Continuing Education for Paralegals – Sink or Swim?

Many people don’t know this about me, but I’ve been a certified scuba diver for over 10 years. A few years ago, I also got my ASA 101 certification to sail a boat. Which means I passed the test that says I can sail a boat up to 27 foot, in good weather conditions and only on closed bodies of water. Essentially: a small boat on a lake on a sunny day. Since passing that test a couple of years ago, I’ve only been on a sailboat once (and I had no idea what I was doing that time). That’s what happens when any of us takes a new course and then we stop learning or don’t put those new skills to practice for a long time.  It got me thinking about how this can also affect a paralegal career if we’re not careful.

continuing education in scuba diving As you might have guessed, I love being in or on the water. I have close to 100 dives logged in my Official Dive Log. Unlike my sailing course, I did put my scuba course to use and have refined those skills throughout the years. I’ve even taken additional scuba certification courses on buoyancy, navigation and other skills that make me a better diver.

What most people don’t know is that the basic scuba certification course does not teach you how to dive. It teaches you how to not die when something goes wrong 60 feet below the surface. There’s a big difference. It’s the same with the sailing certification. It taught me what to do when things go wrong on a sailboat.

It’s the same with paralegal certificate programs. They teach how to survive through the basics. A paralegal certificate program can’t teach you how to be a successful paralegal. Having a successful paralegal career comes with determination, continuously refining (and redefining) your skill set, and a mindset of owning your career.

If you asked 100 paralegals who all went to 100 different paralegal certificate programs, they would all tell you the same thing: the schools taught us theory and terminology, but not the skills that were needed when on the first day of that first paralegal job. In defense of all paralegal certificate programs, it would be difficult to teach every skill a paralegal might use at every different type of employer in dozens of different practice areas. The skills that you need as a litigation paralegal in a law firm are going to be completely different than the skills you need as a commercial real estate paralegal working in-house.

This problem is not unique to the paralegal profession.  It’s the same when lawyers graduate from law school.  They know the case law, rules, regulations – but they have a lot to learn before they’re actually practicing law.  Ask any of your friends in the finance industry.  They might have passed their exams, but they still have a lot to learn through on-the job training.

If you have recently graduated from a paralegal school, consider taking some advanced training courses in a specialty area (such as e-discovery, real estate or intellectual property) if your school offers them.

The only way to get the critical skills that you need for a successful paralegal career is to take the initiative and go get them: either through advanced training or extensive on-the-job training. Without them, you’ll be like me and my sailing: stuck on that small sailboat in the middle of a small lake and find yourself in trouble if the weather gets bad.

Consider some of these options for furthering your paralegal education:

  • Local paralegal association meetings and events
  • National paralegal conferences
  • Online courses
  • Your local paralegal schools (not just the one you attended)
  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Find a mentor
  • Your employer’s intranet site (many will archive prior in-house training events)
  • Ask to “shadow” a senior paralegal for a few days

I know it can feel overwhelming to think you just spent all this time and money to get your college degree and then a paralegal certificate – and you thought you were FINALLY done with school.  We’re never really done learning.  Ask any senior paralegal who is an indispensable member of their team, and they will tell you:  You’re never too experienced to learn something new.

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