing their training policies to better prepare today’s paralegals for success in the workforce.
Paralegal roles are expanding, and law firms are looking for multiple skills and a wide variety of experience when they hire paralegals. Paralegal educators agree that a combination of strong technology skills, writing and communication skills, and hands-on experience help paralegals find a job when they get ready to enter the workforce. Other hot trends in paralegal education and CLE include e-learning, and a greater demand for certain paralegal specialties.
As legal employers look for paralegals with advanced technology skills to increase their productivity, these skills are now essential for paralegals entering the workforce. Tech-savvy paralegals will always have the advantage in the legal job market. Technology skills can be developed by firms that take the time to train their paralegals through continuing education classes and allowing them to attend legal seminars. Some larger firms hold monthly training sessions for their paralegals, covering a variety of topics related to technology.
In many law offices, attorneys rely on paralegals to select, manage and operate law-related software. They assist in e-discovery, understand and manage databases, facilitate case management software, create searchable electronic documents, and orchestrate the technology aspects of trial presentations. As a result, paralegal programs are expanding their technology offerings and are training students on a diverse array of word processing, spreadsheet, timekeeping, trial presentation, legal research and case management software. It is impossible for paralegal programs to teach every form of legal software available, but it is necessary for paralegal programs to introduce their students to new concepts and provide education in these areas. The more paralegals know about technology and legal software programs, the more job security they will have when they enter the workforce.
The growth of litigation support and the world of e-discovery have also prompted the increase of technology training in both paralegal programs and within law firms. The need for formal training is critical to the continued growth and advancement of the paralegal profession and those working in the area of litigation. Paralegals should strive to become the go-to person for technology applications and uses.
Enhanced Communication Skills
Another major trend in paralegal training and education is a focus on fundamental skills such as legal writing, communication and marketing. Many paralegal educators believe that students today lack oral and written communication skills that are needed in the legal profession. Educators are aware of and concerned with the lack of such basic skills for those entering their programs. As a result, programs are starting to place more emphasis on writing skills. Many paralegal educators believe employers should be asking for a writing sample from prospective paralegals.
Distance learning, also known as e-learning, is one of the fastest-growing segments of higher education. Media and interactive technologies have increased the e-learning possibilities in both academic and workplace settings. The flexibility of taking classes at any time from any location is the norm in education today. Distance learning appeals to all students, and is especially popular among students with families that work full time jobs and have other obligations in their busy lives. Online continuing education classes are an excellent way for paralegals to make themselves more marketable, not only if they are looking to change jobs, but also if they are seeking to advance in their current place of employment.
As the paralegal profession evolves, legal specialties grow. Paralegal specialties popular in today’s legal market include bankruptcy, immigration, litigation, collections/foreclosure and intellectual property. Electronically stored information is causing the growth of e-discovery and litigation as support specialties.
Education is key in the paralegal profession today. Over the last few years, the KBA Paralegal Committee has lost some valuable attorney and educator members to retirement. We would like to recognize those members at this time: Anita Tebbe, who retired from Johnson County Community College last year; John Conlee, who first served as the director of the paralegal program at Wichita State University and then joined Newman University as the director of their paralegal program, and Kaye Rute, who retired from Washburn University. These members provided knowledge and direction to our committee, and are greatly missed.
Cheryl Clark has a combined 40 years of experience in the legal field and has worked for the law firm of Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson & Kitch, L.L.C. for the last 19 years. She obtained her associate’s degree in legal assistant studies from Hutchinson Community College in 1990, her Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation in 1993 and her Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) designation in 2006 from the National Association of Legal Assistants. She is a past chair and current member of the KBA Paralegal Committee, past president of the Kansas Association of Legal Assistants and, and a past member of the Certifying Board for the National Association of Legal Assistants. She currently serves as chairperson of the KBA Task Force for state certification for Kansas Paralegals, and is coordinator of the paralegal program at Hutchinson Community College.