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:
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:
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.
Students may begin the Paralegal Studies certificate program in the spring, summer or fall semesters. While every effort is made to offer our required courses on a consistent schedule, each semester’s class offerings are based on the instructor’s availability, student interest, and the needs of the program.
The legal specialty courses offered can vary from year to year. Course schedules are determined by teacher availability, student interest and the needs of the program. 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.
Students 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:
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.