Professional Development: Why Get a Master's in Paralegal Studies

This webinar focuses on the paralegal profession, including establishing career goals, reviewing various career paths and degree requirements, evaluating educational programs, and how to select the right program to prepare you to achieve these goals. Whether you are looking to advance within the paralegal profession, or if you’re considering a career change into the industry, this webinar will help paint a picture of the many professional opportunities available to you, the required degree levels or knowledge spheres for each, and how to prepare yourself for achieving your professional aspirations.


Melissa Feuer: Okay, so I’m just going to start off with giving you a little bit of an overview of the paralegal profession, where it was and where it’s gone to. And Toni will be jumping in from time to time and then I’ll be jumping in on her conversation. So we’ll have kind of a conversational tone here.

The paralegal profession’s been known throughout history as lots of different things. There’s all kinds of different names you might hear, legal assistant, at one time maybe legal secretary. And I think traditionally, it was certainly thought of and probably in practice was much more than administrative or solely administrative type of a role. So attorneys would have administrative support in, and maybe there’d be rank among the administrative support, but basically be coming in and just sort of doing the administrative work for the attorneys.

And I don’t think that historically maybe people thought of it as a profession, maybe as a way to kind of see what goes on in a law firm, but certainly not as an industry that they would go into, the paralegal profession. So a lot has changed over time. And we’re in a time now where the paralegal profession is its own industry. And people decide that they want to be a paralegal, not an administrative assistant and not an attorney necessarily, a paralegal and doing the kind of work that paralegals do.

And this is, you know, a huge career for people. You can move up the ranks of being a paralegal to paralegal management, to running the paralegal department for an entire large law firm. There are lots of possibilities within the paralegal profession. It’s really exciting the way that it’s evolved.

So one of the things that people ask me all the time is what paralegals do, because if we’re not talking about fully administrative work, okay well what is it that paralegals are actually doing that’s substantive and exciting and a little bit different than what people maybe had thought of in the past? And I think you can see from the slide, we’ve stated that what paralegals do that lawyers don’t or shouldn’t. We’ll talk a little bit about that.

Paralegals work with attorneys. Paralegals don’t work on their own and the reason for this is that paralegals, and by law, are not allowed to give legal advice. And the definition of legal advice is something that people talk about a lot. Some things are very easy to determine as legal advice, for example, going into court and arguing a case would be legal.

But there’s an awful lot that attorneys do that does not fall into the category of delivering or giving legal advice. And pretty much everything that isn’t, that is something that a paralegal can, and we would argue, should be doing, because lawyers are really good at strategizing and arguing and maybe not so good at everything else that needs to be done.

So some of the things that paralegals do that lawyers don’t or shouldn’t, one of them would be researching. Now lawyers certainly do some research, but paralegals are really good at research. This is legal research using legal research tools. And a paralegal who can do substantive legal research and then present to a busy attorney a memo that spells out all of the research and what they found, and maybe even make some suggestions for how to go forward, is very, very valuable to an attorney. They often don’t have the time to do that kind of work. And actually, a recent graduate from law school wouldn’t be any better probably qualified to do that research than a great paralegal would be. So research is something that a paralegal can absolutely do and offer, and it can be pretty exciting kind of trying puzzle through what’s going on.

And then I talked a little bit about maybe writing a memo for the lawyer. Drafting is something that a paralegal can do. Now a paralegal’s probably not going to do a final draft and won’t sign a court document or a document that would be filed. But a paralegal can draft letters, can draft, like I said, memos to attorneys with conclusions and information. They can even draft the first draft of documents that will be filed in court. A paralegal who can take the law and the research and synthesize a draft of a brief for a court argument or a medal that’s going to go to the court, would be hugely valuable. Then the senior attorney can take that memo or brief and do with it what he or she will. But to have the initial draft done, that’s tremendous. And paralegals can do that and should be doing that.

And then another thing that paralegals would be much better at doing than lawyers, speaking as a former attorney, I know this as true, paralegals are great at networking with vendors, so companies that will provide legal research tools, that will provide legal management tools. Paralegals know who those folks are, get good deals from those folks. They also are excellent at networking with and learning to work with expert witnesses. So if you have a case and you need an expert witness, a medical, engineering, usually often scientific but not always, you have expert witnesses. Paralegals know where to go to find those folks, know how to work with them. Lawyers often don’t.

So that’s just kind of a sampling of the types of things that paralegals bring to the table aside from administrative work. Now paralegals often or actually, pretty much always, bring fabulous organizational skills to the table as well which again, is not always something that lawyers are fabulous at. Paralegals really can structure how a firm is going to handle a deal if you’re talking about transactional work or a case, if you’re talking about litigation work. They can decide to some extent, to a large extent, who’s going to do what, who’s going to work on what, who should the team consist of, maybe even some of the questions about where should they purchase materials from that they may need.

So paralegals offer structure to matters, and they also are on top of deadlines, which is something that they can really, really add to the equation. So there’s an awful lot that’s substantive and exciting and challenging that paralegals do in their careers that sets it apart from the old idea of what a paralegal does.

And then in order to be able to do all of those things, paralegals have to possess skills obviously. And whether they get those skills on the job or they got programs, certificate or master’s programs to learn those skills, they need them. So for the kind of work that I’m talking about, you certainly want to have organizational skills and administrative skills because you certainly will be doing some administrative work. But research skills, legal research, is a big topic to conquer. And we for example do an awful lot of work with that. Writing skills, I can’t emphasize how important it is to be able to write, so that’s huge.

Certainly people skills, certainly technology skills, they can – paralegals use lots and lots of technology in their work. So there’s an awful lot that paralegals do and there are some very specific skills that they need to develop in order to be able to do that work.

And we can talk about kind of work that is in a little bit more detail. This slide focuses on paralegal career paths. We have a couple of categories here. One is legal specialization, and one is venues. So when people come to me and say, “I want to be a paralegal,” and I say, “Well, what do you want to be doing as a paralegal,” and they say, “Oh it doesn’t matter, anything,” I’ll come back to them and say, “That’s going to be much too broad a field for you to be able to conquer anything.” There are so many ways to work as a paralegal that there’s no way you could look for a position or be interested in all of them.

So I separate for those folks into two categories. One is, well, what do you want to be doing? What kind of law are you interested in working in? That’s the legal specialization. What’s the substance you’d want to be doing? And then on the other side of the page, you have venues. Where do you want to be doing it? There are so many places you can do this work, where do you want to be when you’re doing it?

And what I tell people is, you need to kind of have one or the other in mind. If you have – if you’re completely open to both, it’s just a really, really large universe. So, if you say, “Well, I’m not really sure it matters to me what kind of law I do, but I know I really, really want to be in the government. I want to be in public service. I want to give back,” then that’s a place to start. Or if you say, “I don’t really care where I do the work, all of those places look interesting to me. But boy, do I want to do litigation. I want to help people build and manage cases and then sometimes maybe even go into court and assist,” maybe – it depends on the type of environment that you’re in.

So when you’re thinking about do I want to be a paralegal, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be something that you think about before you get training, but by the end of it, you want to have some idea of a specialization that you’d at least like to explore and/or a venue that looks appealing to you.

And I’ve listed a few legal specializations here. But there are so, so many. Certainly, I’m in Washington D.C. so government law is big here. Intellectual property is patents and trademarks and copyrights, huge field and people get very excited about that. It’s very interesting, cutting edge kind of law. International law, the whole world works together now. When I first started out, that was a very specialized field. Now it seems that international law comes into play a lot of places. Corporate law tends to be not going to court. This tends to be either helping to organize corporations and run them from the legal side, and oftentimes, things like business law, transactional law, making deals, purchases, sales, that falls under the topic of corporate law.

Litigation, that’s what you see on TV. I’m sure it’s more exciting on TV than it is in person, but that’s what people are typically familiar with. And you also have things like family law, immigration law. There’s a lot out there.

And on the other side of the page, the venues, you can work at a corporation as an in-house paralegal. I was an in-house attorney. We had paralegals on our staff that worked. So we were working only with one company. And then we would coordinate with outside counsel, law firms that would help our company’s legal work. That was a fun place to work, in a company. It was exciting because you got to really know the business and then help them from the legal perspective.

Law firms everybody pretty much knows about except that law firms run from one person to 2000 people. So when you’re thinking about law firms, you’d be thinking about whether you’d want to be at a large law firm or a really small shop. And sometimes that may depend on what kind of law you’re interested. It may dictate which type of law firm you’d be looking at.

So for example, big super law firms don’t do a lot of family law. And one person law firms don’t do – probably not tons of intellectual property. You can work in the government, state, federal, local. There isn’t a branch, an agency, a unit that doesn’t need a legal team. Healthcare, that’s the healthcare industry, that’s sort of substantive and a venue. I think you’d probably be working for some sort of a corporation or maybe a non-profit organization, maybe talking about healthcare compliance, all the new healthcare rules. I think that falls into both categories.

And then the non-profit area, associations, trade associations, professional associations, volunteer type organizations that still have a staff, there are tons of foundations, all kinds of non-profit organizations that need attorneys. And if they need attorneys, they definitely need paralegals as part of that team as well.

So as you think about whether this is a good career for you, or if you’re already in this career, where you may want to go next, those are some things that you definitely would want to keep in mind.

I think we can go on to discuss why pursue a master’s degree. I talked a little bit in the beginning about skills. And we’re talking about here what an education in the paralegal field can give you as far as skills. Now in our programs, we have lots of people who are already working paralegals and lots of people who are breaking into the field, which is why I’ve written here: develop or refine skills.

So you may already have legal research skills. But there is no such thing as not needing to refresh your legal research skills from time to time. So that’s something that, you know, a master’s degree, we spend an awful lot of time in our program on researching. If you haven’t done legal research before, it’s an adventure. It’s an exciting adventure. It takes a little time to get used to it. It’s certainly something that you’d want quite a bit of training on to be able to do and to be able to market to potential hirers.

I really think that’s something to stretch. What we’re talking about here is things that you’re going to get skills, you’re going to develop, and every program that you would do, that you’re then going to turn around and market to the people who you’re looking to hire you. And it’s up to you to make clear to them what it is you’ve gained through your education and possibly also experience so that they can envision how you can sit with their team and what you bring to the table. You’ll have a lot. But they won’t be able to look at your résumé, see a degree and know it off the top of the their heads. You’re going to want to market to them what it is that you’ve developed. So if you’re part of a program. As you go through it, you should be thinking to yourself, “Oh, this is a skill I’m going to be able to sell on the other end.”

We’ll try to point that out when we can if it’s our program. But it doesn’t matter. You’re seeing all of those skills develop and you want to make sure you retain that information so that you’re able to tell the employer on the other side, “Look, this is what I offer.” So research is certainly one of those things.

Then I mentioned earlier also, writing. Every employer wants somebody who can write. This is across every industry, not just paralegal. They all want really good writers. And to be able, through a master’s degree – I mean just having a master’s degree indicates a certain level of competence as well because you’ve got to get through that program. But you can stress how much. For example if our program, how much writing you have done and how that’s going to benefit the employer. It’s not a hard sell. They know how important writing is. So we do memos and we do briefs, which is either a summary of a case, an opinion, or a document that you’d be submitting to a court to argue something. A brief can be either one of those things.

We write sort of regular research papers but from a legal perspective with legal citations. That’s another thing that you learn in a program like this one, legal citations, legal footnotes I guess is another way to put it, except they’d be kind of in the body of the work, not in a footnote. But the way you would legally cite to another case or law or something is critically important, and for you to be able to know how to do that and tell an employer, “Hey, I know how to do that,” it’s called blue-booking, “I know how to bluebook.” That’s a huge skill to market. That’s something that you get in the education.

Standing out in the competitive market is important. I mean in D.C., pretty much everybody’s got a master’s degree, so you’re going to want one of those, and then to be able to tell them, “Look, here’s specifically what I did in this particular program that will benefit what it is that you’re trying to do in your firm or organization or practice,” or whatever.

There are a lot of career opportunities for people who have a master’s degree in paralegal studies. And there are obviously a lot of opportunities for folks who have a certificate as well. But the master’s degree offers the ability to be able to say, “Look at the substance that I’ve gotten here and look at the writing and the research that I’ve done.” And let’s talk about substance for a second.

In our program you learn an awful lot about the actual law. And so you would have – folks who graduate from our program have a really good understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing. So if an attorney says, “I need you to research this,” well they understand the issue. Or if they don’t understand it, they know exactly how to figure it out. They know where to go to look for the information they would need. So those are some important things that you can point out on the other end, when you’re talking about employers.

Folks with a master’s degree often have pretty good – the ability to take on a lot of responsibility. They’re able to sell that to employers. “I’m able to take on first draft. I’m able to take on primary research.” That can lead to promotion. There is promotion. Now you’re not talking about promotion from paralegal to attorney obviously, but within the paralegal profession there are steps, there are ranks, there is seniority. And it’s not just by experience. It can be by education and experience combined. For a government, certainly the federal government, the federal government operates on the general schedule for pay and you go up steps automatically with a master’s degree. So that’s a nice benefit. And that’s why a number of our folks do the master’s degree. And I think state governments have similar types of schedules as well.

So those are some reasons that you would want to pursue a master’s degree if you’re interested in the paralegal profession, and some things to think about if you were to go ahead and do that, that you’d want to be able to tell an employer on the other end.

Toni Marsh: So hi everybody, welcome. I don’t think I had a chance to say hello, but welcome and thanks to Melissa and Amanda as well.

So just on again to just follow up a little bit on why it’s a good idea to pursue a master’s, I would certainly underline everything that Melissa said, that the skills that you get are real and they are marketable and they are important. You will stand out. There are concrete career advancements that you will get as a result of obtaining a master’s.

And there is beyond that, there’s a whole set of shop skills and other sort of intangible benefits that you get. First of all, you get the poise and the confidence and the gravitas of knowing that you’ve got a master’s degree. It sets you apart from those who do not. Certainly, as Melissa mentioned, in D.C., everybody’s got an advanced degree, so if you want to even keep up with the level of professionalism in this community and in other big cities you’ll want that.

If you’re in a smaller town where not everybody has a master’s degree, then you know, you’re just that much further ahead with your master’s degree. The master’s degree is something that everybody recognizes and understands. You get a whole series of – you get a really wide ranging network of professional and academic contacts and colleagues. And Melissa mentioned earlier, a few slides back, about how important it was. One of the things that paralegals do is they bring their networks to the firms. They engage in networking. If you’re talking about in terms of vendors and expert witnesses, but also the network that you build throughout your profession will aid you in your profession and will certainly aid your firm.

So if you as a paralegal have a whole series of colleagues who you have, who you’ve added to your network through your education and then you encounter those colleagues further on in your career, that works to your personal benefit, to your professional benefit and to the benefit of the firm. So there’s a lot more that comes from the master’s as well.

I think we can go on to the next slide Amanda. So you know, choosing the right academic program. If you do indeed decide that you would like to pursue a master’s or you’d like to pursue an academic program, how do you choose the one that’s right for you? Well you know, different programs have different approaches. So Melissa spent a lot of time talking about what are your professional interests and what are your career goals. I think one of the things that really sets, you know, sort of differentiates between academic programs, is whether they take a more scholarly and academic approach or whether they take a more vocational or practice based approach.

So a scholarly program would be one that really emphasizes the substance of the law, really works to give you a bigger picture, a deeper understanding of what you are doing, whereas a vocational or practice based program just teaches you how to do the stuff you need to do. GW is definitely an academic based program or a scholarly program. We proceed on the theory that a paralegal who understands why he or she are doing something, and understands the deep legal basis behind what he or she is doing, is going to be a much more effective paralegal. And our experience has borne that out. The more elite law firms and government agencies and some of the big corporations really go for our paralegals and the reason that they do is because our paralegals are smart.

They’re smart and they understand the big picture and they are truly contributing members of the legal teams of which they are a part. So that’s the approach that we take. So if that’s what you’re looking for, if you’re looking to enter that sort of higher level of legal practice, the legal professional, you know, this would be the kind of a program that you would like to look for.

When you’re looking at an academic institution, certainly there’s all kinds of things that you can look for whether it’s credit bearing, GW academic credit bearing. So you know, you get a master’s degree. So – because a lot of paralegal programs are continuing ed. You don’t get academic credits. So that’s something to think about. You want to have a real – not real – but you want to have an academically, scholarly recognized credential like a master’s degree or enough for you to get to your continuing ed unit. So you’ll want to look at how important it is to get academic credit. You want to look at the size and the resources that are available to you in that institution. And again, you’ll want to look at the philosophical bent of the institution and, you know, decide whether that’s what you are looking for.

Are you looking for that more scholarly academic approach or a more practical, vocational approach? One thing I want to talk about because a lot of people – I have questions about this. I get asked this all the time. They’ll say to me, “Is your program ABA accredited?” And I say to them there’s no such thing as ABA accreditation. A lot of people get that wrong. So I’m going to talk a little bit about ABA approval and accreditation and about the difference of what those mean.

Accreditation, accreditation means that you are officially recognized as an institution that the government has sanctioned. You know, you’ve got official approval to dispense academic degrees. GW is a fully accredited university. There are regional accrediting associations, so GW, because it’s in Washington D.C., we are part of what’s called the middle state association of colleges and schools. Now this is the official crediting agency that says that your degree is a real degree and it will be recognized worldwide. So we are accredited.

Now ABA, the ABA does what’s called approval. The ABA dispenses approval. That is not an official – that’s not an official credential. The ABA is simply a trade association that looks at paralegal programs and says, “Yeah, your program is good. We approve.” It’s kind of like the good housekeeping seal of approval or something like that. It bears no weight. It doesn’t mean anything to anybody.

A lot of times, when you look at ads for paralegals or you talk to lawyers, they’ll say, you know, the ad will say, “You must have a bachelor’s degree and a credential from an ABA approved institution.” The reason that most law firms and lawyers put that into their ads is because that’s kind of just what people have always done and so they do it and they don’t really know what it means, but they put it in there.

But in every single instance that I have ever encountered that phrase in a position posting, when I have spoken to the person who wrote the posting and said, “Well you know the GW program is accredited but it’s not ABA approved,” the person has said in response, “Oh that’s fine. Yeah, just take that line out, whatever.” So the accreditation is much higher and more meaningful than approval. So we are not ABA approved because we don’t need to be, because we’re accredited.

We’ve got – I’m just going to stop here and brag a moment. We’ve got the best faculty. We have got a fabulous faculty. All of our faculty, except for me – I’m the only one who is – I’m a full time professor. Other than me, everybody else are full time lawyers or paralegals who are working in the real world. So for example, our – the guy that teaches one of our IP classes, one of our intellectual property classes, is the chief of staff to the director of the U.S. PTO, the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The other IP professor is the chief of staff to Senator Mary Landrieu. Our administrative law professor is the chief litigator at the Department of Homeland Security.

So these are the kinds of people that we’ve got working here. They’re all – one works at the USBA. One’s a lawyer at the USBA. One works for the United States. Our international law professor works for the United States Chamber of Congress in their international trade position. So all of our professors are working in the real world doing exactly what it is that they’re teaching. And what that means to you is you get the benefit of their knowledge of course. Like for example, in the case of our IP professor who works at the U.S. PTO, the laws that he is teaching you are laws that he wrote. So he knows a lot about these laws. So you’re getting their knowledge but you’re also getting their networks.

So again, if you’ve always dreamed about working at the U.S. PTO, well guess what, your professor works there and can help you to increase your – to expand your network into there, United States Senate, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice. So you’ve got professors in all of these places and you’re not only getting their knowledge, but you’re getting their connections and their networks.

Our curriculum and our learning objectives are very, very closely crafted. We spend a lot of time. In fact, right now, as we speak, we’re going to a program wide review that’s going to take us about a year where we’re going to examine, you know, everything that we teach, everything that we mean to teach and make sure that we’re doing it right and we’re doing it properly. The way that we created our curriculum in the first place was we went through and we examined a year’s worth – a couple of years worth of paralegal job descriptions and postings. And we went through and we gleaned out what people wrote in the job descriptions what they wanted people to know how to do.

So if I see a job description that says ‘looking for a paralegal, must know how to bluebook, must know how to write a brief, must know how to do this, must know how to use summation, we took all of those must know how to do this, must know how to do that and we used those to create the learning objectives for our courses. So – and by the way, I worked with Melissa who you just heard from, who now is our executive director of student engagement, but at the time was our director of career services, so she’s actually moved up in the university. But I worked very, very closely with Melissa to craft our learning objectives and to make sure that we were teaching our students what the employers wanted. And again, it’s worked because the employers love our students.

We’re got great alumni, we’ve got great students. Because we are a master’s degree, because this is a master’s degree, a lot of our students are already working paralegals, which means a couple of things. First of all, again, they bring their brilliance and their experience, their practical knowledge into the classroom and they share it with their classmates which is a really wonderful thing because my students invariably – I mean this happens every semester – my students know more than I do about a lot of stuff. And that’s as it should be. And they share it with the class and everybody shares their knowledge.

So you’re getting the benefit not just of your professors’ knowledge, but of your colleague’s knowledge. You’re also getting, again, you’re building up that network. You’re building up those resources. You’re building up your community, your professional community, which is a great thing. And the people who go out of this program, they reach back. They stay very loyal to GW and I’m always getting, you know, my students, my alumni are always writing to me with job opportunities, publishing opportunities, professional opportunities that they want to share with the people who have – who come behind them at GW. So you get a really rich, rich array of opportunity throughout student body.

I think this is one item I think I’m going to address, this slide as well, online versus on campus learning. So I designed the original curriculum for this program. I designed the original program that was first launched here at the GW campus. Then after we launched that program, then we launched the online program. So first we had the on campus program, and then we designed the online program. And when we designed the online program, I was very – I was adamant that the two programs would be as nearly identical as I could make them.

So we’ve got the exact same courses, the same learning objective, the same – in most cases the same professors. The professors who are teaching it on the ground are also teaching it online, same assignments, same, you know, tests, everything. So I wanted to be sure that the learning experience in both formats were both equally great. And I think we’ve achieved that very nicely.

Now the difference is basically – I mean pretty much the only difference is that instead of getting in your car and driving down to downtown D.C. to sit in a classroom and hear your professor deliver the lecture live and to talk to your classmates live in a room, you’re doing that online. You’re reading a professor’s lecture online. You’re watching videos of your professor online. And you’re interacting with your colleagues online. But there’s no less interaction. In fact, there’s probably more interaction because you’re not just spending two hours a week sitting in a classroom with your colleagues, but rather, you’re logging in every day and you’re interacting every day. I have found that the interaction among my students and professors in the online courses is extremely rich and quite rewarding.

In fact, my very first inaugural class, the very first class that we launched back in 2007, there was a group of women who bonded online. They lived all over the country. One was in Iowa, one was in North Carolina, one was in Washington State, one was in the Florida, and they just, they bonded. They got to be friends. And they stuck together through the online program and then they made arrangements to come meet up on a campus. So they all flew into D.C. You know, the nice thing about being located in D.C. is it’s easy to get here. And you know, people pass through D.C. quite frequently. So they all met up here in D.C. I think Melissa was with us, Melissa, professor Larry Ross (the legal research professor) and I, we went to lunch with these women. We had a great time, terrific campus. They bought GW shirts and things. And they had a lifelong incentive. And one of those women ended up joining my faculty.

And she started out, she’s a facilitator, so if you come and you take this course, you’ll work with her. Her name is Dianne Morgan and she facilitates many of the classes. And she’s also the professor of litigation ‘cause that’s what she does. She works in a litigation practice.

So this is the kind of interaction and bonding that happens. Remember, when you are a part of the online program at GW, you are a 100% full GW student. You are no less of a GW student than anyone else. And right now I look out the window and I’m looking at students walking by with their GW T-shirts and their backpacks, and you are no different from them. You’re a GW student just like the people walking down that street right now. You will attend the commencement ceremony. We have a commencement ceremony every year on national mall. We have great speakers. This year’s speaker is – I forgot her name. It just escaped me.

Melissa Feuer: Kerry Washington.

Toni Marsh: Thank you, Kerry Washington, the star of the TV show Scandal. And she was also in Django Unchained. Kerry Washington, she’s a GW grad. By the way she was Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude from George Washington University. So she’s not just beautiful and talented, she’s also brilliant. You know, go figure.

But anyway, she is going to be our commencement speaker this year. And this won’t be the first time by the way that I will have seen Kerry Washington on the GW campus. She comes here all the time. She’s a great friend of GW. I’ve seen her at many events here. And again, that’s the kind of loyalty that people feel for GW. So if you come here and you graduate, she’ll be one of your fellow alum.

Will the learning outcomes be applicable? I’m going kind of out of order here, but will the learning outcomes be applicable to other states? Yes they will. We teach federal law here in D.C. We teach common law, we teach federal law, which means that what you learn here, the specific laws that you learn where you learn specific laws and statutes, they will be applicable everywhere in the country because they’re federal. And where something is state specific stuff because, you know, that’s the kind of stuff that you pick up on your own as you’re practicing. You don’t – it’s not really crucial that you know these state specific outcomes. So we focus on federal. And you know, I talked a little bit – I talked a little bit about the benefits of online learning, you know, and the interaction. I really do think that people interact and bond more closely online sometimes than they do on campus.

You know, the other thing, some of the other benefits to online learning are just you do it at your own pace. I mean there are deadlines, so we keep you on track. In fact we have a million little deadlines. And I do that on purpose because I make sure that you can’t fall behind. You cannot procrastinate, which is nice, I mean who among us is not a procrastinator? Certainly not me.

But anyway, so that’s why I know how to help people not procrastinate, because I’m such a procrastinator. So you know, we give you lots of little deadlines to make sure that you keep up. Again, you do it at your own pace. You can go back over and over and over something if you’re not quite getting it. It’s not like your professor says it in class and you miss it and it’s gone. Everything that’s there is preserved. The courses themselves are preserved from semester to semester, so every semester, the professors go back over their courses, they look at what worked, at what didn’t. They tweak it, they add to it. You know, they say, “Oh you know, we ended up talking about this one case in discussion and I think I’ll just post a link to that case now.” And the courses just become richer and richer and richer.

So it’s a great way to learn. We’ve had tremendous success. We’ve got an honour society here at GW. It’s called the – it’s the National Honour Society, the National Paralegal Honour Society of Lambda Lexicon Ti, or LEX for short. LEX by the way is the Latin word for law. And most of our LEX conductors – you’ve got to have a 3.9 GPA or higher and you’ve got to graduate in the top 10% of the class – most of our LEX inductees are online students, because they just – people do really, really well in online learning.

So did you have anything you wanted to add to that Melissa?

Melissa Feuer: Well I taught in the online program for a number of years. And I definitely felt very, very close to my students and yeah, I was the facilitator and the last professor for that group of students that you were talking about. And they really did bond. It was pretty neat.

I would do chat sessions. The office hours were like chat sessions. You didn’t have to – you don’t have to do. You don’t have to go to but you can drop in. And I would do chat sessions. My favourite part of the chat session was sitting back and letting everybody talk amongst themselves. And that happened all the time. And what would be really exciting, when a student who had a background as a paralegal would give advice to somebody who was trying to break into the field. And it was so wonderful to see people helping each other and working with each other and having something invested in each other’s success. And I’ve taught on the ground and that certainly happens to some extent, but I think it happened more online. I really do.

Toni Marsh: Yeah I forgot to mention that. Melissa started out, Melissa was the first – first she was a facilitator, then she became a professor because she was so good at it. Then the next thing you know, she’s the director of career services, and now she’s the director of student engagement. So you know, again, an example of how people bond and really excel here at GW.
Amanda Walter: If people have any questions, submit them on the right hand side of your screen in the chat window.

We do have a couple of questions that have come in so far, so we’ll start with those. One question people are wondering, and maybe this might be appropriate for both Toni as well as Melissa, but we’ll start with Toni. People are wondering if you need to have legal education or legal experience to be accepted to the program.

Toni Marsh: I’m so glad that you asked that because I meant to go back to that. When I was talking about we have – because it’s a master’s, we get a lot of people that are working paralegals. And I made this sort of mental note to myself that I wanted to address this, and I forgot to. So thank you for asking. Whoever asked that question, you’re going to be a great paralegal because that’s just the kind of stuff that great paralegals do is they catch the little missing things.

Anyway, no, you absolutely do not need legal experience or knowledge at all in this program. And as I said, many of our students are paralegals, are working paralegals, or have some sort of legal education or experience, but not all. And we really – we’re able to make that work. So Melissa talked about, you know, the working paralegal giving advice to those who are not working paralegals, so you’d get a lot of that. You get a lot of sharing.

And what we do, like for the very first class American jurisprudence. And in that class, we teach you the about basic, basic, basics. What’s a plaintiff, what’s a defendant, what’s the difference between civil law and criminal law, between state law and federal law? So I mean we really – it’s the real basic stuff, the terminology. We have vocabulary quizzes. So you would think like that would be boring for the people who are already working paralegals, but you know, it’s really not because there are – within each unit, there are opportunities for – first of all, for you to just learn the basic stuff, you know, like there’s vocabulary quizzes and stuff like that. So for the people who are working paralegals, those are real easy for them, right.

But there’s also – there are opportunities. So for the new people, they get to learn that stuff and they get to take those quizzes in a nice, you know, in a nice step by step fashion in a very methodical way. And they learn right from the ground up. And then the people with experience, they kind of go off when they’re writing their papers or when they’re engaging in the discussions, and they’re able to explore these topics at a much deeper level. And so we’re able to get the different levels of learning and experience even though you’re in the same class. Again, the online format makes it much more doable and much more – we can individualize the learning experience to some extent depending on the level of instruction.

And then Melissa also said earlier, like the legal research class, I don’t care if you’ve been practicing law for 20 years, there’s stuff that you can learn in a legal research class. On the other hand, if you’re coming to it brand new, we’re starting at the very beginning. And in that class, almost everybody is a beginner because it changes, legal research changes so much and so quickly that even people who are experienced are going to be learning a lot of new things for the first time. So everybody’s kind of on the same level.

So no, you don’t need experience when you come here. And if you’ve got it, great, you won’t be bored. If you don’t have it, that’s fine, you won’t be lost. Somehow we’re able to make it work.

Amanda Walter: Thank you. And does it matter what the person’s undergraduate degree is in?

Toni Marsh: No, that doesn’t matter at all, absolutely not at all. We’ve got people from all over. And you know, that’s how it is in the legal world, ‘cause, you know, the legal field is interesting. You’ve got to know the law but the law is all about people’s stories, about their lives. So you know, Melissa again showed you a little bit about all the different areas in law. There’s immigration, there’s criminal, there’s family, there’s IP, there’s government, there’s a million different areas of the law. So if you’ve got a nursing degree, you may go into healthcare law. If you’ve got a degree in finance, you may go into banking law, or transactions or corporate law.

So there is no requirement for any kind of – any special degree or major. And whatever your life experience is, you will probably be able to bring it into play in your legal career.

Amanda Walter: Excellent. And maybe let’s get into some of the specifics about the program format. Toni, if you could talk a little bit, just high level about the length of the program, how many courses, how long it takes to complete.

Toni Marsh: Okay, so the program is two years, it’s six semesters. And there are 11 courses plus a practicum which is an internship. The internship is – we like to get you out there in the world and working in a law firm or some sort of a legal setting. This is really good for our students because it helps you to – in a lot of cases, it turns into job offers, helps you get a foot in the door in the legal fields. And at the very least, it helps you put something on your résumé. It teaches you about how the real world operates. And we use our practicum as a learning. It’s like a class. We don’t just send you off to work and tell you to come back six weeks later and tell us what you did. All the whole time that you’re there, we’re having you work on your skills. We’re having you learn how to do things like use LinkedIn and how to write a résumé.

What’s interesting is we do this: at the end, you get to a career sort of course at the end. But we all go to the career unit in the very beginning. So when you come in, in your first class, you’re going to start – we include a career unit so that you get started thinking about your career and working on your career from the very minute you get here. But anyway, so that’s the practicum. But there are – so there’s 11 classes. 4 classes really give you sort of the basics, litigation, American jurisprudence, legal research, business law, corporations. And then we’ve got the more specialized high level classes, international law, IP and government contracts.

Amanda Walter: Thank you. Maybe branching on from that, Melissa, what are some of the job titles or professions that graduates have gone on to achieve?

Melissa Feuer: Well most of them are in the paralegal profession. And paralegal is a profession. So if you want to be part of the paralegal profession, this is a great move.

We have different titles within the legal profession. You can see legal assistant. That can still mean a paralegal. Some law firms call them legal assistants. You’re better off looking at a job description probably than you are looking at a title. People go into compliance work so they can be compliance – I don’t know if you call – I guess compliance officers. They’re used to looking at the law and they have the training to look at the law and see if corporate policy is complying with the law. Healthcare corporate compliance is a big field because there’s so many new healthcare laws and companies have to comply with them, so you can just imagine.

Contract specialists, those are positions – that’s a title that you often see in the government. I haven’t seen too many of that title in the private sector, but working with contracts, I guess they’d call it all kinds of different things. Working with contracts is something that a paralegal is especially equipped to do.

When I was in a company as an in-house lawyer, we had folks who were considered paralegals. And then we had lease negotiators. Those folks actually took leases for stores and malls and they negotiate them. Now they weren’t the final sign off, but they were close to the final sign off. And they were trained paralegals. So those are some examples of the kinds of things that paralegals do either within the paralegal profession or kind of on the periphery of the paralegal profession.

Amanda Walter: Thanks, and are there specific, I guess, venues or places that you’ve seen, anything notable from some of the graduates?

Melissa Feuer: No particular place because our graduates are from all over the country, so there’s no, you know, one company that everybody’s going to or something like that. Certainly we have a lot of people in the government, whether it’s federal, state. I don’t know if I have anybody in local government, but certainly state or country, I guess county government. Lots of folks in our program are either interested in breaking into that area or are in it already.

Toni Marsh: We have a lot of students at the CIA, a lot of graduates at the CIA here in D.C. And we do have one person in local government and that’s Dianne Morgan, your –

Melissa Feuer: Yeah, been there a long time, yeah.

Toni Marsh: She’s with the county court, right, in North Carolina?

Melissa Feuer: Yeah. Law firms, we have folks from the big firms, small firms, teeny tiny firms, all over the place for law firms. And we have some folks who have moved into in-house positions which is with a company. That usually takes some experience, so that’s like a goal. That’s something you can aim for because usually you’d have some experience at a law firm or maybe in the government and then you can move it and market it to a company. But we have close ties with lots of in-house legal departments too.

Amanda Walter: Okay thank you. And I guess on that same sort of note, what are some of the resources that students have in the program? Obviously there’s different industry applications that they would use and of course there’s the career services center, but maybe if you could talk a little bit about some of those resources.

Melissa Feuer: Okay, well I can certainly talk about the career resources. So at our school, the College of Professional Studies, we have a career services department. And that offers to students and alumni, both, full career services. So one on one advising, going over résumés together, looking at cover letters before they go out the door is a service that most people could use, help with interviewing. We have an online interviewing, mock interview tool that I think you use in the first class. I think you actually have to kind of get in there and play with it a bit in your first class, which allows you to record yourself doing a mock interview and then we can see it and then we can give feedback on it. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, and the computer has to have a camera attached to it.

We give full career services, the exact same career services for online and on the ground students. We usually don’t know which we’re talking to. It doesn’t make any difference really. The only time it makes a difference is if you’re asking, “Well what is – you know, what should I be looking at in my particular marketplace?” And that’s something that we’re going to teach you, the tools to be able to investigate your marketplace fully and figure out how to make the kinds of connections that you need to make.

We talk a lot about networking. I’ve mentioned it twice in this presentation alone. We talk about it a lot. We teach it. We counsel you through it. We convince you to do it hopefully, because looking at job postings online is a terrible way to look for a job. If you only do that, you’re probably not going to have great luck because there’s very few jobs posted versus all the jobs that are out there. So we work closely with students and alum to kind of navigate them through the process. Our school doesn’t actually charge for alumni career service. That’s not the case with every GW school. So we’re really proud that we’re able to do that.

And we’ve worked with people on the phone. We’ve worked with people via Skype. Obviously if you’re a local person, we encourage you to come in and see us. But we’ve done appointments in the evening, we’ve done them early in the morning. We’re pretty flexible. So we can work with different time zones, although I always forget, so somebody has to remind me they’re in a different time zone. But we can work with that. We can work with distance. And we have a lot of resources available. We have a lot of resources on our website as well. So I don’t know how to get that link to people, but Amanda, maybe that’s something that we can do because there’s a lot of great resources in there that would help you.

Amanda Walter: Yeah absolutely, we can share that with everyone afterwards. Okay, thank you. And Toni, kind of a little bit back to the program format, could you talk some about what the balance is like in terms of live interacting with people in your courses, how much time is required to log in, how much is synchronous versus asynchronous and so forth?

Toni Marsh: Okay, thanks. Well so it’s a nice little blend of synchronous and asynchronous. And I talked a little bit about this. I said we have millions of little deadlines and things like that. So what you’ve got as far as the way the logistics of the course, you’ve got a week. Every unit is a week long. And within the week, you’ve got to accomplish a certain number of tasks, and those tasks, you’ve got quizzes. You might have short essays to write. You’ve got to post on the discussion board. You’ve got to view the professor’s lecture. So there’s things that you have to do.

And then you’ve got to do them by certain days in the week. So maybe you’ve got to do the quiz by Tuesday. You’ve got to post on the discussion board by Thursday, and maybe you might have to write a little short essay by Friday or something like that. And we’re real careful. We’re very careful about the way that we space those out so that they’re evenly spaced and you don’t have a bunch of things all coming on you at once. So it’s kind of like it’s sort of a synchronous/asynchronous. They’ve got due dates. They do have due dates, but within those due dates, you can do them whenever you want.

You’re doing that stuff on your own. Now the discussion board, and in the discussion board, is like an asynchronous board where you post things, you know. You’re all familiar with how those things work. So the professor posts a question. And the question is always a provocative, no right or wrong answer kind of question.
So for example, one of the questions: we talked about the Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t know if any of you have heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. Those are the people that go to funerals of soldiers, and you know, really tragic sort of things and protest and carry signs that say God hates fags and things like that. Well they’re very obviously controversial. But the interesting thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is that they never break a law. They follow the law to the letter.

Now some people will go and protest the Westboro Baptist Church by engaging in civil disobedience. So they’ll slash their tires or something like that. So I would ask the question in one of my classes. So here you’ve got the Westboro Baptist Church who does these pompously cruel things but follow the letter of the law, you know, follow the law to the very letter. You’ve got other people who are out there trying to counteract what they view as evil by breaking the law. So who’s right and who’s wrong in this situation? That would be a question. Like do you think the Westboro Baptist Church is good because they don’t break the law, or do you think they’re bad because they do mean things?

So you know, and clearly there’s no right or wrong answer, but there’s lots of really interesting discussion that comes about with a question like that. So I’ll post a question like that and then the students have to respond to that question and they’ve also got to respond to each other. And you know, you can just imagine the kinds of debates and things that go on. It’s just great great fun, and a wonderful experience. And people go off and they’ll do their own – and this isn’t required – they just do it because they’re into it. They go and do their own research, and they’ll find news clips and they’ll post documents and it’s just great. So that’s sort of a – it’s asynchronous because you’re doing it on your own time, but you know, you’re kind of working together as a group and you’re interacting with each other. So it’s kind of a blend of that.

The only time that you’ve got to be – it has to be because it’s optional –but the only time that is synchronous, that is, it’s happening live is when we’ve got these chat questions. And that’s what Melissa alluded to. She said she’s got these – we hold these live chat sessions once or twice a week where the students can come in and chat live with each other and with their professor. And that’s the kind of, you know, conversations. You might ask specific questions about the course like if there’s something you’re just not understanding, how does this go. But sometimes it’s just people chit chatting, you know, just getting to know each other.

And that’s the only thing that happens at a certain time and a certain place. And that is an optional thing. That’s not required.

Amanda Walter: So only one quick last question is what is the format of tests for the different courses?

Toni Marsh: Well they’re all online clearly. So you take them, you log into the site and you take them online. It’s like taking on online survey or something. You know, you click the box. And there’s all different – there’s all different types. There’s true/false. There’s multiple choice. There’s short answer. There’s essay. There’s long essay. There’s things we do like ordering and matching. So there’s all different kinds of questions on the quizzes and tests. But they’re all taken entirely online. They’re usually timed. And there are a lot of tests, a lot of little quizzes, a lot of little quizzes. I believe as an educator that the best way to teach is to quiz early and quiz often. It helps the students in a million ways.

First of all, you can’t procrastinate because you’re always taking these little quizzes. The quizzes are small but they’re not high stress. They don’t kill you. And you can do them in a couple of minutes. But it forces you to keep up with things. It allows the student and the professor to learn very quickly if they’re not getting something. So the professor can quickly adjust his or her methods depending on the students. And the students realize themselves whether they’re getting things, so they can adjust their study methods.

And each quiz then, if you had a lot of quizzes, each one is not worth very much. So if you take a quiz and you just happen to be having a really, really bad day, you know how some days your brain just doesn’t work and you know, you flunk the whole quiz, it will barely be a blip in your grade because there are so many other quizzes. There are so many opportunities for you to make it up. So, lots and lots and lots of little quizzes, but believe me when I tell you, that’s a good thing.

Amanda Walter: Great, thank you so much. And because we’re time here, I think I’ll go ahead and conclude the webinar. I did want to point out, there’s some people who had some application specific questions that I’ll certainly forward those question to our advisers to follow up with you directly. And obviously that way they can speak with you specifically about your unique circumstances.

I also wanted to point out that we’re currently recruiting for both the summer and fall terms. There are only a couple of weeks left to apply for the summer term. So if you haven’t started an application yet, certainly reach out to your enrolment advisor as soon as possible to get that started and make sure you have everything compiled in time for the deadline.

And we’ll also have our advisor follow up with everyone after the fact just to answer any other remaining questions and to help point you in the right direction with everything.

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