Frequently Asked Questions
There are many factors to consider before a student decides to invest his or her time, talents, academic dreams, career plans and money in a specific Paralegal Studies program. In 1994 the American Bar Association (ABA) published a helpful booklet entitled, How to Choose a Paralegal Program. Since then the paralegal profession has experienced extensive changes, but many of the basic suggestions remain helpful.
Prospective students should consider the following general factors:
- The educational objectives of the program and the specific objectives of each course should be clearly stated and tailored to employer expectations for paralegals in the legal marketplace.
- The reputation and educational standing in the community of the paralegal program including how long the paralegal program has been in existence and the qualifications of the program administrator and faculty.
- Inclusion in the curriculum of internships, placement assistance, academic counseling and access to informational interviews with graduates.
- The academic quality of the coursework should be comparable to upper division college level coursework and measured in semester or quarter units.
- The Paralegal Studies certificate program at SF State was started in 1975 and is the ONLY fully accredited and ABA-approved paralegal program in the immediate Bay Area that has been continuously operating for 30 years.
- The Paralegal Studies certificate program faculty is comprised of attorneys, senior paralegals and a judge. There are currently seventeen Adjunct Faculty, eight of whom have been teaching at SF State for over twenty years, and three of whom are Paralegal Studies graduates. Faculty biographies are easily accessible from this site. Students are encouraged to read the backgrounds of their teachers.
- The Paralegal Studies program director worked as a paralegal for over twenty years, has been on the faculty since 1981 and teaches two required classes in the program.
SF State is a fully accredited State University that offers quality education at a reasonable cost which is significantly lower than private educational institutions. The fees for upper division transferable units in the Paralegal Studies certificate program are in line with all CSU fees.
SF State was started in 1899 as The San Francisco State Normal School. After the 1906 earthquake the campus moved to a downtown location. The main campus at 19th and Holloway first held classes for the fall semester in 1954. Records indicate that 6,500 students were enrolled at that time. The first paralegal classes were held on the main campus in 1975. The SF State reputation and tradition of quality education continues today both at the main campus, and at the College of Extended Learning, ABA-approved paralegal certificate program.
- Individual résumé help and career assistance are available for all students. We have a job board as part of our website and a career fair is held once a year. Even with the economic downturn, the market in the Bay Area remains strong and our SF State graduate placement rate for the 2009 - 1010 academic year is 63%. Graduates are surveyed six months after graduation, and placement statistics are compiled regularly as part of our ABA reporting requirement. It should be noted that many graduates relocate without leaving a forwarding address and also several graduates have been accepted into law school.
- Paralegal internships, many of which lead to jobs, are available after students complete their first semester. Our internship counselor meets with students individually to help match their needs and abilities to one of the many internship placements with attorneys and legal agencies.
- Graduate students are frequent guest speakers in classes, and new students may contact graduates in various areas of law for career advice. SF State maintains a graduate database, and the program director will help match students to a graduate for informational interviews.
- Location! Location! Location! The SF State paralegal program offers both day and evening classes at our convenient location in downtown San Francisco, close to jobs and legal resources, at the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Powell Street BART/Muni station.
- A balance between required courses and elective courses allows students to choose their main specialty area from among Corporate and Business Practice, Advanced Litigation and Estate Planning and Elder Law. There are currently 19 elective class choices.
- Graduates may return at any time to take elective classes at a 50% tuition discount. There is no limit on the number of classes they may take.
- Courses taken for a paralegal certificate are upper division academic courses, which allow students to make an easy transition to a bachelor's degree. Courses may be applied as general elective courses toward a Bachelor of Arts degree at SF State and all other CSU institutions.
- ABA approval is increasingly considered the paralegal "gold standard" in the legal community. ABA approval indicates that the competency based curriculum used by the SF State Paralegal Studies certificate program meets the standards set forth by the ABA to assure quality education. While there are many good paralegal programs that do not have ABA approval, and many other accrediting agencies, the prestige of an ABA-approved paralegal certificate speaks for itself in the workplace.
- ABA approval is recognized nationwide. Graduates with a paralegal certificate are fully qualified to work as paralegals in all 50 states.
The SF State Paralegal Studies program is a long standing member of the American Association for Paralegal Education, AAfPE, the only national organization for paralegal educators. AAfPE, with over 450 members, has been serving paralegal educators and educational institutions since 1981. AAfPE's member schools currently enroll over 41,000 students and have nearly 191,000 graduates (these are 2002 numbers and have since increased). AAfPE's primary mission is to promote high standards for paralegal education. In 2002, AAfPE, along with five other law-related associations, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, the National Association of Legal Assistants, The Legal Assistant Management Association, The Association of Legal Administrators and the Standing Committee on Legal Assistants of the American Bar Association, drafted the brochure, Choosing a Quality Paralegal Education Program, which is available from AAfPE.
The founding director of the SF State Paralegal Studies program, Lee Gallery, served for many years on the AAfPE board of Directors.
For these and many other reasons, SF State is your best choice for quality paralegal education that will lead to a rewarding paralegal career.
Students are required to have a minimum of 60 semester or 90 quarter units of prior academic college credit with an overall GPA of 2.5 to be admitted as certificate students. At least half of these units must be in general education courses covering four basic skills: oral communication, written composition, critical thinking and mathematics or quantitative reasoning. Students who hold a BA degree from the US or another country are automatically eligible for admission. Students with at least three years of legal employment and 45 semester or 68 quarter units may petition for conditional admission. Check the SF State website for complete details.
The SF State Paralegal Studies certificate is an academic certificate which is universally recognized as upper division college credit by employers. While employer expectations for hiring paralegals vary, most large firms require a BA and an ABA paralegal certificate for all positions as career paralegals. Some employers will hire case clerks without a BA who have completed an academic paralegal certificate program. Some "non-career" paralegal jobs are available for college graduates with BA degrees.
Paralegals work side by side with attorneys and other legal professionals. Most paralegals work under the direct supervision of an attorney drafting various documents, assisting the attorney with trial preparation and working directly with clients. Some experienced paralegals work as independent contractors working for many different attorneys on specific projects on a contract basis.
Paralegals perform the same functions as an attorney except those prohibited by unauthorized practice of law statues (See California Business and Professions Code Section 6450 (a)). General duties are limited only by statute or a supervising attorney's determination of a specific paralegal's competency.
Some examples of typical paralegal duties are:
- Factual and legal research.
- Organization of client matters.
- Drafting correspondence, pleadings and discovery for attorney review.
- Legal calendaring.
- Preparing subject matter databases.
- Interaction with clients, court personnel and opposing attorneys.
- Reviewing, evaluating and summarizing medical, business, commercial and other records for attorneys.
- Reviewing legal documents (contracts, insurance policies, etc.) to spot controversial issues.
For a comprehensive list of duties, visit the NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations) website to view the publication Paralegal Professional Responsibilities, which lists specific duties in 28 different legal specialty areas. To see a list of paralegal duties written by the ABA, go to ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals. Another list is available at California Alliance of Paralegal Associations.
Wages vary by education. The more education, the higher the wages. Also, special skills such as a second language or a professional license acquired from past or present employment will raise your salary. If you have been a real estate agent, insurance agent, EMT or RN, you can use that experience to your advantage during salary negotiations. At San Francisco State, you can also take our Notary Public course and become a notary, which will raise your salary. Type and size of employer will also affect wages. Many paralegals receive year end and case bonuses in addition to their annual wages. Benefits included in a paralegal's annual wages usually include health insurance, sick leave, vacation time and a retirement plan.
According to the 2014 - 2015 Salary Survey of 200 attorneys with the largest law firms and legal departments in the United States, 46% of the respondents predicted that the greatest number of job opportunities for paralegals is in litigation specifically in Insurance Defense and Commercial litigation. Salaries are continuing to rise but have not yet returned to the prerecession level. Starting salaries for all litigation support professionals is predicted to increase 3.6% over 2013. See Robert Half Legal's Workplace Research for the latest information.
The EDD California Occupational Guide has detailed information on paralegals in San Francisco. They reported a median wage in 2013 of $68,561. The lowest reported wage was $53,187, and the highest was $85,508.
The job market in the Bay Area remains strong and salaries vary with size of firm or legal department and area of legal specialization. The Paralegal Studies Advisory Committee includes legal recruiters as well as paralegal managers from large law firms who work with our graduates and update salary information as well as the employment outlook on a regular basis.
The total cost is approximately $8,990, in addition to a $50 application fee. Most courses are $299 a unit, and the program consists of 30 units. Cost of books varies from class to class. Students pay for courses as they take them on a semester to semester basis.
Extended Learning receives no state money; therefore, financial aid is extremely limited. Financial aid, if granted, is only available to students who are admitted to the Paralegal Studies certificate program. For further information, visit the financial aid website.
The San Francisco Paralegal Association offers annual scholarships which have been awarded for the past five years to students in the SF State Paralegal Studies certificate program. Many other organizations offer scholarships. Students are given a list of contacts as part of the new student packet.
Unlike other paralegal programs, SF State does not require students to pay for a Lexis ID up front. At the beginning of the Fall and Spring semesters, we offer Lexis subscriptions for the incredible low rate of $100 per year. Law firms can spend several thousand dollars a year for the same 24/7 access to Lexis that our students receive.
Since our students pay as they go for their classes, instead of paying tuition up front, Lexis is a separate expense to be budgeted. We do teach all of our students how to use Lexis during their mandatory course in Legal Research & Writing. Our computer teacher is also a certified Lexis instructor and is an excellent resource for student questions.
Textbooks are available online at the SF State website or at the main campus bookstore. Books are usually available the week before classes begin.
Students are free to post notices to sell their textbooks to incoming students. Notices are posted near the job board at the Downtown Campus. If you do buy your books through another student or at a website such as Amazon, be sure that you are purchasing the correct edition of the text.
Many students come to the Paralegal Studies certificate program with family and employment obligations. Recognizing that each student is unique, with his or her own goals, abilities and constraints, the Paralegal Studies certificate program is designed to be flexible. Over the course of four years, students may complete the program at their own pace by choosing the number of courses to take each semester. No minimum number of units per semester is required. However, special requirements may apply to international students and those receiving financial aid.
The average student takes two classes a semester and completes the program in 5 semesters (18 months). It is possible, however, to finish the program within a year by attending full-time. A four semester and a five semester illustrative academic plans is included in the student information packet.
A paralegal certificate represents the mastery of a large body of legal knowledge and the acquisition of numerous practical skills. Successful entry into the paralegal profession requires formal education of sufficient length, sophistication, depth and quality to gain that knowledge and mastery of those skills. Most students enter a paralegal program with little or no legal background and need to learn a new language, "legalese", new concepts, a new way of critical thinking. This requires students to take the time to assimilate and combine legal theory with practical applications in an internship. Lifetime knowledge and skills cannot be rushed or adequately covered in "weekend wonder" programs. Each student needs to plan their own career path considering their personal goals and education. They receive help from the SF State Paralegal Studies program director or program coordinator. Individual appointments are available for academic planning.
Each of the five core classes are taught each semester with both a daytime and a night section. Students may begin the Paralegal Studies certificate program in the spring, summer or fall semesters. Each semester has multiple sections of the two beginning classes, PLS 300 and PLS 320, for new students. We can usually accommodate 90 new students each semester in PLS 300 and 75 new students in PLS 320*
*These numbers are estimates based on past and current enrollment figures and are not absolute.
The current curriculum of the Paralegal Studies certificate program has 23 different elective classes. Some of the elective classes are scheduled every semester. Those classes are: Torts, Contracts, Internship and Computer Applications. Introduction to Professional Legal Writing, which is required for all students who do not have a BA and is strongly recommended for those students whose first language is not English as well as International Students, is taught in spring and fall semesters.
The legal specialty electives rotate in once every four semesters not calendar year (three semesters). Scheduling depends on teacher availability and can vary from year to year. We usually offer six elective choices each semester. Students who are required to complete their certificate in three semesters (a calendar year) because of financial aid, government loans, visa requirements or other funding arrangements are advised that because of prerequisites for certain classes as well as elective scheduling, they may not be able to get their first choice of an elective class and must be flexible in their academic plan.
Here is a very general overview of elective class scheduling of our legal specialty classes which is in addition to the electives listed above which are scheduled every semester:
Probate, Wills and Trusts, Employment Law, Trademarks and Copyrights, Real Estate and Environmental Litigation
Administrative Law, Elder Law, Immigration Law, Contemporary Legal Issues, Family Law, Evidence*
Corporate Law, Advanced Legal Research, Intellectual Property-Patents, Criminal Law, Advanced Computer Applications, Bankruptcy*
* These courses are not scheduled every semester.
This schedule is meant ONLY as a guide to help students plan their courses. Some electives move around each semester depending on teacher availability. Students must be flexible in their plans and are reminded that after graduation they may return to audit an elective class at half price. Graduates are always welcome in classes even if the class has closed in registration.
All of our classes are taught by working attorneys and paralegals who, because of their work schedules, are only able to teach one section each semester. They are all senior adjunct faculty and specialists in their area of law. Class size is limited to 30 students to give each student individual attention. Some teachers will add students, but that is up the discretion of each teacher. Some elective classes are limited to 25 students due to the requirements of the class for homework and oral presentations.
As our enrollment has increased to an average of 300 students each semester, all certificate students are strongly encouraged to use their priority registration privileges to get their first choice of classes.
Although paralegal courses do not earn law school credit, taking paralegal classes before applying to law school is a great idea because:
- You can "test the waters" to see whether you really want to study law at a much less expensive course rate while learning a marketable skill.
- Some of the instructors in the paralegal program also teach law school classes. You can learn from them about law school classes and how they differ from paralegal courses.
- You can work as a paralegal while attending law school, and if you're lucky, your law firm will help pay your law school tuition.
- Your first year of law school will be very easy!
In many areas of study, online courses are acceptable alternatives to live classroom teaching. In addition, technology is an increasing and enormous force in educational delivery and in the daily lives of paralegals. However, SF State paralegal courses are not offered online at this time because of the restrictions imposed by ABA approval on course curriculum and the cost of implementing online courses which would ultimately fall on students. Computer skills and electronic research have been fully integrated into the course curriculum.
The benefits of live classroom teaching and learning are enormous. Paralegal students learn to develop oral presentation skills, become comfortable speaking before others and working with groups, learn from each other and begin networking. They are better prepared to enter the legal workforce through the interactions they have with students and instructors in a face to face environment. The importance of teamwork and building relationships in a "real life classroom" cannot be over-emphasized. There are also no power failures or computer glitches that cannot be compensated for in a real classroom where there is always a "plan B."
California Business and Professions Code Sections 450-6456 has been the law governing paralegals for several years now, and its effect can be seen in all aspects of the legal community from hiring criteria for paralegals, to salaries and the economic benefits of billing clients for fee generating legal work. There are many law firms and corporations that have learned the hard way, through denial of a fee award for paralegal work for example, just how important it is to hire a paralegal who is qualified pursuant to the specifics of the Code.
The most important section for a working paralegal is 6450(d), as amended in May 2008 to state that, "every two years, commencing January 1, 2007, any person ... working as a paralegal shall be required to certify completion of four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in ethics and four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in either general law or in an area of specialized law."
The Code goes on to say that certification of these requirements shall be made to the paralegal's supervising attorney and also that the paralegal is responsible for keeping a record of their CEU certifications. In most cases this is easily accomplished by turning in CEU certificates to the HR person at your employment. It is vital for all paralegals to keep track on a CEU log of all their courses, and to also keep copies of the actual certificates. If the continuing education criteria are not met by the paralegal, then the paralegal is in violation of the code.
For a course to count, it must meet the requirements of Business and Profession Code section 6070, be offered by an approved MCLE provider and that provider's State Bar MCLE number should appear on all certificates.
Continuing education units (CEU) are nationally recognized units for measuring participation in professional development activities or programs that do not award academic credit. They are appropriate when a certain number of hours are required by an employer or a professional association or by law where non-credit study is acceptable. A number of states, including California, require paralegals to satisfy annual continuing education requirements. Business and Professions Code Section 6450 requires that all paralegals have four hours of general legal CEU and four hours of ethics CEU every two years.
Students must be careful in selecting CEU courses. Only CEUs offered by approved MCLE (Mandatory Continuing Legal Education) providers are recognized pursuant to Business and Professions Code Section 6450. CEUs do not qualify as units for the SF State Paralegal Studies certificate which requires semester hour credits.
In the course Computer Applications in the Law, SF State paralegal students learn how to master the legal software that is used in today's law firms. Students have access to state of the art computer labs and can sample trial versions of many of the most popular software programs used in law offices for litigation tracking, time and billing, calendaring and database work. Our computer teacher is a Senior Litigation Paralegal at a major law firm. She is a graduate of our Paralegal Studies program and an expert in Electronic Discovery. She provides individual assistance to students in her "hands-on" classes, which include search engines and advanced Internet research as part of the class. In Legal Research, students learn both conventional and computerized legal research techniques and may subscribe to LEXIS for their course work. The rate for one calendar year is $80 for 24/7 access on their personal computers.
The SF State program director worked as a litigation paralegal for over 20 years and is a "hands-on" director. She teaches two required classes and is the internship and career advisor. She has numerous contacts in the Bay Area legal community and places many graduates in jobs even before they complete the Paralegal Studies certificate program. Often a student is the perfect candidate for a file clerk or receptionist job in a law firm. These jobs are stepping stones to a paralegal job when the student graduates.