Davenport paralegal program works


 by Cynthia Price

Legal News
Davenport University’s ABA-approved paralegal program stands to benefit the West Michigan community in a number of ways:
graduates can gain meaningful employment, attorneys can obtain well-trained legal assistance, and clients may be able to receive some lower-cost services.
In fact, all of that is already happening, and  has been since 1992.
The difference is that in 2005 the paralegal program moved from the downtown Fulton St. campus to new state-of-the-art, LEED-certified buildings on Kraft Avenue near 60th Street.
The paralegal field is rapidly growing, and — as is true at many colleges in an economic downturn — enrollment is up, according to Barbara Craft, Department Coordinator for Legal Studies and head of the paralegal program.
Part of the Donald W. Maine School of Business, the paralegal education curriculum is rigorous, practical, and flexible.
In paralegal studies, students may obtain an associate degree, a bachelor degree or a post-baccalaureate certification. The certification is intended for those who want to increase their employability skills in a new field or continue to advance if already employed in law. It is possible to complete that program in one year if taken intensively.
The 2009 Salary Guide for Compensation in the Legal Field, issued by Robert Half Legal, indicates that in the Grand Rapids legal field, employees make about 90% of the national average. Paralegals here make anywhere from about $24,000 for an entry-level position at a small firm, to about $75,000 for a senior/supervisory position at a large law firm, with most entering at about the $30,000-39,000 range. In the Robert Half guide, the senior level was designated as seven-plus years of experience.
Craft says she does not see most of the Davenport graduates moving directly into large law firm positions but rather moving up into them as they gain experience. Many take corporate or other related positions.
However, she sees no reason why many graduates could not start out higher on the pay scale. “I know that our graduates are better qualified to do many legal jobs than somebody with more narrow experience; the breadth of their knowledge is impressive. I truly believe that this degree is the equivalent of many years of experience.”
Davenport’s program is approved by the American Bar Association, and there are requirements which make it more difficult but result in increased skill levels. For example, each paralegal student must do an internship.
Through a partnership with Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the Davenport paralegal studies include clinic time, partnering with law students and attorneys. She and a Cooley instructor teach a joint class for paralegal and attorney students, who then work in the Access to Justice clinic.
Craft also says she currently sees many more individuals entering the paralegal program to get a sort of “pre-law” degree, and then going on to law school. Nearly 20 Davenport graduates are attending Thomas M. Cooley Law School, many of them on scholarships.
She hopes that more and more local attorneys will see the advantages of using paralegals’ services. The only tasks paralegals cannot do are enter into fee agreements, give legal advice or appear in court on behalf of the client. 
Though ultimately the attorney is responsible, paralegals are often so well-trained that a large bulk of remaining tasks can be delegated to them as a lawyer gets to know the paralegal’s capabilities.
As a practicing attorney herself, Craft relies on her paralegal in many cases, making her life easier and greatly benefiting her clients.
“In my way of thinking the best way to increase the value to your clients is to increase the use of paralegals,” Craft says.
Paralegals may conduct client interviews and narrow down client questions so that the attorney needs to spend less time answering. If a case requires extensive research, paralegals can handle that on the attorney’s behalf. Paralegals’ time may be billed at a lower hourly rate, allowing the attorney to be more competitive.
There are a number of ways to get a paralegal degree in West Michigan, but Craft stresses that the American Bar Association seal of approval on the Davenport program makes it stand out. “There are over 1000 paralegal programs in this country, and only 250 are approved by ABA.”
Other Davenport advantages are the very small class sizes, not more than 25 people, and the fact that classes are taught by an attorney who has practiced in the area being taught -- with one exception, and that is taught by a very experienced paralegal.
“The other thing I’d say,” Craft continues, “is we are driven to help people not just get an education, not just get a good position when they
graduate, but to make a
meaningful contribution to our society and to the legal community.”