An Interview with Tricia Ellis-Griggs
“If you are interested in studying to become a paralegal, you should consider it a career and not just a job.”
Tricia Ellis-Griggs is the lead paralegal instructor at Westwood College in Houston, Texas. She teaches a wide variety of courses including ethics, criminal justice, civil litigation, criminal law and probate law.
Tricia has a Master of Science in Criminal Justice and a Bachelor of Science in Political Science. She also holds a paralegal certificate and is a certified paralegal through the National Association of Legal Assistants. Tricia has taught paralegal courses for 6 years while continuing to work professionally in the field.
In your own words, what is paralegal studies?
A paralegal is the backbone of an attorney’s office. A paralegal supports an attorney like a nurse supports a doctor. They know everything about current cases and the strategies of current cases. Paralegals do almost everything that attorneys do except practice law and represent clients.
What classes do you teach in paralegal studies?
In my paralegal program, I teach classes on ethics, criminal justice, constitutional law, alternative dispute resolution, civil litigation, contract law, bankruptcy, criminal law and probate law. Students get a comprehensive education in the role of the paralegal, and learn skills like legal writing, research, document management, interviewing skills and billing.
How long have you been a professor of paralegal studies?
I have been teaching for about 6 years, and I have taught at Westwood College for over 2 years.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying paralegal studies,” what would your response be?
I would tell the student that is wonderful. But I would also ask the student if he or she likes to read, write and problem-solve, because paralegals must enjoy and excel in those areas to be successful. I would also explain to the student that paralegals have a lot of responsibility and must always have respect for the profession and the legal documents that they are responsible for.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a paralegal program have?
Students frequently have a difficult time learning to multi-task. For paralegals, every day is chaotic. An attorney will ask for 4 things done quickly, and then ask for 4 more things to be done immediately, before the first 4 things are done. And at the same time the phone is ringing and e-mails are flowing in. Paralegals must learn to rearrange their tasks and priorities constantly and juggle many things at once because attorneys depend on them to carry out many tasks.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a paralegal and what traits would hinder success?
Paralegals must have good communication skills. They must be able to communicate effectively with attorneys, clients, police and a variety of other people.
One trait that might hinder a paralegal’s success is being overly sensitive. Attorneys can be stressed and sometimes even rude, but a paralegal can’t take it personally.
What courses in paralegal studies are most important for a student to take?
A few important courses for a paralegal to take are those that teach criminal law, family law, litigation and contract. Basic courses in law will give a paralegal a firm foundation to move onto more specialized courses.
Outside of paralegal studies what courses would you recommend to a student?
A student should take courses on writing and in-depth research. A paralegal in any specialty must have the ability to research effectively and write competently.
I would also recommend that a student take courses in English, math, psychology and human relations, because paralegals draw on knowledge from all of these fields.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying paralegal studies?
While studying to become a paralegal, students will improve their overall thinking and reasoning skills. They will also learn writing, research, communication and interpersonal skills.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a paralegal student succeed?
The best study tip I can offer is to test yourself on the material. Ask yourself if you really comprehend the material, and review it if you don’t. Highlight anything that doesn’t make sense and ask your teacher. But don’t ignore information that you don’t understand.
I also recommend that you learn to collaborate. Working in a group with other students will allow you to bounce ideas off of each other, and you will learn more that way.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of paralegal studies?
Although it is possible to earn a bachelors degree in the paralegal field, I suggest that students get a 2-year certificate. The 2-year certificate program will teach a student the same skills as a bachelors degree program. However, some large prestigious law firms prefer to hire paralegals with bachelors degrees, so it depends on what kind of job the student eventually wants. But for the most part, paralegals with a certificate from a 2-year program can be just as successful as those with a bachelors degree.
No matter what educational track students decide to pursue, I strongly recommend getting national paralegal certification by taking an exam. It is not required in the law field, but highly valued by attorneys. Paralegals with certification have better job prospects and higher salaries than those without.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in paralegal studies?
The job outlook for paralegals overall is good. Attorneys always need a capable assistant and the field is growing. But the downside is that it is extremely difficult to break into the field. Many paralegals can’t find work after graduation because attorneys usually require experience and new paralegals can’t gain that experience if they are unable to find a job.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying paralegal at the graduate level?
There is no graduate level paralegal degree, but some paralegals go onto law school to become attorneys. If a student is considering law school, I would recommend he or she learns efficient research skills, and also develops diligence and confidence. Those are skills that will help a student succeed in law school, and in a career as an attorney.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying paralegal studies?
If you are interested in studying to become a paralegal, you should consider it a career and not just a job. Take it seriously and continue to learn and grow, both in your program and in your career. You will bring something unique to the field, and you will be an asset to the legal arena and to the attorney you work with. Always remember that.