Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

SMC accepting applications for new paralegal program

12/04/2018 - 8am
Leon Letter

Students can apply now for Southwestern Michigan College’s new paralegal program, with classes beginning next fall.

“If you look at Michigan’s ‘hot jobs,’ paralegal is the sixth-fastest-growing associate degree program,” according to Leon Letter, one of two attorneys on SMC’s faculty. “All programs above it are in medical fields. Paralegal is the biggest non-medical demand for jobs, and there’s a huge opportunity on this side of the state.” Letter said the nearest paralegal program is in Grand Rapids, with most in metropolitan Detroit.

There will be two associate degree tracks. An AAS, or Associate in Applied Science, prepares students directly for the workforce. An AA, or Associate in Arts, prepares students for transfer to another school for a bachelor’s degree.

The AAS, for those who want to work as a paralegal, introduces the legal system, the paralegal field, legal research and ethics and the “big three” fields of estate planning, bankruptcy and litigation, including personal injury. Students’ education is capped with practical experience applying what they’ve learned in the classroom through an internship. Students are qualified to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation.

Licensing is generally not required for employment as a paralegal, but students are encouraged to seek national certification through the Paralegal Core Competency Exam as an extra professional development credential.
The AA aims at those interested in continuing on to law school or working as a paralegal in a specialized law field. It is designed to transfer to four-year institutions for a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is not required for employment, but introduces students to fields of law and intellectual property law. A bachelor’s degree in paralegal, criminal justice or political science (among others) can then be used to enter law school.

The paralegal AA is designed to meet Michigan Transfer Agreement (MTA) requirements for seamless transfer to state universities and may also transfer to universities in other states. Both the AA and AAS in paralegal are designed to meet American Bar Association (ABA) requirements.

 “There’s a big push from the ABA and state bars for using paralegals to cut costs,” Letter said. “One way (firms) do that is to delegate work to someone who’s qualified to do the job under the oversight of an attorney. There’s a growing recognition that there’s a big need out there for legal assistance that’s not being met because not everyone can afford legal services from an attorney.

“In a few years,” Letter said, “paralegals are going to be like physician’s assistants” in being allowed a wider range of activities independent of attorney supervision.

“Since bar associations are pushing for more paralegals, we’re going to make sure our students are ready,” Letter said. “(Paralegals) can draft any document under the supervision of an attorney. Pretty much the whole bankruptcy process is done by paralegals. Most probate files are uncontested and never get before a judge. Paralegals can’t make court appearances, however, which is probably not going to change any time soon.”

Employment in legal occupations is projected to grow 9 percent by 2026, resulting in 116,200 new jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median annual wage for legal occupations was $80,080 ($50,410 for paralegals) in May 2017, compared to the $37,690 median annual wage for all occupations.

See https://www.swmich.edu/paralegal for more information.