Paralegal program opens doors to success

Valerie Rucker, paralegal supervisor for Citgo Petroleum Corp. and president of the Houston Metropolitan Paralegal Association, couldn't afford to give up her job when she wanted to move forward with her career.

"I didn't have to stop working when I enrolled in the paralegal program at Lone Star College- North Harris," said Rucker.  "Tuition was very affordable and the program is approved by the American Bar Association. The program was convenient for me to take. The classes being offered at night allowed me to continue my education...and through networking with my instructors and colleagues, new opportunities presented themselves."

Then, as now, the need for paralegals in Houston far out-paced the available paralegals in the area.  The demand, said Rucker, continues from law firms in Houston and those opening offices in the area as well as the ongoing need for talent by corporate legal departments and in the government sector, as well.

"The paralegal program at LSC-North Harris, over the past 21 years, has maintained an outstanding reputation," said Rucker. "People know if you've completed the program at LSC-North Harris, you've had good training and have received a good quality education."

Going on to earn her bachelor's degree, Rucker has since come full circle, serving as faculty from the program that equipped her to move up in her career and being able to share her own experiences and expertise with students who make up the next generation of paralegals.

Now a paralegal supervisor, Rucker said the specialized training helped her to grow and progress in her field.  "Its hard work," she admitted, "but it's very fulfilling and there are numerous parallel career paths-such as paralegal managers and trial consultants-that can be found here in Houston or anywhere in the world.

Marcy Delasandri, director of paralegal studies at Lone Star College-North Harris, said the well-established program offers two plans of study.  For students who have already earned an associate or bachelor's degree, a certificate program is available that requires two semesters (or nine months) of study.

The associate degree program requires two years of work.

"The Department of Labor has pegged the paralegal career as one of the top ten occupations through 2014," Delasandri said.  "We have a 95 percent employment rate of our students and the remaining five percent are, generally, people who have changed their minds about going to work.  I'll just say there are plenty of jobs out there.

Being approved by the American Bar Association is the pinnacle standard for paralegal programs and unlike many professional programs that are extremely costly, tuition and fees for the college's two-year paralegal program at North Harris run approximate $2,728.  The nine-month certificate program costs $1,584, which is almost $16,000 less than what proprietary schools charge.

"Without a doubt, we are best kept secret in paralegal education in this part of the world," Delasandri said, "and we offer on-line, evening courses, day courses and periodic Saturday courses, too."

There are a small number of community colleges that offer paralegal programs in Houston, but there are very few that are ABA approved.

"Our students go to work in law firms, corporations, government offices, non-profit organizations and some begin their own consulting firms," the director pointed out.

Rucker said the characteristics of someone who would be a "good fit" in the paralegal profession is someone who has initiative, who is proactive, who is organized and who enjoys working as a team...but also is capable of working on their own. "They must be able to think on their feet, be able to find out answers on their own and have good communication skills...those are very important," she added.

Aside from core courses, students in paralegal studies at North Harris take courses that include the introduction to paralegalism, legal research, interviewing and investigating, torts, legal ethics, rules of civil procedure, civil litigation, advanced legal research and writing.  "Our students take two electives (legal specialties) or one elective and a legal internship (we find the internship for them, according to their interests)," Delasandri explained.

Entry level salaries for paralegals in Houston range from $30,000 to $35,000.  A recent survey by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) found the average salary for paralegals across the country is $50,000.

"Paralegals are not legal secretaries," Delasandri said.  "A paralegal does everything an attorney does except give legal advice or argue before the bar. They interview witnesses and clients, research and prepare documents, but they don't do clerical work, as some people might think." 

In Texas, there is no state mandated licensure, but there is a voluntary certification by NALA that confers the CLA -- Certified Legal Assistant.  The Houston Metropolitan Paralegal Association has its own has certification and the State Bar of Texas Paralegal Division also offers a certification.

To enroll in the highly-respected paralegal program at Lone Star College-North Harris, students need only a high school graduate or GED.  "We are an open enrollment community college," Delasandri pointed out. 

For more information, call Marcy Delasandri at 281.618.5735  or e-mail marcy.delesandri@lonestar.edu.

Lone Star College-North Harris is located at 2700 W.W. Thorne Drive, one-half mile south of FM 1960 E, between Aldine-Westfield and Hardy Roads. For more information about the college, call 281.618.5400 or visit: NorthHarris.LoneStar.edu.

Lone Star College System consists of five colleges, including CyFair, Kingwood, Montgomery, North Harris, and Tomball, six centers and Lone Star College-University Center. It is the largest college system in the Houston area, and third largest community college district in Texas. To learn more, visit LoneStar.edu.

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