New Paralegal Voice co-host Jill Francisco talks with Chris Jennison about potential changes to the ABA’s legal assistant/paralegal definition and new guidelines that would approve online paralegal coursework.
Christopher Jennison is an Attorney Advisor with the Federal Aviation Administration in the Office of Employment and Labor Law....
Jill I. Francisco, ACP, received her BA in Criminal Justice, (concentration in Legal Studies), from Marshall University in 1994....
In her first episode as co-host of the Paralegal Voice, Jill Francisco welcomes Chris Jennison to discuss the latest hot topics in the paralegal profession. Don’t worry, Carl Morrison isn’t going anywhere! Carl and Jill will share hosting responsibilities and continue bringing top-notch content tailored to paralegals. In today’s episode, Jill talks with Chris about both his role as chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Paralegals and the inner workings of the ABA Approval Commission. They then focus their discussion on two trending topics: (1) the ABA’s consideration of the removal of the term “legal assistant” from the definition of legal assistants/paralegals in favor of distinct definitions for these roles and (2) changes to guidelines for the approval of paralegal education programs that would enable the development of online paralegal coursework.
Christopher Jennison is an Attorney Advisor with the Federal Aviation Administration in the Office of Employment and Labor Law and Chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Paralegals.
The Paralegal Voice
Paralegal Hot Topics: The ABA’s Proposed Definition Changes and New Education Guidelines
Jill Francisco: Hello there. Thank you for joining me for an exciting episode of The Paralegal Voice on the Legal Talk Network. I am Jill Francisco, your new co-host of The Paralegal Voice. Don’t worry, Carl Morrison is still hosting his regular scheduled program with you. I am joining the team to provide additional content and episodes to the show.
Now, just a little note about me. I am an advanced certified paralegal and currently serving as the NALA President. I have over 22 years paralegal experience and I am so very excited to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for the paralegal profession with you.
Before we begin, we would like to thank our sponsors.
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I am so excited to have Chris Jennison, an attorney and Chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Paralegals as my guest of my inaugural episode.
Mr. Jennison has previously served as an Approval Commissioner 2016-2017 and has been a member of the Standing Committee on Paralegals since 2017. Professionally, Chris is an employment and labor law attorney advisor with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Chris, thank you so much for joining me today.
Christopher Jennison: Absolutely. Excited to be here.
Jill Francisco: I have asked Chris to join me today to discuss a couple of hot topics right now in the paralegal profession. The first being the ABA consideration of removing the term legal assistant from the ABA definition of legal assistant/paralegal, and the second, changes to guidelines for the approval of paralegal education programs, enabling them to utilize online video classes in their curriculum.
Chris, before we get into the meat of our discussion, please tell the audience a little more about yourself.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the best place to start to give a quick synopsis of how I ended up in my role as the Chair of the Standing Committee is that I got involved in the American Bar Association when I was in law school. You don’t have a lot of law students who are deeply involved in the ABA, but I was very fortunate to be an officer of the ABA’s Law Student Division and through my experience there I was fortunate to be on the ABA’s Board of Governors as a third year law student.
So I served on the Board from 2015 to 2016 and in that role I was also a liaison from the Board to the Standing Committee on Paralegals. When I showed up at the Standing Committee on Paralegals meetings, they were totally shocked that a law student was there and that a Board representative was there, because in the past, prior to me the representatives just didn’t come to the meetings, and I figured if I was going to be a Board member and be a liaison to the Standing Committee and I was assigned these duties, I might as well do a good job of them.
So I got very engaged in the Standing Committee during my time as a Board member and then continued on. As you mentioned, I was an Approval Commissioner for a year and then was fortunate to come back to the Standing Committee.
So I have been involved now for a few years between the Approval Commission and the Standing Committee. They are related bodies, but the Standing Committee is kind of the policy side and the Approval Commission is kind of the technical nuts and bolts approval of ABA approved paralegal programs.
They work very closely together. They are independent of each other and in essence the Approval Commission is kind of like the trial body and the Standing Committee is kind of like the appellate body in some ways for paralegal program approval.
It’s been very eye-opening for me personally. I work for the FAA, as you mentioned, we don’t in the government have a lot of paralegal resources available to us. In my office we have 15 attorneys in headquarters and we have one paralegal and frankly we just don’t have the manpower to effectively utilize our paralegal, because whenever we need something, her time is stretched so thin amongst 15 attorneys. So frankly I haven’t gotten to see as an attorney in my day-to-day job how paralegals can effectively be used to improve the profession.
And so it’s been interesting for me to see from my ABA involvement and from the Standing Committee all the great work that paralegals do and can do and how we can move the legal profession forward through adequately appropriately training and using paralegals and appropriately training lawyers to know how to use paralegals effectively as well.
Jill Francisco: Yes. And I will tell you what, if the government gets any extra money I am going to say right off that anybody listening to this needs to apply, because Chris needs a paralegal.
Christopher Jennison: It’s true. It’s true. We will take you.
Jill Francisco: So yeah, those are all great points and like you said, I am very impressed too that when you as young attorneys — we see it actually, I am in the law office, the private practice, but some of the young attorneys, they are more receptive and like you said you just thought it was your duty, you signed up to do it, so you went to the meeting.
That’s the same as these young attorneys. As seasoned paralegals, we can — they will listen to us and they will let us kind of help them out and give them some tips and I think in the long run, just as I am sure you will agree it helps out. It just makes you look better and as it makes the associates look better to the partners. And that’s what we are all going for, working as a team and doing the best we can for our clients or whatever our clientele in that situation would be.
So anyway, but yeah, I want to get you a paralegal.
So Chris, on to the next thing just so we can kind of get a basic understanding before we get into the nuts and bolts, so can you please explain, we have the duties, the purpose and the history of the ABA’s Standing Committees on Paralegals, because I think it’s important for our listeners to understand the basic of that Committee before they kind of delve into what exactly that they did that’s going to possibly — very definitely impact our profession.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, absolutely. So the ABA as a whole has been around for about 140 years, give or take a year, and in that time we have seen great change in the legal profession and in how lawyer models exist and quasi-lawyer models exist, and as technology has developed, as the profession has developed, the ABA has in time realized that there would need to be other structures in place in the legal profession to support adequate delivery of legal services, right?
And so in 1968, the ABA initially approved a report by what was called the Special Committee on Availability of Legal Services. It’s a mouthful.
Jill Francisco: Mouthful, yes.
Christopher Jennison: Which recognized that there was a critical problem facing the legal profession in the inability of the Bar to meet the greatly expanded needs for legal services. People were starting to become more aware of the need to involve a lawyer in their day-to-day legal issues and there was a great gap in what the Bar was able to actually provide.
Kind of sounds like today, doesn’t it? We have a huge access to justice gap still today.
Jill Francisco: Yeah.
Christopher Jennison: But we are talking about now 50 years ago, the ABA first approved this report recognizing this critical failure. So they looked at the legal profession as a whole and recognized that there are many tasks in serving a client’s needs which can be performed by what they called a trained non-lawyer and that the profession should encourage the training and employment of such assistants.
So this was 1968, the ABA created what at the time was called the Special Committee on Lay Assistants for Lawyers. So this is previous to the terminology paralegal, this is previous to the terminology legal assistant, you have Lay Assistants for Lawyers. So that group was charged with promoting non-lawyer employees in legal employment and to develop initiatives to promote cost-effective methods to develop and deliver legal services.
It’s been kicking around since that time. It was changed to Special Committee on Legal Assistants in 1971 and then in the early 1970s the ABA started approving paralegal programs, it’s a voluntary approval process for paralegal education unlike for law school legal education, which is in essence a mandatory accreditation process. Paralegal programs, it’s voluntary for the ABA to be involved. It’s a stamp of approval that says that a school meets the mark of the ABA’s voluntary guidelines.
The ABA first started doing that in the early 1970s, around the same time as this Committee is coming about. And in 1971 only 11 programs existed to train legal assistants. You had the first nine programs approved by the ABA in 1975 and then around that same time the ABA gave a permanent status to this Committee on Legal Assistants.
And it stayed that way by and large until today. The only change was from the Standing Committee on Legal Assistants, that group that came about in 1975, was it was changed to the Standing Committee on Paralegals, as it is now in 2003.
So that’s kind of my long-winded explanation of the Standing Committee on Paralegals. It’s important to kind of understand where this concept came about and as the profession stood up the concept of paralegal, the ABA was right there lockstep trying to figure out how the Bar can as a whole push for use of paralegals as well.
Jill Francisco: Yeah, and I think that’s very interesting, because I don’t know if some of the paralegals and our listeners, our legal professionals would be aware that it has that much history, and it goes back that far. It’s very interesting.
To me, I always like to hear things like that, because I like anything that demonstrates the commitment that the attorneys, the legal community is acknowledging paralegals. I mean obviously we want to be acknowledged, we want to be a valuable contributor to the team, and so I like anything like that that they had the vision so many years ago to know that they were going to be important and it was going to be useful. And obviously where you were talking about tasks to free up the attorneys’ time, that basically to me computes into nowadays being more efficient for the client.
And I think that’s why our profession is projected to grow over the next few years, because I think the more that the clients understand that I can spend an hour on it so you can spend only maybe a half hour on it, that’s a benefit to them. And so I always like to hear things like that, so I appreciate that long history, but I think it needs to be said.
So before we get into our first topic of discussion, I believe there is another little part that you have touched on a little bit to explain to our listeners about the Approval Commission.
Christopher Jennison: Yes. So there are kind of these two different bodies, they are related and they fall under the same staffing and division at the ABA, but there is the Standing Committee on Paralegals, which I mentioned and then there is the Approval Commission, which is more of the technical, in the weeds body that goes and approves programs that are seeking ABA approval.
So it’s a group of 13 Approval Commissioners who will chair site visits of schools that are seeking ABA approval or re-approval. Initial approval is a more arduous process and so a site chair and another visitor will come out to a program, meet with students, review curriculum, meet with faculty and ascertain whether a program who is up for approval for the first time meets the ABA’s guidelines.
And it’s quite an interesting process. I have gotten to do a few myself and you really get a good sense of how the ABA is playing a role in the positive education of students and ensuring that there is really quality education going on.
You mentioned if any of the listeners are interested in a government job, one thing I found out recently and I didn’t know this is that a lot of state government agencies actually want an ABA approved education for paralegals. They actually require that a paralegal have attended an ABA approved program, which that was new information to me. So it kind of shows that beyond just the ABA thinking that our approval is great, other entities out there, governments out there are looking for this ABA mark of approval as well.
So that’s the work of the Approval Commission. They are going out to these schools and ascertaining whether a school is meeting that quality threshold, making recommendations to the Standing Committee and then we are approving or disapproving or seeking further information from the Approval Commission and the schools themselves.
Jill Francisco: Okay. Yeah, like I said, I went to an ABA accredited school and I always feel like it’s just kind of a feather in the cap type thing, and a lot of times, like our local affiliate, we used to give a scholarship and it was to the — of ABA accredited program, students. I mean we kind of — so there is a little — I think there is a lot of things. I think you are correct, it definitely is that extra little acknowledgment that you can achieve in a program like that.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah.
Jill Francisco: So Chris, before we move on to our next point of discussion, we need to take a quick commercial break. We will be right back.
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Jill Francisco: And we are back with Chris Jennison and we are going to continue our conversation about some hot topics with the ABA Standing Committee that they have some things coming up for vote in February 2020.
And just to continue Chris, we were talking about the Approval Commission and I believe that NALA has a seat representative on that approval Commission and has so for many years. And I think also that traditionally sometimes, I think through the years I have been involved on the Board of NALA for about — I think it’s going on about 12 years now and sometimes that seat is traditionally filled by a past president and also the current president of NALA then appoints that person.
And I think the ABA, the Commission likes us to get somebody that can be in there for about three years, because I think you don’t want to teach them the ropes, so to speak, to go out and do the approvals and then you have got to get somebody new in there.
So I just want to say watch out because you may be seeing me in the future, so this is maybe your warning.
Christopher Jennison: No, that sounds good. Yeah, generally our terms for the Approval Commission are three years, same thing for the Standing Committee. I will say for anyone who is listening, who is interested in our work overall, especially as we talk through this podcast, we are always seeking site chairs and site participants as well.
So if you are at all interested in going out to an ABA approved program or a school that might be up for ABA approval, check out our website at the americanbar.org and send an email to our staff. We are always looking for people to go out and check out these programs and it’s a great way to start to get involved, even if you don’t have that opportunity to get an Approval Commission seat right away, you can still get involved to go on these site visits and then you are kind of teed up for a paralegal seat when it comes up on the Approval Commission as well.
Jill Francisco: Yeah, thank you. like I said, I know a couple of people also that are educators that serve on that Board, and it’s kind of another neat connection to have and like you said learning, whether you are new or whether you are in the position to do it, it does create another learning experience that you can get, just more about the profession and like you said, if you are interested, especially if you are an educator, it’s kind of interesting to go to other programs and get and meet and build relationships and things that can only help your program.
I know, like I said, of a couple of educators that really I know get a benefit out by serving on the Commission. So it’s definitely a good thing to look into.
Christopher Jennison: You do get to see the variety of programs, unlike for legal education, I know this is changing some now in legal education, law school education, but unlike traditional law school where it’s three years of legal education, ABA approved paralegal programs can take a variety of formats. And so by going out to a few different sites, you get to see kind of the vast variety in schools and how they are seeking to educate their students while also still meeting that ABA threshold.
One thing that you said Jill, I just want to also reiterate too is, while we have a couple of constituent seats for paralegals on the Approval Commission, right now the Standing Committee is seven people and it’s all attorneys. And one of the things that I am working with our staff to do is pursue a change to that so that we can have a paralegal voice on that Standing Committee as well.
So I mentioned earlier, it’s kind of the policy body more so than the technical side of the Approval Commission, but I think it’s very important that for any group that is being regulated or any kind of policymaking body that they also have a voice of those people who are being regulated, who are being overseen as well, so that there is that representation there.
So stay tuned, we might have a paralegal seat on the Standing Committee coming up in the next year or two as well.
Jill Francisco: I love to hear that, because I was going to say when I first — I mean obviously it’s been a few years when I looked into the Standing Committee and was trying to see how it worked and everything, I was surprised that there wasn’t one seat, and what I compared that to is like, for instance, the local Bar Association, our State Bar Association, the mandatory Bar, we had a paralegal seat and it was because they had a Paralegal Division that paralegals could join, so it was just that voice on the board to just kind of provide different things.
I actually occupied that seat, surprise, surprise at one time locally in the West Virginia Bar and it actually was Defense Trial Counsel West Virginia and it’s like it really — I joke with them that I was always there to get them organized and keep them on task.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, yeah.
Jill Francisco: But really it does, they need that firsthand knowledge I think of the profession sometimes, especially to make the decisions that you are speaking about.
Christopher Jennison: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jill Francisco: So one more thing before we get into the real heart of things that we are talking about today, can you just give a little background on the ABA definition of legal assistant paralegal history?
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, absolutely. So the ABA as a whole loves policies, loves definitions and I am honored to sit in the House of Delegates, which is the policymaking arm of the ABA. It’s really a special body. It’s very cool to sit in. There are representatives from state and local and national affiliate Bar Associations from across the country, everything from a County Bar Association, to a national judicial group, to every kind of constituent organization you can think of.
It’s about 700 attorneys that convene twice a year for this House in August. It’s a two day meeting and then in February it’s a one day meeting, and we go through the various policies that have been proposed.
Back in 1985, this body adopted a definition of a paralegal. So remember that’s about 10 years after the ABA first started approving paralegal programs, it’s before or right around the time that the ABA was kind of switching from lay assistants to legal assistants to paralegal. So there is this changing terminology at the time.
The ABA adopted in 1985 this definition. It’s a person qualified through education, training or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity in the capacity or function which involves the performance under the ultimate direction and supervision of an attorney of specifically delegated substantive legal work, which work, for the most part, requires a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts that, absent such assistant, the attorney would perform the task.
So that is even more so of a mouthful. That’s a very long definition.
Jill Francisco: You could definitely tell attorneys are writing this.
Christopher Jennison: Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So what it boils down to though is you have got a person who is qualified through one of three ways, your education, training or work experience. So it’s not just education from an ABA approved program, although we absolutely encourage and support that, who is employed by a lawyer, overseen by a lawyer, and is performing work that requires significant, sufficient knowledge of legal concepts, that absent the attorney’s involvement, the attorney would perform themselves.
So I think it’s a big step forward that in 1985 when paralegal concepts are really just coming around that the ABA adopted this definition.
It was amended in 1997 to be a little bit smoother, but I am not going to read the definition, because frankly it’s almost just as long, but it boils down to the same thing. It’s a legal assistant or a paralegal qualified by one of those three ways, education, training or work experience, who is performing specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. So that was the definition that was adopted in 1997 and it stood until now, in 2019.
So I think it’s interesting that the ABA adopted this, and why it matters is not just that the ABA adopted this and that we are kind of talking to ourselves, we are talking into the void, we are hoping that by adopting this definition in the House that people will give it credence or will put any faith into it.
Where it becomes interesting is that many states adopt this definition as well. Many other organizations adopt this definition as well, and so the ABA really has a lot of weight given to it for the definition that is adopted.
It’s codified into statutes and it’s codified into regulation of paralegals by states and it’s very important that the definition that the ABA adopts is what actually reflects what paralegals are doing and should be doing and what we hope them to be doing in order for paralegals to really fill an important role in the legal profession.
Jill Francisco: Yeah, I mean, I definitely agree with you, I know that like I said, I was just entering the paralegal profession and like I said locally the West Virginia State Bar adopted the ABA definition of a paralegal and it was exciting time because again, paralegals appreciated that recognition that we were kind of being taken seriously and included as part of the legal team.
So now what we’ve all been waiting for and that’s in the show, the suspense, so we’re going to talk a little bit about why the ABA is considering removing the term ‘legal assistant’ from the definition and of course just kind of like a timeline of events that is leading up to the February 2020 votes, I believe it is.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, absolutely so the ABA and the ABA Standing Committee really are constituent organizations. We reflect and we want to reflect what our constituency is care about, what they are interested in and the Standing Committee has a meeting in the fall in October generally and then in the spring, generally in March or April.
And we received a letter in July 2018 from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and unfortunately given the timing or the next time that we were able to address the letter that we received was in October of 2018.
So this letter that NFPA sent in July 2018 that we were addressing the October 2018 asked us to look at this definition that was adopted in 1997 and considered modifying the definition, not big changes in the definition as a whole but as you’ll recall one of the things I just read off is that a paralegal or a legal assistant is a person qualified by education, training or work experience.
So the definition of paralegal a) it already says in a definition of paralegal, a paralegal is, which is kind of a weird wording, but at the beginning of that definition they also included the concept of a legal assistant. So they’re putting — the ABA is putting in this definition a legal assistant on the same footing as paralegal what NFPA was asked us to consider changing.
What I said is that there are while geographically terminology may vary and while responsibilities may change in any given organization, the substantive legal work that is being performed is really that of a paralegal that the work that is being performed by legal assistants in many cases has really become more akin to legal secretary or even secretary rather than to paralegal, to somebody who was performing that specifically delegated subsidy of legal work that would be performed by an attorney absent the paralegal’s involvement.
And so NFPA was asking that paralegals and legal assistants be recognized as two separate and distinct classifications of non-lawyer legal professionals and should be defined individually. So I just want to point out that nuance there, they are asking for us to essentially define both paralegal and the legal assistant.
We have not gone or we are not going to the set of defining legal assistant but we are going to the step that they asked for defining paralegal by removing a legal assistant from the definition of paralegal.
So we met in the October 2018 meeting and considered the definition the proposal that NFPA put forward as to the definition and decided that we didn’t have enough information at play. And so we want to again survey our constituents, we sent a survey out to prove program directors, to constituent organizations.
Ultimately, we got a survey response back of just north of 1,700 respondents and I think the key thing here, so this is nationwide, we looked at the geography of the respondents, there was not a scientific study, but looking at the respondents overall the key stat to take away is that for non-attorney legal professionals performing substantive legal work under supervision of licensed attorneys, the term for that was paralegal for 65% of respondents was 25% legal assistant and was 8% legal secretary.
So you were looking at nearly two-thirds of respondents on a decent-sized response pool saying that the appropriate terminology for those professionals it should be paralegal. And so I think that’s really what kind of pushed us over the edge.
We continue to debate it. We talked to the more constituents and over the summer of this past summer we decided as a Standing Committee to go ahead and introduce a resolution to the ABA’s House of Delegates, modifying the ABA definition to pull out that legal assistant section of the paralegal definition.
So since it was a definition that was approved back in 1997 by the House of Delegates, it has to be approved by the House to Delegates and so the next time that the house meets is in February 2020, we have submitted that resolution it has been calendared and we will see on February 17th, 2020 what the outcome of that vote is.
Jill Francisco: Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s very interesting. It’s interesting to me because like I said it’s been my experience traveling around obviously in my capacities as NALA President but even before in the other offices where I visit NALA affiliates in all different areas of the country like you were saying your survey was, it’s like some say that obviously paralegal and legal assistant were used as synonyms, like same thing, like say attorney and Esquire.
Christopher Jennison: Right.
Jill Francisco: But then in some areas of the country you have it to where they use paralegal because then there’s absolutely no question what I’m doing, like what and what you are.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah.
Jill Francisco: And because then you don’t have legal secretaries calling themselves legal assistant.
Christopher Jennison: Right, right.
Jill Francisco: But like to me that’s the problem that we’ve encountered and it sounded like to me a little bit and I could be wrong that you were saying it’s actually possibly like, because you said you’re not going to define the term — paralegal, legal assistant and legal secretary.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah.
Jill Francisco: You are really looking them as three separate things, where like I said it’s been my experience that there’s confusion between the two, and like I said in my area, like here, we have no problem with it, but like I said, you have a valid point, because in some areas and I think, it’s been my experience it’s in states that have their own certification, that it’s more of — because obviously the attorneys are more in tune with that. They know there’s a State certification. They know possibly maybe the requirements, maybe they are requiring them to be certified, have the State certification to be employed.
So they’re all kind of like I think more in tune with all that and so they acknowledge that they want a paralegal not a legal assistant, not a legal secretary.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, and I think I’d be curious to hear what you think and what your members think, I hazard a guess as well that some legal employers will call paralegals legal assistants or even legal secretaries, giving them paralegal work, but giving them that “lesser title” so that they can compensate them less as well.
Jill Francisco: Yes.
Christopher Jennison: I think that’s probably a very real concern and very real reality in paralegal professionals as well.
Jill Francisco: Yes, I agree with that, and actually when you were talking about how NALA feels and how the members, I mean, we have not obviously surveyed our members about it, because literally it’s been debated, like I said I entered the field in 1997 and it’s been debated and debated over-and-over again, but NALA does take the position that — because obviously we’re NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) but then we say the Paralegal Association.
And so we have treated those as synonymous over the years and that’s still our position, but we’re taking direction, we’re watching it, the Board of Directors is very — we’re monitoring it, because it’s important and we know there’s going to have a trickle-down effect, and we don’t want — and then again you don’t want that person that’s in some area of the country that’s a legal assistant, they are doing substantive work, they are getting compensated, fine, to their liking and the employer is happy both ways, and then they feel like their professional association is go in a different direction.
Christopher Jennison: Right.
Jill Francisco: And so, like I said somebody asked us what if we’re going to change our name to NAPA? And I was like, I think that’s already taken by somebody. We do not want to be known as that.
So, I think that’s where we’re at right now, but like I said, definitely I know we’ve received comments, we’ve received questions, we’re definitely monitoring and it’s great to see the thought and the research and the time that has gone into this, because again that note, that means that is important to you, it’s important to the ABA, it’s important to the profession, and that’s obviously what we all want.
Christopher Jennison: Absolutely, absolutely.
Jill Francisco: Okay. So, Chris, before we go on to our next question, we need to take a quick commercial break. We’ll be right back.
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Jill Francisco: Welcome back to The Paralegal Voice. I’m Jill Francisco and my guest today is Chris Jennison, Attorney and Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals, and we were just wrapping up discussing the debate and the possibility of changing the definition, the ABA definition of a paralegal, removing the term legal assistant.
So I want to kind of move on to another kind of twist on this and get Chris’ thoughts on the Approval Commission’s changes to the guidelines for the approval of paralegal education programs where they are — the proposed — I think it goes in effect, is this right, Chris, 1/1/2020?
Christopher Jennison: Yes, that’s correct.
Jill Francisco: To allow the ABA accredited programs to utilize online or video classes in their curriculum.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah. So the Approval Commission came forward with this proposal to the Standing Committee, actually at our last meeting which was time has kind of shifted lately, but I want to say late October of this year, and the proposal was to change what had been in place in our guidelines to provide more flexibility for ABA-approved programs.
What had been in place in our guidelines is that a school could video-transmit a class synchronously to other campuses. So if you have a campus in City A and you have students at remote campuses in cities B and C, the school in City A could transmit that class live to B and C with students coming into the campus in B and C. Where this played out, so for example, I went to — one of the site visits I went to was Western Kentucky University almost two years ago and they have a couple of campuses throughout their region, but the campuses can be separated by student significant driving time. We are talking an hour and hour-and-a-half between some of the campuses.
And so a student coming into — won’t even one of the remote campuses, might be driving a significant distance just to come into class to dial into a classroom that is actually live, the instructor is live two hours away from the classroom the student is it. It was really an eye-opening experience for me to go see the synchronous video instruction at a remote campus. And that’s not really how legal education is trending, it’s not really how education is trending. We are looking at a time of increasing technology change, increasing education change and we want to make sure that we have the flexibility that we’re giving our programs the flexibility to be able to offer education to students where they are when they are.
And one of the things that I think is, is very telling about this is that the guidelines while they’re rigid, the legal education accreditation standards for law schools are extremely rigid, and that being said I had read recently that the managing director for legal education for the ABA, a gentleman named Barry Currier, estimates that within five years, five years the ABA is going to allow a fully online program for law school legal education. I think that’s incredibly telling because legal education hasn’t changed in 100-plus years, and so, if you’re going to allow law school education to be fully online we should also be talking about flexibility in paralegal education as well.
What we have gone to do, what the Approval Commission has suggested to us what we’ve allowed it will be in place for January 1st, 2020, is that a school can transmit their live classes synchronously to where the student is.
So I could be in my home kitchen taking a class live that’s offered at my local ABA-approved paralegal program. That flexibility wasn’t there before. I would have had to have gone into a classroom, so I’ve got a nine-month-old daughter, if I had to go into the classroom, I would need a caretaker even if my daughter was asleep for example; whereas here, I get the flexibility, I can come home, I can have the flexibility to do in my office.
And that flexibility really allows paralegal programs to thrive and have the flexibility to reach students where they are. It allows the students to be able to advance themselves and take that education in the circumstances that best work for them without having to go and commute.
The technology is outstanding to do things like Zoom or Blackboard or there are a lot of synchronous video tools where an instructor can really have life or real-time effective engagement with students. The one thing I will say is we discussed although we’re not seriously considering a change to allow asynchronous education as well.
And the reason we were discussing that is there are a lot of education programs online where asynchronous education is allowed. What I mean by that is that the instructor isn’t live, the instructor may be recorded or in maybe an online discussion or things of that nature but you don’t have to dial in at a certain time.
And we at this time didn’t want to go down that route because we still wanted the real-time live engagement amongst students and instructors to be able to have that real discussion, to have that real engagement element there. So I’m very excited with this.
I do think that it’s going to allow more programs that have previously considered or previously offered synchronous video online education to a student’s own location, home office, whatever it might be, and because of that offering, they couldn’t be ABA-approved.
I think that a lot of programs that may have had that existence before may now seek ABA approval, which is very exciting for us.
Jill Francisco: Yes, and I’ll tell you what, I love that idea. Now I’ll tell you, I’m sure you’ve heard because obviously it’s a concern. I mean, I love the profession, I’m in the profession and there’s some concern about the school’s enrollment like the paralegal programs enrollment going down, and you have to seriously consider that part of it could be because of situations like you were describing that they can’t be in class at a certain time at a certain place every single week because they have to work, they have family obligations at home. It’s hard to get their time, there’s so many things and now so many other professions and there’s total online paralegal programs, and so people are picking those paralegal programs as opposed to the ABA accredited program that may even be local and is a great program and obviously has that feather in its cap but they can’t choose that because that option is not there for them.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, I think it’s telling to us on some level and we want to make sure as an ABA that we are making sure that there’s quality education in those programs that we were putting our stamp of approval on, but I think it’s telling that when you look at the 1975 stats when it was I forget what I said earlier in the episode, but 11 schools or something like that but the ABA approved nine of them at that time, that’s a huge chunk that are ABA-approved.
If you look at now there are north of 1200 paralegal programs across the country and there are 262 paralegal programs that are ABA-approved, so that’s like 22% of them are ABA-approved, and we want to make sure that we can boost that number while also still maintaining our standards and I think this meets that.
Jill Francisco: Yeah, and I want to just tell you like I said I hope you’re correct about this change and motivating more paralegal programs to seek the ABA approval because I think the ABA approval is very important. And I think nowadays it’s very important that you take advantage of every single thing you can to stand out.
And I mean obviously one of those being taking your education through an ABA accredited program. Many years ago, and I’m not going to tell you how many years ago, I attended Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice with a concentration in Legal Studies.
I’m originally from Pennsylvania and what attracted me to Marshall University was their paralegal program because it was in connection with the Marshall University Community Technical College at that time, and of course, it was ABA accredited.
Now, I look back on it now and think what, as a high school student why did I even care about that? Why did that even matter to me? But I guess it just sounded better how you get those initials and you get that thing and “accredited” is a strong word. And so what happened is in 2008, West Virginia decided that community colleges and state colleges should be separated into different institutions.
So that’s why the Marshall Community College became Mount West Community College, Community and Technical College, and it’s funny because I feel this whole thing has come full circle for me because now I’m on the Advisory Board at the Mount West Community College and helping the paralegal program, being the public member, being the — because of my national involvement in the Association. And when I became President reaching out — doing school outreach, getting to the students, getting to the programs was really one of my passions, and NALA, we have surveyed the paralegal program directors because we want to do more for them and we want to give them whatever they need.
Because obviously if you like the profession that’s what you got to do, it starts with the students. You don’t want them drop them out, you wanted to get them interested to get in, and so — and I do think definitely that the ABA accredited programs is definitely a feather in the cap and I really hope you’re correct that this does really let like you said, programs that were hindered before that maybe wanted to seek accreditation by the ABA but just couldn’t because they offer online programs.
And they probably can’t afford not to offer the online programs, that would dwindle their attendance and their enrollment too severely. So I really hope that’s the way it goes, because I do think it’s important.
Christopher Jennison: Time will tell, but I think it’ll bear out that way. I really do think that more schools will seek that ABA approval. When you’re talking about what did you as a high schooler see in the ABA accreditation or ABA approval? I think this is something that we grapple with a lot on as the ABA as a whole with the attorney side too is, well, what is the mark of the ABA?
And I think the mark of the ABA whether we’re talking about for lawyers or for paralegals is that it is a group that is standing for the profession as a whole and I think that that ABA approval mark really bears a ton of — it carries a ton of weight with it and it carries the whole reputation of the ABA with it, which I think is huge and I’m really hopeful that a lot of the programs will put that weight behind them and seek that ABA approval.
Jill Francisco: Well, that’s all the time we have today for this episode, and Chris, thank you so very much for being my inaugural guest on today’s show. You discussed a lot of valuable information that our listeners may want to learn more about. So what is the best way that they could get in contact with you?
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, I’d love to hear from anyone. My Twitter is @ChrisJennison, I am on LinkedIn and Facebook and my email is [email protected]. I’d love to hear from anyone, I’m happy to provide any more information. You can also see my information on the ABA’s website as well on the Standing Committee on Paralegals page, but happy to hear from anyone.
Jill Francisco: And again, thank you Chris, so much for joining me today.
Christopher Jennison: Yeah, it’s been great talking to you.
Jill Francisco: If you have any questions or comments for me please contact me at [email protected].
Also thank you to all the listeners who joined us today and I hope you will plan to join me for my episode next month on The Paralegal Voice.
I’m Jill Francisco signing off.
Outro: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, or subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.
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