Toni Marsh, Program Director

Toni Marsh, Program Director
Master’s in Paralegal Studies Online Program
The George Washington University


Tell us about yourself and your role at GW
My name is Toni Marsh and I’m the Director of the Paralegal Studies program at George Washington University. I’m also
the Associate Dean for New Initiatives and I am a professor of Paralegal Studies.

I started teaching Paralegal Studies almost immediately after law school and I did that for many years in Cleveland. I relocated to Washington DC with my husband and I started to teach at a university here in Washington. Eventually I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was the Director of the Paralegal Studies program at the University of North Carolina, and designed and launched that program, and then came back to Washington DC, where I came to GW and designed and launched this program in 2007.

What courses do you currently teach?
I currently teach American Jurisprudence, which is one of my favorite classes, because it gives you a broad overview of the law. I get to touch on everything, from legal philosophy, legal history, constitutional law and then we even have a little career unit in there, so it’s a fun class to teach, because it’s really all about the law. And it’s the first class that the students take, so it gives them an introduction to what most of them have felt very passionate about for all of their lives. So they’re very eager and they’re excited and they’re really anxious to learn about the law, and that’s always… it’s fun to work with students like that.

It also gets students back into learning and many of my students come to me mid-career. I even have students who come to me after retiring from very long and successful careers; they come to Paralegal Studies because they’ve always wanted to learn about the law, always wanted to study the law. So this gets them back into studying, back into college and gets them back into the swing of things.

What key research and / or publications are you currently working on?
Most of my research lately has been on using paralegals to increase access to justice. So for many people in the world and certainly people throughout the United States, paralegals are the only point of access to justice. Most people will live their entire lives without ever seeing a lawyer, or working with a lawyer. For those people, the only pathway that they’ve got to enforce their legal rights, their human rights, their human dignity, is through paralegals. So I’ve been studying and working with paralegals who have helped increase access to justice for people who otherwise would not have had that access.

Tell us about your 2012 trip to Tanzania
I just returned from Tanzania, where I worked with the University of Bagamoyo; so GW partnered with the University of Bagamoyo in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, to design and launch the very first formal paralegal education program in the nation of Tanzania. So I worked with a group of lawyers and professors and we designed the program while we were there, we trained a big group of lawyers to be professors and trainers in the program. And I’ll be returning there in August to assess the progress and to go visit some of the village paralegal clinics, where the professors are… the trainers are now working to train new paralegals.

What is LEX?
LEX stands for Lambda Epsilon Chi – it’s the National Paralegal Honor Society. To be inducted into LEX at GW, you have to be in the top 10% of the class and have a GPA of 3.9 or higher. You also need to show character and leadership and promise in the profession. If you’re inducted, your name is permanently entered into the rolls of LEX and we have this beautiful ceremony here at GW. Right before the commencement exercises, we invite the LEX inductees and their families; they get a pin – it’s a really lovely gold and black pin that they wear on their lapel – they get a gold honor cord that they wear in the later commencement exercises; they get a framed certificate. And then we have a little reception with the Deans and the professors and the LEX inductees and their families.

What are some of your most memorable moments in the online program?
Well, the online program has been just so much fun for me. I really enjoyed designing it. We’ve all learned together. We started out in 2007 from scratch, and putting it together has been a great experience for all of us. Working in the online program has really increased… I think it’s really helped me as a professor and helped me as a program director.

I think one of the most fun experiences I ever had in the online program was way at the beginning; we were just starting out; we had this great cohort of students who were from all over the country and they really enjoyed each other, and they bonded as a group in a way that I just… I never imagined was going to happen; I couldn’t have anticipated how close this group of students would become.

They kept in touch and they kept in touch and they had these groups and they talked together, and eventually, about a year into the program, they all convened here in Washington DC. They all met up, they came to meet me, I got to meet them – it was great. They met each other in person for the first time. We all went out to lunch – a couple of professors joined us – and it was just a great experience.

And one of those students has actually gone off… First of all she went on to earn – and I hope she’s not going to mind me saying this – went on to earn a 4.0 GPA. She was in the first cohort of students that were inducted into Lambda Epsilon Chi – LEX, the National Paralegal Honor Society – and now she’s a professor in the program. So Diane Morgan, our Litigation Professor, was in our first cohort of students, first cohort of LEX inductees and now she’s one of our professors.

What traits do successful online students share?
My most successful online paralegals are organized and meticulous and engaged. This online program has won… has been awarded… really has received a lot of awards, and most of those awards were based on the level of engagement that we’ve built into this program. So the students who succeed in the program are those students who login every day, who communicate with the professor, who communicate with each other, who stay engaged and stay involved.

How has the paralegal profession evolved?
The paralegal profession is growing tremendously… it has grown tremendously. As I said earlier, I’ve been involved in the paralegal profession since the early 1990s and in that time, it has just grown and evolved, you know, considerably, to a career that is just really prestigious, really high-profile. People are choosing the paralegal profession and staying with it for their entire careers.

So that’s a change from what it used to be, and I see that trend continuing. I see paralegals working in the major law firms and major government agencies, in big corporations and really, the scope of their duties expanding, the profile of the profession expanding. So I see that trend continuing over the next several years.

What trends are you seeing in the paralegal profession?
I would say the hottest area right now is intellectual property law; that is where it’s at, so the money’s there, the jobs are there, the resources are there, the opportunities are there. Corporations right now, what they own, what they trade in – their stock in trade – are patents; that’s where it’s at, so if you know patent law, if you know intellectual property law, there are lots of jobs available for you in law firms, in corporations, in government agencies, so that’s a really hot area.

International law is huge. There are no borders anymore in business; every corporation is an international corporation, so knowing international law is a huge boon, especially if you’re bilingual. If you’ve got a second language, keep that second language up, a third language… really, really cultivate your language skills.

Government contracts, also a huge area. Anything that the federal government does, anything that they do, they do through a government contract, so if you know government contracts, if you’ve mastered that skill, again, there’s really no limit to the amount of opportunities available in government contracts. We offer classes in those areas – those are really big.

Any final thoughts for future students?
I would say to any student who wants to join the GW Paralegal program and succeed, and then go on to succeed in the paralegal profession, I would say to you, keep your passion. I am on the admissions committee for the GW Paralegal Studies program and if I had a dollar for every time the word passion appeared in a statement of purpose that accompanies an application, I would be wealthy.

Everybody joins this program because they have a passion for the law; they all join because they love the law, they want to serve people, they want to serve the law, they want to do good, and I would say keep that passion, because it will serve you well as you go on and succeed, and really lead the profession.

I would just say to prospective students, you know, welcome… I welcome you coming here. One of the really interesting things about this program, that – it just occurred to me recently – I was wondering what set us apart, what made us different and there’s a lot of things that make us different. But one of the things that really sets us apart is this: you don’t need a master’s degree to be a paralegal. Nobody needs a master’s degree to be a paralegal, but people come to this program – they choose to get master’s degrees in Paralegal Studies – because for the people coming to this program, just being a good paralegal is not good enough; they want to be the best paralegals; they want to lead the profession.

So if you want to be the best paralegal, if you want to lead the profession, if you want to have a real impact, not only in the legal field, but really in the lives of everyone around you, this is the way to do it.

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