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Weighing the options, and they feel heavy


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When I declared my major as Political Science, I had given great thought into continuing my education into law school. After speaking with my advisor (who is great, truly an asset), he made me consider getting an MPA should I decide to not go the law school route. I graduated with my BS in the Spring of 2009 and decided that I would try my hardest to get a job before enrolling in any further programs so I could offset any debt that I would accrue. Luckily, being in Georgia, I was able to use the HOPE scholarship and graduate debt-free. But, as we all know, the job market has been extremely stagnant for any entry-level work and I haven't found anything. Many, many applications have been submitted to jobs both germane and non-germane to my degree. I've tried nearly every avenue and can't seem to land anything, however menial it may be.

So, here I am trying to plan my next move. I had a thought earlier this evening, that I would get paralegal certification. Lots of programs that I've seen so far require that the student have a 4 year degree, which is kind of comforting. To me, this seems to be my most appealing option right now. For one, I wouldn't have to accumulate debt up to my eyeballs to get this; and two, it allows me to get a taste of the legal system to see if I would enjoy pursuing law school without having to take the plunge. Plus, it seems like the starting salaries are pretty decent although they offer nowhere near the headroom of a JD. I'm not looking to make this a permanent career (unless I happen to love it, so who knows), but instead gain another skill set and use it to leverage my position in the future.

So, this option is checking the right boxes for me so far. I've looked at many programs and have seen two that would be great options for me. Here is the problem - one program does not have ABA certification, but comes from a school that has a great name (Emory). The other school does have ABA certification, but it has nowhere near the reputation of the first. I see that only a fraction of the paralegal programs in this country actually carry ABA certification, so it makes me think that the Emory name might be worth more than the ABA certification of the other school which is nowhere near as well-known. Am I way off base here?

Plus, has anyone else considered taking the same path I'm proposing? I would love to hear some real-world experiences. If I can manage to land a paralegal job, it would allow me to make decent money while saving for (or at least offsetting the cost/loan debt of) a Masters or a JD. It seems to make sense to me.

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It seems pretty clear you're making all the right noises here.

Paralegals do all right for themselves, especially if they can foster good relationships with the attorneys they support, and it's one of the best ways to understand the reality of legal practice. The knock-on benefits of working for a few years will surprise you, too.

In terms of the substance of your question: I'm an attorney, not a paralegal, but I have some reactions. Your four-year degree will put you ahead of the pack and you should choose a school that requires one if only because those programs tend to be a tad shorter and assume some basic writing and research skills (so you'll be repeating less).

I've never heard that ABA approval matters to being hired. That said, research research research the schools and placement records. Find the email addresses of a few law firms of the size you might like to work for one day (at a biglaw firm, the HR departments have recruiters, and that's where you want to look) and ask which school they prefer. And what else they look for. Talk to reps from both schools and see what they think the strengths of the program are. Etc.

EDIT: One of the advantages you have in your attitude is that you are clearly aware that the purpose of this education is to get a job. If you end up in one of these programs, don't lose sight of that. Keep pestering career services and (within reason) law firms about what types of experience you need. Network. Network. Network.

The job market sucks for everyone right now and while the path you've laid out seems well-considered, it still does not guarantee that you will avoid stagnation. Set yourself apart. Sometimes that means more than succeeding inside the box of your program. Meeting potential employers outside the HR mill is a great way to start that process.

Edited by GopherGrad
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