Clinton — After completing a bachelor’s degree in 1994, Sandrena Durr enrolled in the paralegal studies program at Mississippi College (MC).
During that time, Durr worked for a plaintiffs’ firm, where she was the only paralegal.
“However, I managed,” she said, “by taking classes using my lunch hour and by taking night classes. Under the leadership of Anna Clements Puckett, I was able to obtain an insight as to the way a legal practice should operate. From paralegal duties, ethical duties, as well as managerial duties, MC gave me the direction that allowed me to assist in maintaining an efficient, effective and prosperous law firm. I’ve been able to use my … skills to obtain employment at one of the largest law firms in Mississippi. This couldn’t have been accomplished without the proper education support given by … the program.”
Durr, a paralegal with Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, in Jackson and a member of the Mississippi College Paralegal Advisory Board, is one of many non-traditional graduates of the school’s paralegal programs.
“There are more non-traditional students in the program than in the typical liberal arts majors because so many of our students work in law firms full-time and can only take night classes,” said Anna Puckett, J.D., director of Paralegal Studies for Mississippi College, who has been affiliated with the program since 1988. “Even our dorm students often work part-time in law offices.”
Mississippi College offers an undergraduate degree in paralegal studies. A post-baccalaureate 30-semester hour paralegal studies certificate is available for students with a bachelor’s degree in another area. The program has been American Bar Association-approved since 1994.
“These students take all of the same 27 semester hours of legal specialty courses that undergraduates take and one law-related elective course,” Puckett explained. “Even these students with a four-year degree must take a writing proficiency examination since entering students sometimes are unaware of the importance of good communication skills and most do not write as well as they think they do. If they don’t pass the examination, they must take a three-semester hour English course before completing the program.”
Rigorous course of study
The curriculum is designed to give a general overview of skills most paralegals use on the job such as litigation (two semesters), legal research and writing (two semesters) and introductory courses in legal terminology, court systems and jurisdiction. However, the program also requires three more specialized courses: Family Law and Chancery Practice, Wills and Estates and Mechanics of Property Transactions.
“There are benefits from a four-year degree over a two-year junior college degree,” explained Puckett. “Nationwide, the trend is for large employers, law offices, corporations and government agencies to prefer the four-year degree. Also, the higher degree allows students to decide later to further their educations by enrolling in graduate schools or law schools, for example. One concern some paralegal educators have is the number of ‘weekend wonder programs’ offered by the continuing education offices of some of our four-year universities. Such programs offer too little training for one to call oneself a paralegal. We view these programs as detrimental to the profession because students fail to obtain the challenging and rigorous training they need so that lawyers will feel comfortable in delegating tasks to them. Remember that lawyers can be sued for malpractice for the acts of their paralegal staff.”
In Mississippi and all states, the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) by persons without a license is a misdemeanor under state statutes, cautioned Puckett.
“State bars have been active in policing such UPL and enjoining this type of activities,” she said. “Exceptions exist, but must be found in state or federal law. For example, paralegals may represent clients in Social Security hearings and a few states allow non-lawyers to perform some routing legal services for the public without lawyer supervision. This is in keeping with the policy of making legal services more available to the poor.”
Just the right size
MC’s paralegal studies program averages only 35 to 40 students. More certificate students have been applying lately, and several have master’s degrees in other areas, said Puckett, who pointed out that nearly all of them are career-changers.
Graduates of the paralegal studies program may find work in traditional law offices, government agencies and corporations that specialize in real estate transactions, contracts, pension plans, and insurance. Most graduates work in litigation firms, but the number working outside of traditional law firms will increase as businesses learn to appreciate their communication, critical thinking and organizational skills, said Puckett.
“Quite a few go on to law school,” she added. “However, some prospective students think that paralegal classes will transfer to law schools, which is not true. We utilize the MC law library, especially for our Legal Research class, and sometimes offer a few classes at the law school facility. The MC School of Law is a wonderful resource for our paralegal program.”
To garner input from the area’s attorneys, MC conducts regular surveys of employers and has an advisory board with public and private sector lawyer members, most of whom are not affiliated with the college.
“We look for members who are active in bar activities and interested in the paralegal profession,” said Puckett, who participates in bar activities concerning paralegals.
The primary difference in the demands for paralegals today compared to 15 years ago revolves around technology in the law office. “They must be comfortable learning new skills and expect to have to continue to do so,” said Puckett. “Also, they, like lawyers, have had to become more specialized.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.