By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun
"Law school," says Christine Ferreira-Nero with a chuckle, "is $100,000 away." But the law isn't, so Ferreira-Nero enrolled in the Court and Tribunal Agent diploma program at Humber College and will graduate in April.
It's a career change for the former school board trustee, who spent 1997-2003 representing Ward 5 (Trinity Spadina), and who sees plenty of opportunity opening up for paralegals, as court and tribunal agents are popularly known.
One of the reasons for Ferreira-Nero's optimism is legislation expected by the end of the year that will allow the Law Society of Upper Canada to regulate paralegals.
That will mean more jobs since it's likely law firms and the legal departments of corporations and government ministries, which hire perhaps nine out of every 10 new graduates, will be more inclined to use paralegals rather than expensive lawyers on matters the Law Society says they are qualified for.
At the moment anyone in Ontario can hang out a shingle with "Paralegal" written on it, irrespective of training or experience.
Humber is just one of many colleges, public and private, in the GTA that provide paralegal training. Stephanie Ball, co-ordinator of the program at Durham College in Oshawa, says it accepts 40
students a year every September, with three women enrolled for every man.
That's the same ratio at Seneca College, says Linda Pasternak, professor and legal programs co-ordinator, and identical to Sheridan College's 75% women and 25% enrolment, adds Patricia Knight, co-ordinator at the Oakville school's Brampton campus where the program is taught.
Legislation regulating paralegals is expected this year.
The Court and Tribunal Agent programs at public colleges in the GTA last two years with some students eligible for accelerated placement.
Most paralegals work for law firms, corporate legal departments and government ministries rather than working as independent operators.
Applicants need a high school diploma or mature student status.
Job prospects for paralegals are good but salaries for beginners are only modest to fair.
Class composition, whether at Humber, Seneca, Durham or Sheridan, is broadly similar.
Tracy Ryder, professor and program co-ordinator at Humber, says her youngest students are fresh out of high school and about one-third are mature students with post-secondary education.
Pasternak, who's a career changer herself -- she was a teacher before she went to law school -- says her students range from 18-year olds to 65-year-old seniors.
High school students need a graduation diploma and Grade 12 English. The situation is different for mature students as each college's requirements vary.
Enrolment numbers vary too, with some paralegal programs maintaining wait lists and others expanding to accommodate student demand. Tuition at all schools is about $2,200 a year.
Durham has one intake in September, with Humber and Sheridan offering enrolment in the fall and again in January and the chance of entering an accelerated program if the applicant has been granted enough prior learning credits.
Seneca has one intake in the fall but students with a degree or a diploma can graduate in one year working straight through from September to August.
"Good (paralegal) students have strong literary skills," Pasternak says. "They like to read and they like to write."
They also need to be inquisitive and think on their feet, she adds, and a little entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to argue their corner should be part of their toolkit.
What paralegals don't have to worry about are certain areas of the law. They can't practice as immigration consultants without certification, for example, and they're not trained for criminal law. What they can do includes analyzing legal cases, interviewing clients, conferring with and preparing witnesses, and contesting Highway Traffic Act offences.
None of that will make them rich. It's next to impossible to say how much a new paralegal can earn, but Ryder suggests a law firm would pay about $25,000 to $35,000 to start, and Ball says an across the board figure might be $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Paralegals who go the independent route may fare worse. Knight cautions it's a tough way to make a living.
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