Thanks to new guidelines from the American Bar Association (ABA), the Paralegal program at Enterprise State Community College will remain an online program permanently.
When ESCC closed its campuses in March 2020, classes for the Paralegal program, like others, were adapted to an online format that followed virtual class requirements set by the ABA in response to the pandemic.
According to Paralegal Program Coordinator and Instructor Lydia Dillingham, students in the program “adapted extremely well” to the virtual environment.
“While the students may have initially missed the personal interaction of the classroom, they nevertheless adapted extremely well,” she said. “Faculty had to think outside the box, using technology to find innovative ways to teach and connect with our students, which has hopefully helped them to embrace the online environment.”
Recently, the ABA announced new guideline updates that include changes to the format of classes offered virtually. In a fully online program, students must be required to take at least nine-semester credits of legal courses through synchronous instruction.
“Before the pandemic, the ABA restricted programs from offering all of their legal courses in an online format,” Dillingham said. “A certain percentage could be online but not all of them. These restrictions have now been lifted, and institutions can now offer all courses through digital online delivery as long as three legally substantive courses [nine credit hours] are taught through what is called asynchronous format.
“Synchronous online learning is an instruction that includes real-time faculty-to-student and student-to-student interaction, which is about as close to face-to-face as you can get via distance learning.”
According to Dillingham, the ABA is the premier accreditation for paralegal programs nationwide. ESCC’s Paralegal program, which began in 1995, received accreditation from the ABA in 2017 after a three-year approval process.
“There is no higher accrediting body for an institution that offers a paralegal program than the American Bar Association,” she said. “The ABA is the same association that approves law schools for accreditation, so lawyers understand the scrutiny that schools must go through to receive this approval. JAG and governmental jobs in the legal field typically require a degree from an ABA-approved institution, and many law firms prefer one.”
ESCC is one of three Alabama community colleges that offer an ABA-accredited Paralegal program. Four Alabama universities also offer accredited programs.
Classes in the Paralegal program focus on a range of topics and essential skills, including various law specialties, legal theory, legal research and the procedural aspects of the law.
“It’s crucial that students understand the procedural rules of court regarding civil and criminal litigation,” Dillingham said. “Because they are allowed to assist in writing briefs, motions and other legally substantive documents, it’s important that our graduates also understand the law and legal theory as well. It’s also critical that they understand how to conduct electronic legal research.”
Students also complete general studies courses and an internship as part of the program.
According to Dillingham, the College’s Paralegal program has seen increased enrollment while classes have been offered virtually. Business and Computer Science Division Chair Jennifer Nelson credited the success of the program to Dillingham’s leadership.
“Mrs. Dillingham has always had a vision and unrelenting passion to provide a superior educational experience for the PRL program,” Nelson said. “She generates inspiration and motivation and leads her students to succeed and reach beyond their potential.”
The transition to a permanently online program, Dillingham said, could allow the College to reach more students interested in working in the legal field.
“Currently we are the only institution in southern Alabama that offers an ABA-accredited paralegal program,” she said. “The online program will not only benefit the college but will also open opportunities for potential students who would not have been able to commute to classes on campus.”
Learn more about ESCC’s Paralegal program at escc.edu/paralegal. The program offers students two tracks of study: a paralegal certificate and an associate degree. Both tracks will be offered fully online.
Paralegal program: Paralegal Program Coordinator and Instructor Lydia Dillingham, right, discusses careers as a paralegal while Paralegal student Chiquita Johnson takes notes.