Many paralegals have problems getting a job with no experience but can’t get experience without having a job. This is one of the worst paradoxes in the field. Paralegal education programs have been changing to help resolve this and other issues. Many classes are now offering in depth subjects such as legal research and many others are available as online courses. Additionally, many paralegal students are now required to do internships to gain experience. What should students look for in a paralegal program and how do they best promote their education when looking for a job?
In this episode of The Paralegal Voice, Vicki Voisin interviews Madonna University paralegal professor Mary Meinzinger Urisko, J.D. about how paralegal education has changed, the programs and systems at Madonna, and best practices for using your education to get a job. Urisko talks about how online courses expand the geographical reach of paralegal education and have improved with podcasts, videos, and blogs. However, she explains, the ABA doesn’t approve programs done entirely online; there is a great benefit to the networking and discussions that come from a physical classroom. Urisko discusses how her legal research courses include using LexisNexis and Westlaw, people and assets found online, and legal writing. In order to get a job, Urisko recommends that students list skills acquired on their resumes, create a portfolio of their best works, and do internships or find any job in a law office. Many times, even an admin in a law office can create essential network opportunities with lawyers.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko, J.D., is a professor and the assistant director of the Paralegal Studies Program at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. She has been a faculty member since 1989 and holds a BA degree in Business Administration from Michigan State University. She received her JD from the University of Detroit School of Law and is a member of the state bar of Michigan. At Madonna University, she teaches paralegal studies, legal research and writing, business associations, computer assisted legal research, and legal research on the internet.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Nala and ServeNow.
Mentioned in This Episode
Paralegal Voice: Paralegal Education and Landing a Job – 2/13/2015
Advertiser: Welcome to the Paralegal Voice, where you hear the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistance by one of the best known paralegals in the industry, Vicki Voisin. A paralegal for more than twenty years, Vicki is dedicated to helping legal professionals reach their goals. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Vicki Voisin: Hello everyone, welcome to the Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Vicki Voisin, the paralegal mentor and host of the Paralegal Voice. I’m a NALA Advanced Certified paralegal. I publish a weekly e-newsletter titled Paralegal Strategies. I’m also the co-author of the Professional Paralegal, a Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success. You’ll find more information at ParalegalMentor.com. My guest today is Mary Meinzinger Urisko, J.D., an attorney and educator. Welcome, Mary.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: Hi Vicki, it’s great to be here.
Vicki Voisin: Thanks for joining us. Before we begin I really want to thank our sponsors, I have always liked to recognize them and thank them. That would be NALA; a professional association for paralegals providing continuing education and also professional certification programs for paralegals at NALA.org. Nala is a force in the promotion and advancement of the paralegal profession, and has been a sponsor of the Paralegal Voice since we began, and that was several years ago, I think we’re coming up on our fifth year. Our other sponsor is ServeNow; a national network of trusted pre-screened process servers. You work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume serves who embrace technology and understand the litigation process. Visit ServeNow.com to learn more. The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics important to the paralegal industry; and share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources you’ll helpful in your career and your everyday jobs. Guests are usually included to help explore timely topics and for that reason I’ve invited Mary Meinzinger Urisko to join me today. And the first thing – now that I’ve talked about our sponsors – I want to tell you about Mary. She is a professor and assistant director of the Paralegal Studios Program at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. She’s been a faculty member since 1989 and holds a BA Degree in business administration from Michigan State University; go green, Mary. And she has her J.D. from the University of Detroit School of Law and she’s a member of the State Bar of Michigan. At Madonna University, she teaches introduction to paralegal studies, legal research and writing, business associations, computer-assisted legal research, and also legal research on the internet. Several of those courses are offered online as she’s a certified online instructor. Mary is also the co-author of West’s Paralegal Today 6th Edition, an Introduction to Law Textbook for Paralegals. Additionally, she’s published articles in the Michigan Legal Assistant, Legal Assistant Today which is now Paralegal Today, and Facts and Findings as well as speaking at the Annual Legal Assistants Day sponsored by Legal Assistants section of the State Bar association, and the National Association for Paralegal Education; their annual conference. I’m so happy to have you here, Mary, I’ve known you for a long time and I certainly do think a lot of you in the realm of paralegal education. First question I’m going to ask you though, is just how has paralegal education changed over the years?
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: I think we’ve seen a big development in online education that’s added some really new dimensions to being able to educate paralegals. It’s expanded educational opportunities in terms of their educational environment itself. We can provide videos and podcasts. This week I put up an NPR podcast and next week my students will be going to the SCOTUSblog – which is a really fabulous website where they can learn all about cases that are pending before the Supreme Court, and those that have been recently decided and to explore some of those. And they can also go online this week to study the Constitution at the Center for Constitutions website. It gives them opportunities to engage in discussion of legal issues with their classmates and instructors several times a week. And it also, outside of that classroom environment, it broadens the educational opportunities to paralegals who might not otherwise be able to get an education because they’re too far away from a school where a certificate or a degree is offered, so it opens up some of those doors. It also has allowed paralegals in the metro Detroit area where I’m located to complete their bachelor’s degrees by doing a degree completion program from a community college that’s a couple hours away, they can complete that online with us. And it also allows students who work full time to complete their education by being able to work online in the evenings, on weekends, whatever free time they have.
Vicki Voisin: I’ll tell you, things have come a long way from when I became a paralegal, and what happened when I became a paralegal, there was no schools. I was in-house trained by a fabulous attorney who later became our circuit judge; but nothing like they can get today and there’s just no substitute for all of those classes, so I think it’s wonderful. And besides that no one could become a paralegal the way I did; I mean no one would hire you that way. Anyway, I know that Madonna’s paralegal program is ABA approved, and I’d like for you to explain that process and why it’s so important for a program to have that.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: So the ABA guidelines ensure quality programs. They have specific curriculum requirements, they require a minimum of 60 semester hours post-secondary degree. So that’s the equivalent of an associate’s degree at a minimum. And within that 60 semester hours, 18 hours have to be general ed, 18 hours have to be law and legal specialty courses, and then 24 semester hours are in whatever the institution deems necessary to round out that degree. Sometimes schools have accrediting bodies that are going to require additional coursework. At Madonna our offerings include a bachelor’s degree that’s 120 semester hours, an associate’s degree that is 61 semester hours and then 2 certificates – a post-baccalaureate certificate at 42 semester hours of law and then a nurse paralegal certificate at 30 semester hours of law. So we’re meeting those 3 requirements because we have the law and the general requirements are met through those other degrees for the certificates. Also the ABA guidelines have faculty requirements, they have facility requirements of adequate classrooms and libraries, student services and financial aid, career resources. And what they do is they require that the school submit an initial application and then a site visit is held and then every 7 years after that you submit interim reports and every 7 years you get another site visit. And they come out and they really go through everything, and there is of course there’s another report required with that site visit. So it’s really a very detailed, very thorough process. They come to your campus, they meet with your faculty, they meet with your students, they meet with your administration, and they really go through everything with a fine-tooth comb. And all of that just really ensures that the program is meeting the quality requirements of the ABA guidelines. So I hope that answers your question.
Vicki Voisin: It does. When I was on the advisory board for the paralegal program at Lake Superior State University, we went through that and the board went through it. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of time but I think it’s great because it does ensure that you’re getting a quality program. But I want to talk to you about online education because I’m contacted by a lot of paralegals asking if I would recommend a getting a degree totalling online and none of those are approved by the ABA, this total degree program. So I usually don’t recommend that but online classes are fabulous; in fact I teach some myself. So tell me more about your online programs at Madonna.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: I do agree with you that entirely online programs probably are not the way to go and primarily for the reason that you’ve stated, that they’re not approved by the American Bar Association. So they don’t have that same level of quality and the ABA guidelines also include very specific rules about the number of hours that you have to teach and how much contact there is and interaction there is between the students and the student and faculty. It’s very detailed, the reporting that we do on that. And without that oversight I just think that you tend to lose the quality. So with ABA approval, you are allowed to teach all but 10 semester hours of specialty legal courses online. So ten semester hours have to be taught on your campus and the balance can be taught online. And we do offer that option and I think it’s a great option. We have a number of course that we teach online and it really provides – as I said earlier – the students with a variety of opportunities but particularly it provides students who can’t get to the campus to actually get here to get education.
Vicki Voisin: Right. The other thing that I believe in is that when you’re on campus and attending some classes – at least in person – you start doing some networking. And that’s so important when you’re ready to get a job. So I think we’ll cover that a little more later but that part of your education outside a classroom is still terribly important.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: It is, and one thing that we do is through having students on campus for those ten semester hours, they tend to make really good friendships. Particularly in our legal research classes which I’m sure you want to ask me about. They seem to make really good friends and then they keep in contact with those people through those online courses and through the weekly – mostly weekly – discussion boards that we offer to them where they get to debate different legal issues and different legal topics. We also assign learning partners every semester so that they have a friend in the classroom. And I have quite a bit of contact with the students as well, on at least a weekly basis with grading their assignments, answering questions; I have an Ask-Mary discussion board. So anything they don’t understand or want to talk about they can always post on that board or if it’s more of a private nature they’re free to email me, they have my phone number. And I talk to a lot of them quite regularly, so I think they get a fair amount of that networking. And we also have a student club that does meet on campus that they are free to come to our meetings and do networking as well.
Vicki Voisin: Right. Well, you mentioned legal research and I know that you do teach that so tell the listeners what that involves.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: I teach three different legal research classes. I teach the basic intro to legal research and writing 1, LAW 1010. And then I teach two more advanced courses; one called computer assisted legal research which focuses on Westlaw and Nexus, and then an additional course that’s really more fact-based research using the internet. Finding people, finding all kinds of information through the internet. So those are the three different classes that I teach. At Madonna, we do require two legal research and writing classes where you’re just learning to use the various hard copy sources and getting an introduction to Westlaw and LexisNexis. So I teach the first one and the department chair teaches the second one and that’s a very intensive course that’s only taught on campus. And it really is taught on a law school/attorney level because in order to have value to an attorney, you really need to be able to do legal research to the same level, find the same information that an attorney can find. And actually, we’ve had students who’ve gone into law firms and on the first day of a new associates job in the firm, taken them into the library to show them how to find things in print because they’ve never been taught that in law school. Many of the law schools have gone to completely online Westlaw and Lexis research. We do instructed guided research in the hardcopy sources, in the print books, the legal encyclopedias, to the case reporters, the statutes, and then we introduce in little chunks Westlaw and Nexis alongside those hard copy sources so the students know and can kind of see where those appear online. And then after we’ve learned how to use all of those sources we learn how to do more of an applied assignment where they go into the sources, the cases and statutes, and answer a client’s hypothetical legal question and prepare a legal memo and then we have them prepare a brief complaint and a motion and brief and a case brief as well.
Vicki Voisin: Right; I think that’s a skill that every paralegal has to have even if they don’t do a lot of research, they still need to know how to do it because there’s going to be an assignment or two at one point in time. But when you apply for a job, how can the job candidate demonstrate that they’ve mastered this skill of legal research? Do you just tell them you’re going to the library or what do you do?
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: What we recommend our students do is that they have a list of competencies at the top of their resume. So they have a list of things like, I can prepare deposition summaries, wills and trusts, I can do legal research on Westlaw and Nexis and Casemaker. Just the variety of skills that they’ve learned through the program and through their internship because we do require an internship for our students before they graduate. We also recommend strongly that our students create a portfolio of their work as they are going through the program and that they take one assignment from every class and put it in the portfolio. So their best legal memo, their best deposition summary, their best complaint, their best answers to interrogatories. If they are going on more of a corporate track, they might bring their corporate minute book. And then we encourage them as they actually get the job interview to take that portfolio and show it to the employer. But to get the foot in the door, having that list of competencies on the resume – especially with so many of the places where you apply using electronic searches to see if they can pick up terms from your resume that show that you’re someone they would even consider interviewing or consider for the position. That really helps get students interviews.
Vicki Voisin: Mary, it’s time to take a short break; we need to hear from our sponsors. That would be NALA, the association of legal assistance paralegals, and ServeNow, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. I don’t want my listeners to go away because when we come back we’re going to continue this discussion with Mary Meinzinger Urisko, J.D.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin and my guest today is Mary Meinzinger Urisko, J.D., who’s a professor and an assistant director of the paralegal studies program at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. Mary, I hear almost daily from paralegals who’s graduated from a program that they can’t get a job because they don’t have any practical experience but they can’t get that experience unless they have a job. So it’s just a real merry-go-round for them and I’m sure you run into that with some of your students. So what tips do you have that are going to help them with that program?
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: So what we try to do is we try to avoid that situation entirely by having our students first get what we call a mid program co-op experience doing anything in a law firm, whatever it takes. Whether you’re a file clerk who runs documents out to a court or back and forth to other firms, or you’re a receptionist or what have you. Get some kind of experience in a law office. And then, before they graduate, their last course is an internship. And that can be a paid internship, we strongly encourage that, but a lot of our students – because they don’t have experience – they may be transitioning from some other type of job and have no legal experience. They could be a student who worked their way through school waiting tables. They end up volunteering at legal aid clinics and they do a full internship there and they great great, great experience. And then they take those skills and list them on their resumes as competencies as we’ve talked about a few minutes ago. And all of those things combined seem to really help them get the job. So for someone who’s out there who can’t get a job, I would encourage you to do something, even if it’s volunteering at a legal aid office or taking a job that may not necessarily by working as a paralegal but something to get your foot in the door and get you some experience so you can then go on and kind of follow that track that we have our students do. And keep applying it, it’s a great time to be a paralegal. We’re seeing a tremendous increase in the number of jobs that are out there for paralegals and I think that if you keep applying you’ll probably get something. If not, you might want to step back, take a look at your resume, maybe have a professional help you with your resume, and also make sure that your education is what’s needed for your particular job market. Different job markets have different requirements. If you work on the East and West Coast, not only do you probably need a bachelor’s degree, you may need certification from an organization like NALA. If you’re in the Midwest, in Detroit or Chicago or Cincinnati, some of the bigger Midwestern cities, you’re probably going to need at least a bachelor’s degree. And if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, you may have a hard time finding a job. So you might want to consider completing that degree. So there are a variety of things I think you can do that help with the problem, but it certainly is a frustrating problem. You can also try to network with your classmates and attend paralegal functions. I’m sure you and I can have quite a conversation about the State Bar Legal Assistant section and a lot of the functions that they hold that working paralegals attend. Try to attend functions where you can network as well.
Vicki Voisin: Right. Well I really like the idea of your mid program co-op, I think that’s great. I always tell paralegals or people who are in paralegal school that if possible, if they have to work part time to do that work in a law office or working with attorneys. It looks great on your resume, and you may not be working as a paralegal because you haven’t finished your program but anything that you do is doing to help you realize what goes on there. So I think that that taste of working in the office is really important.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: And one thing that we have available to us because we are in a large metropolitan area, is there are a number of courts. Federal courts, several different state courts and local courts, and they employ people. Getting some type of clerkship in one of those offices. And again, you don’t have to have a fancy title or paralegal title; just get some experience working there and you can network there. There will be lots of attorneys coming in every day, you get to know people, you work with them, and that may lead to a job, so that’s another alternative.
Vicki Voisin: Right. And I want to add that a lot of jobs are from mostly by word of mouth. Recruiters also help a lot, but it’s that word of mouth when you’re networking, say, going to the state paralegal section meetings. The State Bar doesn’t have a student membership but students are always invited at a lower price. I think that taking part in those things is really important. Mary, I really like the idea of an internship. I know not all programs require them, but they’re very helpful for just working your way into the legal profession. What I’d like to know is do you help them find or do you place them into these internships or do they do that on their own?
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: Well, we have a career services office at Madonna University and attorneys are aware of the fact that we do require internships and offer interns, so to speak. And because of that, they do call and post positions; tends to be over the Summer and various times throughout the semester. But they do call and post positions with our career services office. Sometimes they call us as the program administrators and ask to post a job through us. And then we have other attorneys who we know who we work with who sometimes will give us a call and ask if they can post a position. So we do have some positions available posted through our career services office. But there’s never enough for everyone who needs a job for an internship. So we do tell our students at the beginning in LAW 1000 that you do have to do this internship when you graduate, start thinking about it today. The week before the class starts is too late, usually. Students aren’t able to find something that fast, so start thinking about it now, start networking, and yes, if we know of positions that are out there we announce them. Sometimes we get them by email and we have a website for our student club, our paralegal student club and we email them out to the students. But ultimately, it is the student’s responsibility to find the job but we give them a lot of help and a lot of encouragement throughout the process.
Vicki Voisin: Now what I’m wondering – we’re going to wrap things up here in just a minute – but I’m wondering if any of our listeners wish to get in touch with you, how would they do that and also what is Madonna’s website address?
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: They could reach me at [email protected] and the website is www.Madonna.edu. I would be happy to talk to anyone who’s interested.
Vicki Voisin: Right, and I know it’s a fine program. In fact, I wonder if I didn’t sit for my advanced certification there; it’s been a few years ago. Students can get their certification right out of school now. Do any of your students ask about that or are they interested in that?
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: We’ve had a few do it over the years but the interest has seemed to decline recently. It’s not so much needed in the job market at this point; at least not if they’re going to stay in the metro area.
Vicki Voisin: Okay, well I’m going to have to do something about that because I think it’s really important.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: Yeah, it is and it’s very helpful. We think it’s a very good credential for them to have and we do encourage that.
Vicki Voisin: Well, Mary, thank you for joining me today. I really enjoyed your points about online education, your tips for getting a job; I think those will be important to our listeners. And I appreciate your taking the time to be here.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: Well great, Vicki, thank you so much for having me. I certainly enjoyed talking to you and it was great to touch base with you again.
Vicki Voisin: I hope I see you at the next State Bar meeting.
Mary Meinzinger Urisko: I’m sure you will.
Vicki Voisin: So let’s take another short break now. Don’t go away because when I come back I’ll have news and career tips for you.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice, this is the time in the program when I give you some news and also offer a practice tip for you. What I’m going to talk about today is the fact that I wrote an article recently and it’s at my blog which is ParalegalMentorBlog.com, and I referenced a recent salary survey that was done by Robert Half Legal. And that salary survey I think is really important for everybody to take a look at. In the process of writing that article, I also included a 2015 strategic career planning guide and it’s to be used for setting your goals for career success and what you’re going to be doing this year to move your career forward. That’s available at ParalegalMentor.com/career-planning-guide, and that’s a free download for you so take a look at that. Again, as I said, and in this Robert Half Legal salary survey, what I found very interesting is that they say that the terms hybrid or blended paralegal legal secretary roles are growing in population as entities continue to overhaul legal support structures and consolidate positions. Which simply means that they are trying to find ways to save money. So what is a hybrid paralegal? It’s a paralegal who performs some secretarial functions. Many employers are really cutting back on the number of employees that they have and they do that by hiring people with multiple skills. So you may need to sharpen your secretarial skills, especially your keyboarding skills and other technical skills in order to be a viable candidate for some of these paralegal jobs. So listen to this trend and make sure that you are employable if someone is looking for this hybrid. The other thing that I want to tell you is that way back in the day when people worked as a legal secretary and then were promoted to a paralegal, we already had those hybrid skills, we just didn’t know it. But now they’re really being required and always watch that trend. And always pay attention to trends so that you’ve prepared yourself for a job. There’s more information on that in my blog post, just what skills they’re looking for and what areas are the fastest growing.
Well, that’s about all the time we have today for the Paralegal Voice; if you have questions about today’s show, please email them to [email protected]. And again be sure to check my blog, and I have a lot of resources for you. They’ve been designed to help you move your career in the right direction, and we all know that that’s always forward. This is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to the Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to make your paralegal voice heard.
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