An Introduction to Law-related Fields

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Nightly glimpses of gritty legal dramas on network TV...'cops and robbers' on the streets...intelligent investigators...shrewd courtroom litigators.

These dramas, and the many reality-based cases that are featured and litigated in TV courtrooms, reflect the public's ongoing fascination with our country's legal system. Past televisions favorites have included Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets, The People's Court, and NYPD Blue. The current line-up includes dramas like Law & Order and CSI and their various versions, and everything else from the CourtTV network to programs such as JAG, Boston Legal, Judging Amy, Cops, and Judge Judy.

While most of these shows are produced using some "creative license" regarding the legal profession and its day-to-day operations, it is agreed that, most often, such shows succeed in conveying the sense of urgency, mission and career diversity to be found in the legal field. "TV shows such as Law & Order and CSI seem to have increased students' interest in criminal justice careers, which is a good thing," says Dave Schrank, a criminal justice professor at the Sioux Falls, S.D. campus of Colorado Technical University (CTU).

But drawing on his background in the criminal justice system, Schrank also cautions such shows can raise unrealistic career expectations. "Crimes aren't solved in 45 minutes, and the shows often don't accurately depict the painstaking and time-consuming nature of the work - it isn't always glamorous."

Even a casual TV viewer knows there is much more to careers in law than the lawyer or detective track: those overworked prosecutors, defense lawyers and detectives don't do it alone.

Legal career opportunities are not only found in law enforcement, law practices and the courts and corrections systems, but also in major corporations and non-profit entities. A wealth of detailed information on law-related careers - descriptions, employment opportunities in both the government and private sectors, growth outlook, educational expectations, income and more - is offered by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook.

It's up to the student to pursue the dream, whatever the field: paralegal, criminal justice, forensics, homeland security, court reporting, legal assisting, law clerk, criminal investigations or one of many other opportunities.

Paralegal Pursuit

"Paralegals are consistently one of the top-ranked professions in terms of job outlook, with more and more law firms using paralegals as a cost/efficiency tactic," says Kenneth Herndon, vice president and director of admissions for Washington Online Learning Institute. The Nanuet, N.Y.-based online school offers several options for paralegal training.

"There is more and more legal work out there, with reasons including government regulations in health care and corporate law, not just the private law firms. There are lots other places paralegals are needed, as well, including in the non-profit sector," he says.

The job outlook for paralegals reflects the continuing need, with the Department of Labor projecting growth of more than 37,000 paralegal jobs between 2005 and 2010. The educational requisites for employment vary by market and employer, with some requiring a minimum of five years experience and others requiring certification and/or other educational background or experience, Herndon notes.

What exactly does a paralegal do? While paralegals are allowed neither to represent clients in court nor to offer legal advice, their job descriptions encompass "essentially everything else that supports an attorney's work," Herndon says, rattling off a list ranging from maintaining office files to writing legal briefs to interviewing clients.

"Being a paralegal can be a lot of hard work, but it is always challenging and ever changing and evolving," says Dianna Smiley, president of the Seattle, Wash.-based National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), a non-profit professional organization representing more than 15,000 paralegals.

Beyond an interest in the law, other factors driving those seeing careers in the paralegal field include the office work environment and career stability, along with national average entry-level wages in the mid-$40s, Herndon says.

The increased need for paralegal support is generally joined by increased expectations for career readiness, says Smiley. "Employers will be looking for more education as the jobs on all levels become competitive and specialized."

Paralegal positions can require varying levels of education and training, but to maintain professionalism in the field, the NFPA encourages education and "would like all paralegals to achieve a BA/BS degree," Smiley says. The various educational opportunities for paralegal training generally range from one- to four- year programs. She notes paralegal certificate programs are available additionally, with some open to those who already have an AA or BA/BS and others without degree requirements. In addition, Smiley reports that a paralegal master's degree is available through some colleges, and that some law schools offer paralegal degree/certificate programs.

The changing nature of the profession is one reason NFPA offers the Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE), which is designed for those with experience in the field. "PACE will further confirm their commitment to the paralegal profession as well as offer them advancement in their personal career," she says.

The Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) designation, administered by the Tulsa, Okla.-based National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) is another certification option offered. The titles paralegal and legal assistant are often used interchangeably; NALA provides continuing education and professional development programs to 18,000-plus members. Established in 1976, NALA's CLA program offers a nationally-recognized credential for legal assistants. "Use of the CLA credential signifies that a legal assistant is capable of providing superior services to firms and corporations," NALA reports. As of 2004, NALA had accredited 12,492 CLAs.

Advanced degrees and certifications are not common in the profession, but can serve as "a career booster, a feather in your cap," says Herndon, who notes Washington Online's program includes a CLA test prep course.

Justice for All

Armed with an education in criminal justice, career-seekers can look into opportunities at state, county or city levels as well as in the private sector. Criminal justice programs can offer a broad-based approach to careers in law, as well as concentrations in areas such as forensics, homeland security and investigations.

"Homeland Security is the single largest bureaucracy in the history of the United States, encompassing agencies ranging from ATP to US Coast Guard to INS/immigration boarder patrol," CTU's Schrank reports. The inevitable result of increased law enforcement efforts is an ever-growing need for people to fill roles in areas such as court services, parole/probation and the corrections system, he adds.

Potential career opportunities for those interested in studying criminal justice are identified by the admissions department at the Cleveland, Ohio campus of the Sanford Brown Institute (SBI):

  • Law Enforcement: Officers including uniformed police, community relations, sheriff and deputy sheriff, parks, DARE, juvenile, state highway patrol, public college and university, transit, crime scene prevention. Other specialties include investigator; detective and loss prevention. A minimum work experience requirement of up to three years is in place for federal positions as agents with the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Secret Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
  • Corrections: Correctional officers at the state and federal levels and adult or juvenile detention officers at the local level. Correctional facilities also employ record managers, labor crew leaders and residential supervisors in addition to other non-specialized support staff. Community Based Correctional Facilities require residential supervisors, shift supervisors, counselors, employment assistants and special needs assistants. A minimum of two to three years work experience and/or training are required for positions as a correctional program specialist, a correction counselor or a substance abuse counselor.
  • Courts: Community resource officer, child and youth counselor, release-on-your-own-recognizance interviewer, bailiff, mediator, victim/witness services personnel, court liaison counselor. Positions which require additional training include paralegal/legal aid, crisis counselor and runaway counselor.

School Days

The type of career sought will drive the post-secondary educational needs for each student. Associate and bachelor's degrees, career-oriented certificates and specialized training are all options, as an increasing number of traditional and career-focused colleges, universities and other educational institutions offer programs suited to law-related careers.

Career-oriented schools offer certificates and diplomas; community colleges offer specialized diplomas and two-year associate degrees; bachelor's degrees are offered by many four-year colleges and universities; graduate programs at colleges and universities offer master's degrees, PhDs and other doctorates; and online programs (which can be extensions of bricks and mortar educational institutions or for-profit entities) offer various diploma, certificate and degree options.

"If students are trying to decide whether to go to online or to a traditional campus, they should know that most online schools are reputable and can prove they offer an excellent education, just the way a traditional school can. It comes down to the individual to find the school that is most comfortable for their needs," says Washington Online's Herndon.

Selecting an educational program should include a careful study of the coursework and concentrations available to make sure what is learned will fit in with your career goals - the school listings can act as a starting point for your initial legal research.

When evaluating programs offered by various institutes of higher education, students should consider the following NALA guidelines. While NALA chiefly advises those evaluating paralegal programs, education-seekers will find the guidelines pertinent to any education in the legal field.

  • Reputation - The general public and the legal community should hold the institution offering the program and the program itself in high regard.
  • Services - The institution should provide orientation, tutoring, academic counseling, financial aid, career information and counseling, and placement assistance. Placement rate and job satisfaction of graduates should be available as well.
  • Facilities - A legal research library (for instruction and student projects/research) and up-to-date computer laboratories (for instruction and student use) are signs of an educational operation that will prepare students for careers. Facilities should additionally accommodate students with disabilities.
  • Activities - Look for honor societies and volunteer work opportunites in the legal community as ways to enhance your education. Schools typically have resources available to help you find these.
  • Curriculum - Classes should reinforce practical job skills in conjunction with legal theory/application courses. The school's program director and faculty members should possess appropriate academic credentials.
  • Distance Education - Look into the type of distance delivery system used (interactive video broadcasts to distance sites, telecourses, or web-based courses on the Internet) as well as training/technical assistance for students.

When investigating educational opportunities, check accreditation, particularly if you may shift gears during the course of either your educational or career goals. There are two types of accreditation: one for schools and one for individual educational programs. For a school to be accredited, its finances, facilities, faculty, and procedures are investigated by an educational standards organization. U.S. colleges and universities are accredited by one of the regional accreditation organizations recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. For a program to be accredited, faculty and curriculum are investigated by a professional organization in the field and must meet its standards for preparing practitioners of the field.

The educational option which suits your needs depends on your career objective. Associates degrees and bachelor's degrees can offer greater career marketability than certification programs, CTU's Schrank notes. Meanwhile, master's degrees are often pursued by students looking for an initial edge to fast advancement when starting a career, as well as by those returning to school to improve upward mobility. "Management is not something you are born with, it develops," Schrank says.

Criminal justice programs are designed to expose and prepare students for positions in the courts, state's attorney's offices, or social services departments, including those agencies addressing specific areas such as domestic violence. Coursework typically builds exposure to areas including victimology, criminology, criminal investigation, sociology, homeland security and laws of evidence. Juvenile delinquency and the juvenile justice system are also typically addressed.

"Criminal justice is a broad path that allows flexibility, with wide latitude to go into various areas of the criminal justice field," CTU's Schrank says.

In addition to legal-specific coursework, general education requirements can be critical to developing skills that set the stage for success in legal-related careers, says CTU's Schrank. "Eliminating general education courses may be to the disadvantage of students when it comes to day-to-day fundamentals of a career in law: writing reports, communications and public speaking," he says.

Specialized certification programs are designed for those eager to get started, or seeking to change or jump-start careers. For instance, Sanford-Brown Institute (SBI) offers a 10-month criminal justice diploma program at its campus locations in Cleveland, Ohio; Iselin, N.J., Springfield, Mass., and Philadelphia. "Our program is a quicker, condensed way into the industry. It's basically designed for those who don't want to go into a four-year program," says Bart Ciofani, an admissions representative at SBI. "It's an intensive program, and we consider it an advanced program that prepares students to enter criminal justice careers in first-tier positions."

Invididuals seeking a career as a paralegal or legal assistant must also take coursework specifically designed to meet their needs, says NFPA's Smiley. In addition, once in the paralegal field, the NFPA also encourages continuing education (CE) credits are attained. Smiley explains that CE requirements are based on local and sometimes state requirements; some paralegal associations require members to meet certain CE requirements.

"The subject matter for a good paralegal program is fairly broad-based as well as specific," NFPA's Smiley says. "Paralegals will learn the nuts and bolts of legal process and procedure," she says. Paralegal study topics identified by Smiley include:

  • Basics - law office procedure (the court system), terminology, research and legal writing skills
  • Specific practice areas - litigation, employment law, contracts, estate planning and probate, administrative law, family/domestic relations, bankruptcy
  • Document drafting - complaints, discovery, contracts, wills and trusts
  • Legal process and procedure - court document filing, properly serving documents, research and Shepardizing┬« of case law, and advanced legal writing skills.

NALA additionally notes paralegals studies should cover legal research and writing, litigation, ethics, contracts, business organizations and torts. Courses should develop students' critical thinking, communication, computational, computer and organizational skills, and competency to handle ethical issues, along with graduation requirements to include both paralegal and general education courses. Programs should offer an experiential learning component such as an internship, practicum, or clinical experience, as well as information about paralegal associations and continuing paralegal education.

Financially Speaking

Choosing a school and determining your financial commitment can be one and the same. Community college degrees or specialized certificates are likely to be of a lower cost than the four-year bachelor's programs at state and private colleges and universities. For instance, SBI criminal justice certificate tuition is $16,535, while the cost of a four-year degree could top $20,000 per year at a private school. Tuition at Washington Online ranges from $575 for a course to prep paralegals for the NALA CLA test to $5,375 for its national paralegal certificate program.

Information on school-specific financial aid and scholarships is often accessible on school web sites as well as through admissions and financial aid departments. When determining your budget, it pays to know that tuition costs typically rise annually at traditional state universities, private colleges and community colleges. However, financial aid can play a large role in reducing the out-of-pocket costs, according the Trends in College Pricing 2004 report released by the College Board in late 2004.

The College Pricing Report notes annual tuition/fees costs for the 2004-2005 school year, compared to the 2003-2004 school year:

  • Four-year public institutions: Up an average of 10.5 percent more than last year ($5,132 vs. $4,645).
  • Two-year public institutions: Up an average of 8.7 percent ($2,076 vs. $1,909).
  • Four-year private institutions: Up 6 percent ($20,082 vs. $18,950).

Don't let the potential price tag get in the way of your career goals. The U.S. Department of Education provides about 70 percent of all student aid to help pay for postsecondary education, and awarded $122 billion during the 2003-2004 school year. More than 10 million students apply for aid annually, and roughly 9 million receive a grant or loan.

School-funded scholarships specific to a field of study or financial need are sometimes available. Another source of scholarship opportunities can be local, regional or national professional associations related to your intended field of study. For instance, NFPA offers two scholarships for paralegal education totaling of $5,000. Some examples of professional groups which may offer scholarships for those interested in legal careers include the American Bar Association and law enforcement associations. Educational pundits often note students should apply for every scholarship they may possibly qualify for - even a $500 award will help defray expenses.

Already in the workforce? Your employer might help subsidize the cost of educational efforts. In addition, various federal programs exist to help fund educations for those facing a mid-career change. For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor's Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is designed to assist unemployed, underemployed, or dislocated workers get back into the job force or train for a new career. WIA aid is administered at the state level.

In the Field

No matter the stage in your educational or career development - it is never too soon to network and lay the groundwork for future opportunities. The ability to relocate can be one key to expanding your career options, particularly as major metropolitan areas house large concentrations of legal personnel.

Whenever possible, network with people currently working in your chosen profession to gain insight into the work as well as the local job market and industry trends, says NFPA's Smiley. To help students land both jobs and contacts, many schools offer networking opportunities ranging from internship/externship programs, to job fairs hosted by schools, to student groups such as CTU's criminal justice honor society. "Be persistent, start early, and do networking such as joining a reserve law enforcement program in the community. It pays off," Schrank advises. "Most students are going to have to realize the jobs are there, but they may not land their dream job right out of the chute."

When it comes time to apply, CTU's Schrank encourages students to be patient with the often time-consuming and bureaucratic hiring process for positions in local, state and federal government sectors. Security issues can be into play, with background checks of varying degrees of intensity being an early part of the application process. When it comes to background checks, Schrank says students should carefully consider their past before seeking certain careers in law, as, in general, "convicted felons need not apply." He notes individuals with bad driving records have reduced chances when applying for positions which involve time behind the wheel, while a drug problem isn't conducive to working with many state agencies.

Beyond a clean background, those seeking law-related careers often share one constant - the desire to enjoy a unique potential to make a difference in the lives of others. "The field oftentimes involves long hours, salaries that may not be on par with the private sector, and dealing with a side of life you didn't know existed," says Schrank. "But if you are looking for a rewarding and fulfilling experience, there are many ways to make a positive impact."

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