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A Career in Law Without a Degree

by Monica Smith

Oct 18, 2019, 9:00 AM.

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FIU offers a paralegal certificate program with distinction.

Demand for paralegals is high. Faced with the challenge of being in the office and at court, growing a client list or becoming bogged down with daily functions, lawyers have increasingly added paralegals for support at law firms. In response to this great demand, Florida International University’s College of Law’s Legal Studies Institute (LSI) offers a 12-month paralegal certificate that provides real, hands-on instruction with the use of LexisNexis, the actual platform used for online legal research, to get learners employed faster in the working world. 

“It’s a very high-quality educational program,” asserted LSI Adjunct Professor Mercedes Prieto who mentioned that the program is offered both as an on-campus program or 100% online. She explained that the instructors for the program include two judges and several working, top-in-their-field lawyers. Prieto herself is an award-winning instructor having received an American Association of Paralegal Education (AAfPE) national teaching award several years ago. She’s not surprised by the demand for paralegals. Prieto sees how quickly her students become employed when they receive their certificates. Her students are trained to make the transition seamlessly from classroom to law office, but many students are already working in the field.

The Next Step

For Dylan Casanova, it was the next step. He works as a title assistant at a Miami law firm and wanted to do more with his career. A friend who completed the program face to face told him about the FIU LSI Paralegal Certificate program.

“While looking into it, I decided I would feel more comfortable doing it online in the comfort of my own home,” said Casanova. “I would study almost every night of the week and do my assignments and tests by the due date. However, balancing family time, the gym and a full-time job—it could get a bit difficult at times. But if you manage yourself and your time correctly, you get the hang of it really quick.”

Like Casanova, Maria Midence wanted to move up in her career, too. Already working as a legal and administrative assistant at an immigration law firm, she wanted to broaden her horizons and skills in the legal field.

“I would absolutely recommend the online program. It was easy to follow, and flexible. The professors were also very communicative and answered emails promptly if we had questions,” she said and added that she liked the weekly chats the most.

About the Program

Prieto pointed out that many of the students who enroll in the certificate program are working adults and that the curriculum, although rigorous, is designed to avoid career interruption. Class size is also about 30-35 students online and 20-22 students on campus. About half of the students who pursue the paralegal certificate use the year-long program as a precursor to law school, but the program is open to anyone who has a high school diploma or equivalent, she noted. 

The LSI Paralegal Certificate program is unique because of the LSI’s longevity. The college has provided comprehensive professional development programs for more than three decades. The program’s curriculum is based on standards from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and AAPE.

International Students

Many of Prieto’s students are international, just like the range of students who attend degree programs at FIU. Because of the international nature of Miami, which sits at the “gateway” to Latin America and the Caribbean, 70% of the students in the program are lawyers from other countries, explained Prieto.

Rafaela Gomez, an attorney from Venezuela, is using her paralegal studies program to brush up on the jurisdictional system in the U.S. She never thought she’d leave her country, but her husband worked for the opposite government in power and was being persecuted. He received death threats, so they decided to come to Miami, but would have to start all over.

“We took our luggage and left. I was very depressed,” said Gomez who doesn’t have any family in the U.S. The couple had to find jobs and income in a country so different than their own. Gomez found a position as a legal assistant but needed a primer to help her understand U.S. law and procedures. After doing considerable research, she settled on FIU’s LSI Paralegal Certificate program and is using it as a stepping stone to help her in her current position and to prepare for law school.

“I was blessed to find this opportunity. I learned a lot of things and could put theory into practice. It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she explained and described how she finally felt renewed hope after the tumultuous time she and her husband experienced in Venezuela.

Documented Growth

The paralegal profession has experienced explosive growth in the last five years and is predicted to continue growing at a rapid pace, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For the next decade, the BLS anticipates that the profession will grow 12%, which is much faster than the 5% average growth across all jobs. But it’s not just lawyers who are employing paralegals. Many industries and companies such as the finance, insurance and healthcare industries, as well as consulting firms are hiring paralegals to bring their skills in-house for day-to-day support instead of outsourcing projects. 

Adding fuel to the growth—everything is online. From court documents and records to legal proceedings, all reports have a digital footprint that our nation’s 1.3 million lawyers need to keep up with and use to do their jobs well. This is where the certificate program helps considerably as students learn the newest technology associated with the profession.

Theory into Practice

“It’s almost a practical course—the program is not just theory,” asserted Prieto who highlighted the vast range of employment possibilities for graduates such as in the private sector, with federal and local government offices, as well as within corporations. Prieto says her office aids in finding students internships as well as employment. 

“As professors, we’ve all taught together for more than 20+ years and we are enormously committed to our students’ success. We are there for them as a resource, as much as we can, and we are dedicated to helping them even after they graduate,” concluded Prieto.

The FIU LSI Paralegal Certificate program costs a total of $2,300 per trimester. The program is split into three trimesters. Each of the 12 courses takes about one month to complete. The program starts in the fall, spring and summer and financial aid is available.

“It was doable. I was working full-time, and it was very flexible. I really enjoyed the program, learned a lot, and the professors were incredible. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who would like to pursue a paralegal certificate,” confirmed Midence.

Bureau of Labor Statistics Quick Facts

  • The highest 10% of paralegals earn more than $82,050.
  • There are 325,700 paralegal jobs in the U.S.
  • By 2028, the number of jobs is predicted to be 364,800—an additional 39,100 jobs.
  • Top 5 states with the highest employment for paralegals:
1. California
2. Florida
3. New York
4. Texas
5. Illinois



For more information about the LSI Paralegal Certificate online program, visit

https://lsi.fiu.edu/online/

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