SMC launching program to train paralegals

Southwestern Michigan College

DOWAGIAC — People interested in becoming a paralegal can get training through a new program at Southwestern Michigan College. The program is set to start next fall.

Stacy Young, dean of the School of Business and Advanced Technology, and instructor Leon Letter presented information about the new paralegal program to the board at the board’s monthly meeting this week. Board members approved the program later in the meeting.

“This is perfect timing for us,” Young said as she noted that SMC already has two lawyers on its faculty.

Letter reported that the new program comes at a good time when there’s a bigger push across the country to allow paralegals do more in the legal profession. The average annual salary for paralegals is $45,000 to $55,000.

“Legal work is expensive and there’s a move to shift the work down,” he said. “There’s also a big need for legal assistance that a lot of people can’t afford. The idea is to have paralegals do a broader scope of work.”

He said the demand is as big or bigger in Michigan compared to the rest of the nation. “It’s the No. 6 growing field behind medical related fields,” he said. “People are predicting 14 to 15 percent growth.”

Letter said this is a good opportunity for SMC to step in and fill a need. “Most of the programs are in the Detroit area,” he said. “Grand Rapids has a program, but there is a huge hole on this side of the state.

“We have the faculty to do it, and there will be no significant increase in in costs for the college. We can do research online through Lexus, which will reduce costs, and we have an opportunity to get textbooks for $170 a year. You can’t find books that cheap. It will be revenue neutral for the college.”

He said the program is all ready to go for next fall and will offer two paralegal tracks. One will prepare students to transfer to a four-year paralegal or prelaw program, while the other will let students graduate in two years with the knowledge they need to be certified. He said the program itself can become accredited in four years.

He compared paralegals and lawyers in the legal field to physician assistants and doctors in the medical field. He said paralegals can do trusts, wills, deeds, bankruptcies and estates under the guidance of a lawyer. They can’t make a court appearance but can do preliminary legal work.

Young said she and Letter have already talked with faculty to get their input as well as the staff of the Lewis Cass Intermediate School District. “They think it would be a nice opportunity for the Early College Program,” she said.

SMC President David Mathews said the college is always looking for programs where they can grow. He said Young and her staff have already done the analysis about the value of the new program and had it approved by the college’s instructional committee before coming to the board.

In other news about academic programs, Mathews said the $9.6 million nursing building expansion on the Dowagiac campus is nearly done. The college should take occupancy in November and a public open house is set for Jan. 9.