The University’s paralegal studies program became the first in the District to receive approval from the American Bar Association earlier this month.
The paralegal studies program housed under the College of Professional Studies received the approval from the ABA after a year and a half process, joining 260 paralegal education programs nationwide with the designation. Faculty within the program said the stamp of approval from the ABA confirms the quality of the existing program to current and prospective students and makes its graduates more likely to be hired by employers in the field.
Toni Marsh, the director of the paralegal studies program, said the program’s primary purpose is to prepare its graduates to work in the paralegal field with a set of skills that are in “high demand,” like drafting a brief and performing legal research. She said the ABA, which also accredits law schools, began approving paralegal education programs nationwide in the 1970s to ensure they are properly fit and designed to prepare students to enter the legal profession and law firms.
“The ABA has always strongly supported the paralegal profession,” Marsh said. “They’ve always recognized that paralegals are essential to the efficient running of the legal profession and that law firms, law offices run better when they properly utilize paralegals.”
The GW paralegal studies program currently offers a master’s degree in paralegal studies and a graduate certificate in the field, according to its website. Students may study either program entirely online or in person at the Foggy Bottom campus or the Graduate Education Center at Alexandria for both offerings.
Marsh said receiving ABA approval involved “extensive” work and the process first required a written report to the ABA’s committees for approval, detailing the entire program’s components like library resources, faculty composition and overall diversity, equity and inclusion. She said ABA officials examined whether the program’s library had paralegal-specific resources, requested every faculty member’s CVs and demographic data of faculty and students.
She said ABA officials attended online classes as part of its virtual site visits and spoke with the program’s students, faculty, alumni and other officials, like Melissa Feurer, the interim CPS dean and University President Thomas LeBlanc as part of its review process.
“Essentially, they’re coming in, and they’re examining every element of your program – faculty, advisory board, alumni, current students, facilities and overall university support to see that our students are being properly prepared,” she said.
Marsh said the final stage of the approval process came in early August when the ABA House of Delegates voted on the program’s certification after reviewing its committees’ reports.
She said GW’s paralegal studies program, which began in 2007, never sought ABA approval until last March because the organization would not approve programs with online elements, like GW’s, until they changed their rules last January. She said ABA’s approval further promotes the program to students and employers since members of the legal profession know the ABA and the weight behind their approval.
“It’s always good to have a body of experts or an expert that can look over what you’re doing, no matter how long you’ve been doing something and no matter how good you are at it,” she said.
“You can always use an outside person to come in and look at what you’re doing.”
Lisa Leibow, a professorial lecturer of paralegal studies, said GW already has a strong paralegal studies program and the ABA approval now only further affirms the program’s offerings. She said employers will now instantly recognize the program for having met the necessary requirements for national approval.
“Undergoing the strict scrutiny of the American Bar Association accreditation process allowed us to sort of receive official word or independent confirmation of our excellence, and it also will allow our students, faculty and alumni the benefit of a program that has met that strict criteria,” she said.
Dominique Williams, an adjunct professor in the paralegal studies program, said she completed the program’s master’s degree online, which became an “avenue” to start her career in a field that is limited in degree offerings for paralegals.
She said the ABA approval is prestigious and a significant milestone because the designation provides students a better understanding of the quality of GW’s program. She said the ABA sets a standard across the country and ensures that students are receiving the necessary education and training within a program to succeed in the paralegal profession.
“It was pretty rigorous, and I know they did a very thorough job, so I think I got a really clear understanding of what the accreditation means and why people want to get it,” she said. “I’m excited and I think going through the process is as hard as it could be with everybody pulled in as a team and because of it, we were rewarded.”