Interview with Paralegal Instructors, Sheri Valentine and Marisol Abuin

Interview with Paralegal Instructors, Sheri Valentine and Marisol Abuin

Sheri Valentine earned her JD from the Pace University School of Law and has more than 20 years in the field. Her experience covers dependency, adoption and mediation with public interest law firms and government agencies.

Marisol Abuin is an attorney and educator in New York. She serves as chair of NY Professional Studies at Berkeley College and has been teaching paralegal programs for more than 11 years. She earned her law degree from Fordham University School of Law and specializes in real estate and tax law.

Career Colleges interviewed both Ms. Valentine and Ms. Abuin to discuss their professional experiences and to get insight into what prospective paralegal students should know before enrolling in a program.

Q. What legal experience did you have before becoming a paralegal instructor?

Valentine: I worked in the areas of dependency, delinquency, adoption, and marital dissolution litigation and mediation with public interest law firms and government agencies.

Abuin: I practiced law three or four years before teaching and then, at the beginning of my teaching, continued to practice real estate and tax law.

Q. How can students best prepare for the challenges of the program?

Valentine: Basic computer application skills and previous administrative assistant experience would be helpful. Paralegal students should sharpen their reading skills and widen their vocabulary by reading scholarly works and comprehensive news journals.

Abuin: They absolutely have to be someone who can manage their time effectively, to be organized, act as a multi-tasker and obviously have the really important soft skills I mentioned earlier. Students need these in a paralegal educational environment, and they are the same type of skills students need as an effective paralegal -- the research, the written and oral communications skills.

Students really, really need to hone in on and be effective in those arenas because a lot of what paralegals do involves communication with clients, with attorneys and in written and oral form as well. So students definitely need to have those skills to be effective and successful in the paralegal field.

Q. As an instructor, how do you define the success of a paralegal program?

Valentine: Success is measured by the student's acquisition of new skill sets as well as an increased confidence in their own ability to apply legal concepts to cases.

Abuin: Well, if they graduate obviously. [laughs] If they graduate with the skills sets I just indicated; if they have a firm understanding of substantive law; if they are able to do the functions of a paralegal; and they find a job in the area, especially in the light of the economic climate we're facing, then that is success.

A. Why did you become interested in teaching paralegal studies?

Valentine: A colleague who is an attorney asked me to take over a course at a local university since he was no longer available to teach. I read the entire text and prepared a lecture in one week. I found that I had an affinity for delivering an interesting lesson in the classroom. Students responded to my teaching style. Later, I began to inquire at other local colleges regarding teaching opportunities.

Abuin: As an attorney, I was really passionate in terms of educating students in this new field of paralegals because I saw a need for it as I was practicing law. More and more law firms were using paralegals. I had taught college before and being in the profession and knowing how important paralegals were focused my interest in pursuing teaching in that area. That's basically what drew me in, and also it is a lot of fun to teach.

Q. What is your outlook on the future of paralegal career programs?

Valentine: I believe if legal costs continue to rise and consumers continue to stretch their budgets in today's economy, then the need to use paralegal services could grow. Law firms cannot survive by billing clients for lawyer fees alone. In order to increase revenue, law firms need to bill clients for the use of paralegal services as well. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook projects a higher than average rate of job growth for the 2010-2020 period.

In my state of Florida, the future is bright because the profession is being more widely recognized. There are several bills before the state legislature to require mandatory certification of paralegals -- with paralegal education being one of the components. There is currently a Registered Paralegal program sponsored by the Florida Bar Association -- it too requires applicants to have a paralegal degree.

Abuin: I definitely see an increased need for paralegals in this economic climate. A lot can be done with a paralegal under the supervision of an attorney, and it is cost effective for attorneys to use paralegals. In addition, I can only speak to the tri-state area around New York, but where I'm at [employers] want to see four year degrees in terms of paralegals. Bigger law firms in Manhattan, for example, typically want to see a bachelor's degree. I've seen that in government agencies as well. I see a lot of programs expanding to four years.

Q. In what ways, specifically, have you attempted to maximize your students' comprehension of a particularly troublesome concept or subject?

Valentine: Bringing in a guest speaker to provide a "hands-on" experience of a concept often helps students to use applications and thereby provide a better understanding of key ideas. This is especially helpful in transactional law fields such as real estate, probate, and bankruptcy.

Abuin: In anything I teach, and this goes for any of the faculty in our program, I provide practical, real-life examples in the classroom. I think it is the most effective way to drive home difficult concepts. I need to show them how [concepts are] applied when students go out and work as a paralegal or an attorney.

And most paralegal instructors come into the classroom with that practical, real-life experience from practicing the law. We've even, in the past, had paralegals with master's degrees come into the class to teach by example. Because this is what they are going to be doing when they graduate, it is really the best way to have them understand difficult concepts.

Q. Do you have any experience incorporating newer educational technologies into your courses?

Valentine: We are constantly updating the legal research experience for our students. We use the "smart board" in the classroom to interact with the guided webinar on legal research techniques. The students work on computers mounted within their desks and follow along with the instructor as the webinar demonstrates various techniques.

Abuin: Yes, we actually have a computerized legal application course that deals specifically with understanding, if not the actual software, what it is used for and what students might encounter within the legal field. I think the challenge is always keeping up with it because obviously [technology] is always evolving, and new products are always coming out that are better.

Q. From your own experience, what are some fundamental characteristics a student must possess to achieve success in paralegal studies?

Valentine: Paralegal students must possess or acquire a wide vocabulary, excellent reading and writing skills, along with the ability to analyze case scenarios using relevant laws.

Abuin: As I mentioned before, having the necessary soft skills is essential, such as being able to organize and being effective managers. A lot of what paralegals do is managing the law office or supervising other paralegals so have those skill sets -- management skills organizational skills, attention to detail, being able to have excellent oral and written communication skills, critical thinking and analytical skills -- are really important to succeed as a paralegal.

Q. What types of internship or volunteer work do you recommend your students pursue while taking your classes?

Valentine: We encourage our student to intern with local government entities, local law firms, and even social services agencies that have a lot of court contact.

Abuin: We have an internship program at Berkeley College, and it is a 300 hour internship. Even for students looking at paralegal programs, it is important to have an internship. It provides legal experience, and it gets these soft skills and specific skills on their resume. Even volunteer opportunities or pro bono opportunities are great, great ways to gain experience.

Q. What associations or professional groups do you recommend to your students?

Valentine: Our campus is a sustaining member of the Paralegal Association of Florida -- the state affiliate of the National Association of Legal Assistants. NALA is the official organization that creates, scores, and certifies paralegals through the Certified Legal Assistants exam.

Students should also join the NALA state affiliate in their region because they can network with paralegals working in local firms. They could also join the National Federation of Paralegal Associations because that organization produces the PACE exam, which is a more advance certification exam for seasoned paralegals.

In my state, once students have completed their associate degree and worked for a firm, they could become a Florida Registered Paralegal, which is recognized by the Florida Bar Association. There may be similar programs in other states.

Abuin: I encourage all my students to join a national paralegal association -- there's the National Federation of Paralegals Association and there's also the National Association of Legal Assistants.

Local associations are great for networking, for meeting other professionals in your area and also for getting a pulse on the legal community. They can offer wonderful opportunities for continuing legal education with workshops and seminars to hone in on specific skills you need to get into certain areas of the law. It is also a great way to showcase that students are committed to their profession.

Q. Do you recommend people thinking to become a lawyer one day in the future become a paralegal? Why or why not?

Valentine: Paralegals learn how to actually process legal documents through the court process. Paralegals also learn motion practice, technical software and office management programs. In addition, they learn the basic legal case information, court briefing, and legal research.

Therefore, when the paralegal graduate gets to law school, they have an advantage. They will already know most of the federal cases, and they will also have the technical experience that most law students don't learn until they actually intern with a firm.

Abuin: This is my personal opinion. I do think the paralegal program is beneficial for someone interested in going to law school. The distinction is the paralegal program offers more practical applications of the law as opposed to the theoretical nature of law school. It gives students a strong foundation of the law to take with them to law school. That's important.

It also gives students a unique perspective about the practice of law and how paralegals are utilized in law firms. It does provide them with a very strong foundation which they can take to law school, and it will also give them a leg up in terms of your success in the law school environment.

Q. Does paralegal training differ by state?

Valentine: All paralegals learn the same federal laws, but they also need to learn the local rules which differ in each state.

Abuin: Obviously, there is a lot in the law that has to be state specific. It is important when choosing a program to know that a lot of them will deal with state specific law.

In terms of licensing, some states require licensing of paralegals and others don't. That is something to be mindful of as well in terms of where you seek your paralegal education and whether the state students plan to work in will require licensing.

## Extra Questions ##

Q. Paralegals use software on a regular basis. Do any of your courses offer preparation for legal software?

Valentine: Our paralegal students utilize the latest commercial legal research tools, client billing programs, and E-filing software.

Q. What skills will your students not be able to learn in the classroom?

Valentine: Live courtroom/office experience will be best learned on site, therefore field trips and internships are encouraged in our program.

Q. What are some challenges typically associated with the technical instruction of paralegal programs?

Abuin: Well, I guess just being aware of the specific legal software that is available to firms right now, especially electronic researching and case management software as well as calendaring document software.

In addition, being mindful of each state's specific requirements can be a challenge. A lot of what is guided in the law is state specific. For example, certain states require electronic filing of documents within the court system.

Q. Are there specific skills or work experience that will help prospective paralegal students?

Abuin: Absolutely. In terms of skills sets, excellent oral and written communication skills are essential for paralegals as well as research skills. These, as well as critical thinking and analytical skills, are critical to function as a paralegal in any setting - whether it is a law firm, government agency or courthouse. So those are the soft skills paralegals should have in order to be successful.

Then there are skills that obviously add to any resume, such as knowing industry specific software. There is a lot of case management software that bigger and mid-sized law firms use. Being able to research records using the internet and public records and within intellectual property is important as well. Specific researching skills [employers] look for include searching for patents, copyrights and trademarks on the U.S. patent, trademark and copyright websites.

Please note: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, any job outlook predictions, career/educational advice, and salary information found on this page are based solely on the opinion of the interviewee and not that of or any other organization.