Lessons Learned

I chose to return to school at the age of thirty-eight. I had been working on the floor for a large manufacturing company when lay-offs began there in late 2008 and I took a small buyout in early 2009 to avoid what was more than likely the ax next.

My wife and I thought that returning to school would be advantageous. I settled on the paralegal program at Lakeland Community College in northeastern Ohio. Paralegals are professionals who do many of the research and other tasks that lawyers have done in the past, reducing firms’ costs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the paralegal industry was projected to grow by 17 percent between the years 2012-2022—faster than the national average. The paralegal program would take only two years and looked like a good way to change careers without breaking my back.

It sounded very appealing to hear the head of the paralegal program state that with our education, we would be fully competent and capable for a job in the field. She and the professors continuously promoted the paralegal industry’s growth and used the BLS statistics to reinforce this notion.

What they failed to mention was that in the current job market, experienced paralegals, young attorneys, and people still in law school were knocking newly graduated paralegals out of the hiring process. In some of the job postings I have seen, paralegal positions are advertised to recent law school graduates or even students still in law school.

The paralegal program for students who began without any previous degree required a total of 66 credit hours, 33 of which were exclusive to the paralegal field.  (If a person already had a degree, he could just take the paralegal courses for a certificate; I received my associate’s degree in paralegal studies in August 2013.) Other classes the program required included Introduction to Business, English Composition I and II, Effective Speaking, U.S. Government, Logic or Algebra, at least one arts and humanities elective, and at least one social and behavioral science elective.

One thing that surprised me was that the theory of evolution was taught in many of my classes, with the exception of the legal courses. I am not debating the theory here, but I was taken off guard when it was taught in music appreciation, art appreciation and Western civilization.

The obsession with evolution was most evident in my Western civilization class.

First, it was supposed to be on Western civilization, not the origins of man. Second, the professor obstinately decried every Jewish and Christian viewpoint. On the first day of classes she belligerently presented a picture of the Earth with no Eden, no Moses or the parting of the Red Sea, and certainly no intelligent design or, as far as I could tell, even the existence of God. Anyone who held these fantastic ideas in their head was foolish, and it was time to see the light. Why didn’t she declare the House of David untrue, too?

Often I wanted to argue with her, but did not speak up for fear of some sort of retaliation.

Additionally, my English Composition II professor was more concerned with political science and voicing her disapproval of George W. Bush than actually teaching English. Apparently, we (the students) were already expert on English composition and MLA citation. By this time, I was seasoned enough to feel that I could speak up, and did so. She did not take kindly to my desire that she stick to English composition instead of her own political opinions.

Although my paralegal professors mostly focused on their subjects and left their opinions out, I did have one who often scoffed at what she considered frivolous lawsuits, particularly those based on rights of religious beliefs and practices.

Surprisingly perhaps, one of the most open-minded and least dogmatic professors was my anthropology professor. He was a professor emeritus (and he looked the part with gray wavy hair, a full beard, and mustache) from one of the nearby universities. Though I did not agree with everything that he said, he was approachable and kind. A good number of students did not appreciate his style of teaching or his calm and unbiased anecdotes.  

Perhaps they wanted to be told inflexibly what to believe. He was oftentimes slow and seemingly careful in his lectures. Perhaps he was trying to be as inoffensive as possible. Perhaps he was just trying to be thorough. One particular example of his tolerant nature was when I used some anthropological evidence he had himself presented to refute evolution. He coolly offered an alternative hypothesis. And he seemingly did not hold my position against me. I do not feel I could have ever gotten that type of calm response from my Western Civilization professor.

The paralegal courses covered half of the required classes. They included two semesters of research and writing, which is important in the legal industry, and also a broad array of other legal subjects such as family law, business, probate, real estate, and criminal law. These courses were well taught and informative; I didn’t miss the political overtones so prevalent in my other courses one bit.

Among the requirements of the program was to take a one-hundred-hour internship in a legal setting. The kicker was that the college did not provide the internships for the students. We were encouraged to market ourselves to local offices and courts. Many of us had a difficult time getting an internship on our own.

I do not know how many of my classmates actually got a job in paralegal work. So far, after about eight months of job-hunting in the Triangle area, I have not.

Nevertheless, I value the education that I did get. I was not much of a writer before Lakeland Community College, but thanks to my legal research and writing courses, I have gained a moderate ability to write. The required computer classes were also very beneficial.

However, as noted above, some of my teachers did not encourage anything remotely like critical thinking or reasoning. They taught the opposite, in effect telling the students, “Believe what I believe or be an ignorant fool.” They didn’t teach me anything more than I would have learned in an apprenticeship or as an entry-level employee without the degree and debt.

The importance placed on college credentials, especially bachelor’s degrees, has gotten so overstated that a few years from now an employee may be required to have a two-year degree just to work at a fast-food place, tend bar, or wait tables. The labor market is so saturated with college grads that getting a qualified job is difficult.

I have friends who either went to a technical school while still in high school, or worked in their respective fields for some years out of high school, then started their own businesses. Every one of them makes a good living, and some are millionaires. They had direction, perseverance, and drive early on. Those qualities matter far more than having taken a lot of college courses.

Hindsight is 20/20, and a person never knows what will happen next, but as of now, I have a degree that has only cost money, not made any. I didn’t spend only money, I spent time, lots of it. Was it lost and in vain? If so, that could have been the most costly element of my decision.

I encourage the parents of children, and teens themselves looking to the future not to be ensnared with the idea that college is necessarily the way to a prosperous future.