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[whitespace] Paralegal Emigrants

Santa Clara--Due to declining enrollment, Santa Clara University's law school announced it will shutter its' Institute for Paralegal Studies in 1999. But it's all a cruel joke for those that opt for law school instead: more and more law students end up doing paralegal work after graduating.

As enrollment dipped below 200, the law school, which operated the institute for 17 years, decided to close the program rather than subsidize it with tuition dollars paid by law students.

The program had long been a way station for more ambitious students to bide their time waiting for admission to the more prestigious law school.

"We had a lot of applicants applying for both programs," confirms Susan Erwin, director of the Institute.

Others students had been siphoned off by less expensive programs, like the paralegal certificate program at Cal State Hayward.

But as enrollment numbers fell over the last four years it became clear that most Santa Clara students interested in the legal profession considered paralegal work to be beneath them.

This attitude is exacerbated by the wide gamut of job descriptions that await paralegals when they begin work in the industry.

"I think there are some attorneys that see paralegals as glorified secretaries," Erwin says.

To stem the problem, Santa Clara tried to sweeten the pot by offering specializations beyond the regular paralegal certificate in different areas of the law such as litigation, intellectual property, corporate law, environmental law, and probate and estate planning. There had even been talk, between the law school and the paralegal program, of establishing a course for lawyers on the practical aspects of running a law firm, including how to use paralegals.

One problem, says Erwin, is attorneys want well-educated, experienced paralegals, but they often don't want to pay them or treat them professionally.

"Attorneys want them with a bachelor's degree, plus a certificate, plus specialization--then they don't want to pay them much, because they're beginning," Erwin says. "A lot were offering $20,000 to $25,000 per year. The promise was that somewhere down the line they could be making $35,000 or $40,000."

Santa Clara University Law School Dean Mack Player concurs that a paralegal's job description can vary widely depending on the law firm.

"They can be all the way from gofers and secretaries to doing almost legal work," he says.

When enrollment dipped below 200, Player explains, he couldn't justify keeping the program running at the expense of Santa Clara law students. Educating law and paralegal students, he says, is a lot like "a company that makes bicycles trying to make ice-cream cones."

Yet as the shortage of experienced paralegals in the profession increases, perhaps a few of the future lawyers wouldn't mind pitching in for a few more ice-cream cones. When young lawyers go to work at a firm, it is they who are often saddled with the research, forms ad nauseum, and filing when there is no paralegal to do the work.

"A young lawyer might do that for the first three or four months," Player says, "but unlike the paralegal, that would not be their career."
Michael Learmonth

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