What is an ABA Paralegal?

In today’s world, new legal issues appear daily. With the ever-increasing use of social media and mobile devices to conduct business as well as have fun and games, questions regarding privacy and other matters are at the forefront in law offices and courtrooms across the United States and many other countries. While this has led to additional work for attorneys, it has also increased the demand for well-qualified paralegals to assist in these and other matters. While there are many educational programs available for those wishing to become a paralegal, more and more attorneys are seeking those who have completed programs endorsed by the American Bar Association, or ABA. Whether earning a certificate or paralegal degree, those students who have completed an approved ABA program of study can look forward to an exciting paralegal career.

American Bar Association

Defining an ABA Paralegal

While many people see the term “ABA Paralegal,” few know exactly what goes into becoming one. According to the American Bar Association, an ABA paralegal is a person who is qualified by education, training or experience and is employed by a lawyer, corporation, governmental agency or other entity while performing specifically delegated legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. To go along with this definition, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations states that the work performed by these paralegals involves such skills as analysis, evaluation, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.

Skills of an ABA Paralegal

ABA Paralegals, along with having a solid foundation of legal knowledge, also possess a specialized skill set that enables them to perform their jobs at very high levels of expertise. Among the most important skills needed by these paralegals are excellent verbal communication ability, strong writing skills, the ability to be an excellent listener, conflict resolution and negotiation skills, and a willingness to work with clients who come from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Duties of an ABA Paralegal

Because paralegals work in many different types of settings, their duties can vary. For those working in small law offices, they may also act as office administrators, answering phones, greeting clients and typing correspondence and other paperwork. However, due to their specialized training, most paralegals from ABA-approved programs spend the majority of their time performing complex and specialized legal work under the supervision of an attorney. Among their most common duties are:

  • Case planning, development and management
  • Legal research
  • Interviewing clients
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Representing clients at administrative hearings
  • Assist attorney at trial and other legal proceedings

How a paralegal can spend their time often depends on where they are employed. For example, a paralegal that works for a criminal defense attorney will spend most of their time preparing cases for trial, while those working for government agencies often draft contracts and assist executives with in-house legal functions and issues.

ABA Approved Paralegal Programs

For those wanting to earn a paralegal degree, there are numerous educational programs available to them. Programs are offered at colleges and universities across the country, with many conducted at community colleges. Students can choose to earn certificates or Associate degrees at these schools, while those who attend four-year schools can earn Bachelor’s or even Master’s degrees in Paralegal Studies. Both on-campus and online programs are available, depending on a variety of factors for each student. For example, those who are working adults and looking to change careers often choose online programs for their convenience, while students just out of high school often prefer on-campus programs for the personal interaction with other students and the chance to participate in extracurricular activities.

Most Well-Known ABA Programs

Over the years, a number of colleges and universities have gained a reputation for having some of the best paralegal programs in the United States.
Some of the most well-known have included:

  • Liberty University
    Liberty University (liberty.edu), the world’s seventh-largest university, offers an ABA-approved Certificate in Paralegal Studies that can be completed on-campus or online.
  • Kaplan University
    Kaplan University (kaplan.edu), offering a variety of online programs in Paralegal Studies, specializes in online education and has many programs specifically geared toward military veterans and their families. Veterans are eligible to receive up to 75 percent of the credits needed for a degree transferred in through prior military training. Currently Kaplan offers Certificate, AAS, and BS degrees in the field.
  • California University of Pennsylvania
    Finally, California University of Pennsylvania offers these programs as well as a Master’s degree in Legal Studies, with an emphasis on Law and Public Policy. The school’s programs can be completed entirely online, allowing those students with personal or professional responsibilities the chance to complete their education at their own pace. More information about these programs can be found at calu.edu.

Benefits of ABA Approved Programs

Because a number of factors such as accreditation and state and federal rules and regulations come into play when pursuing a paralegal career, it’s extremely important to choose an educational program that has been approved by the American Bar Association. One reason these programs are so highly regarded within legal circles is the fact that they offer standardized education. This is important due to the fact that the ABA has very specific criteria regarding programs it considers to be meeting industry guidelines. In many cases, graduates of these programs are given higher consideration over candidates with degrees or certificates from non ABA approved schools.

Instructor credentials are also an important part of any ABA approved paralegal program. Most classes are very small, with fewer than 20 students on average. The classes are also taught by licensed attorneys, providing students the chance to learn from an attorney who deals with the issues they are teaching on an almost daily basis. These classes provide students and instructors the chance to apply real-world knowledge to case studies discussed in the classroom, while also allowing students the opportunity to have greater amounts of personalized instruction. Ethics, always a hot topic in legal circles, is also emphasized in these classes. Much time is spent debating topics that show examples of unethical legal practices, letting students know what is right and wrong within the legal field. However, what sets ABA approved programs apart from others is the 120-hour externship required of all students. A requirement whether the program of study is done on-campus or online, each student must spend time working under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney or judge, which allows for tremendous amounts of real-world experience. In addition, it gives students the chance to network with attorneys and possibly find employment upon graduation.

ABA Paralegal Regulations

Just like attorneys, paralegals also must adhere to various rules and regulations set forth by local, state and federal governments. One of the most common concerns offering unauthorized legal advice to clients. While paralegals can assist attorneys with numerous tasks, there are some in which they may not take upon themselves.

These can include:

  • Offering legal opinions or advice
  • Representing clients in court
  • Accepting new clients
  • Setting legal fees for services

States hold paralegals to very strict standards, expecting them to uphold the highest standards of ethics and confidentiality. Paralegals who are found in violation of these standards can be fined, lose any special licensing or certifications they may possess, lose their jobs and in some cases be barred from further employment in the legal field.

Benefits of a Paralegal Career

For those who become an ABA paralegal, each day can represent new and exciting challenges. Whether it’s interviewing a client or witness regarding a personal injury lawsuit, assisting an attorney in court during a high-profile murder trial or representing a client at an administrative law hearing, a paralegal career can be both exciting and complex. However, for those who choose this as their career, they often say they would want to be doing no other job. Whether an ABA paralegal has a certificate or a Master’s degree in Paralegal Studies, each new case brings with it the chance to put their skills to the test. Using what has been learned in the classroom, along with the real-world knowledge gained through externships and working with an attorney, paralegals can be key players in the legal team of a client. Uncovering key facts after interviewing a witness, discovering important information through legal research and drafting complex contracts are all part of a day’s work for many paralegals.

With average annual salaries of almost $47,000 and a job growth rate that is faster than the national average for other occupations, becoming an ABA paralegal is a smart choice for many people. Whether working in the legal department of a large corporation or at a legal aid society assisting those who cannot afford legal representation, a paralegal career can be both personally and professionally satisfying on many levels. The chance to help others solve their legal problems, while at the same time using a specialized set of skills, makes becoming an ABA paralegal well worth the time and effort needed.

Check out our Top Online Paralegal Programs for 2015