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Need paralegal training? Look elsewhere, says professional association

Photo by Patrick Sweeney

Kim Schwisow, a paralegal at AMRESCO Commercial Finance LLC, is vice president of education on the board of the Idaho Association of Paralegals. Schwisow is one of many people working to get Idaho an ABA-approved paralegal training program. Right now, the state doesn’t have one. Photo by Patrick Sweeney

The board of the Idaho Association of Paralegals never recommends any of the state’s training programs to those who want to enter the trade. When callers ask which schools to attend for a paralegal course, board members advise looking online or leaving Idaho.

“I get that question a lot,” said Kim Schwisow, a paralegal at AMRESCO Commercial Finance LLC who is vice president of education on the paralegal association board. “I have no answer for them. There is definitely nothing local I can refer them to.”

Idaho has an array of paralegal training programs, including Idaho State University’s program in Pocatello, which is well-regarded by the Idaho Association of Paralegals and which meets the criteria and guidelines for an American Bar Association-approved program. There are also some paralegal programs at local for-profit colleges, such as Brown Mackie. But none have American Bar Association approval. The state – and the Treasure Valley – need a program with that approval, say association board members.

“You don’t need the ABA stamp of approval, but to have the ABA stamp of approval gives your program better credibility when your graduates are out looking for jobs,” said Joanne Kimey, a paralegal at Holland & Hart.

Idaho’s not the only state without an ABA-approved paralegal program. Maine, North Dakota and Vermont don’t have them either, according to the ABA website. One problem is that it’s expensive to gain ABA accreditation, and to undergo regular re-accreditation. Another is that the ABA requires paralegal programs to have access to a law library.

California, the only state that licenses paralegals, requires them to have graduated from an ABA-approved program or be grandfathered into licensure through education and experience.

Until 2010, Boise State University had an accredited program. But when it was time to renew that accreditation, the recession was underway, the university was looking for places to save money, and officials opted not to undertake the expensive process of the approval, said state paralegal association board members who had worked with the program. (The program’s director didn’t return calls.) Northwest Nazarene University discontinued its paralegal program altogether in 2012, said NNU spokeswoman Hollie Lindner.

Kimey said the Paralegal Association is working on getting the ISU program, now offered only in Pocatello, to expand into the Treasure Valley. That’s a goal shared by Mary Shea Huneycutt, a lawyer who runs ISU’s paralegal education program.

“That would be easier, as opposed to knocking on the door at BSU again, or starting from scratch at College of Western Idaho,” Kimey said. “It’s hard to get one of these programs started.”

The work that paralegals do is not so closely defined that certification from an ABA-approved program is essential to finding a job, at least in Boise.

“I didn’t even know there were approved and non-approved programs, to tell you the truth,” said Lynn McConnell, the human resources manager at Idaho’s largest law firm, Hawley Troxell. “If somebody has a certificate, that’s OK with us.”

Huneycutt agreed.

“The ABA approval raises our profile nationally, it elevates our graduates and makes them more eligible for placement nationwide,” said Huneycutt, who added that the high cost of earning ABA approval had deterred ISU from seeking it for her program. “But locally most of the attorneys and law firms who are hiring out of our programs don’t seem to know what that is or care very much.”

“ISU’s program is modeled after the ABA program, they just haven’t gotten approval yet,” Schwisow said. “Is that program really any different?”

But Schwisow, the vice president of education on the paralegal association board, is also working with the association to get Idaho an ABA-approved program. She said the association has a scholarship fund and nowhere to disburse it. While Brown Mackie seems to have a good program, Schwisow said, the association is concerned about the program’s high cost. ISU’s program is too far away from Boise.

“We have not found a program that we’re willing to support, yet,” she said. The association has seen few new student members in recent years.

“We’ve had quite a few people from out of state move in who are qualified paralegals,” Schwisow said. “I think that has helped fill the hole. But at some point we’ll get to a point where there is a shortage, and employers can’t find someone, and then they might say, ‘OK, we have a problem here.’”


About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.