By Bridget Lowrie, J.D., Assistant Professor & Program Coordinator
Criminal Justice and Paralegal Studies, Chesapeake College
The costs are daunting and for many students who wish to pursue a legal education, the options are few . . . or so they seem.
The American Bar Association studied annual law school expenses between 1985 and 2012 (the most current statistics available). Average law school tuition and fees in 2012 were $23,214 for in-state residents at public schools, $36,202 for out-of-state tuition and $40,634 at private schools. Annual increases, on average, ranged from four to 15 percent, so the current numbers are significantly higher.
Ensuing debt after graduation averaged $84,000 in 2012 for public school graduates and $122,000 for private institutions according to the study. Add in undergraduate loans and include several thousand dollars for bar exam review classes, and the total academic debt could rise to $175,000 or more.
It’s one of the many reasons I’m so passionate about the opportunities and savings afforded my legal studies students at Chesapeake College and the 15 other community colleges throughout our state.
As a professor at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills, I’m not only passionate about the law but an even stronger advocate of launching legal careers through a community college education.
While many college freshmen find themselves in lecture halls with hundreds of students, classes at Chesapeake are quite small – typically a dozen students. My door is open and students can schedule time to review their studies and work one-on-one with me on research papers and other projects.
For many, community college starts out as being “close to home” and convenient, but most who stick with it become highly motivated. They often juggle school with full and part-time jobs and come from all walks of life: high school graduates, single moms, veterans, teachers and public safety officers among them.
Many students come to me curious about the law but unsure if it’s the right career choice. More than half are looking to begin a second career and many are in their 30s and 40s. I encourage them to take a few courses and test their interest.
The subject matter of the paralegal classes at Chesapeake are similar to 100 or 200-level law school classes. You review cases, conduct legal research and discuss decisions.
We also offer an extensive internship program and paralegal students are required to work 100 hours over a semester at a law firm or non-profit legal organization. There they have an opportunity to conduct research and draft legal correspondence.
I can’t think of a better way to study and experience the law without taking on significant tuition debt. For about $10,000 you can earn a two-year degree at Chesapeake, a fraction of what you would spend at a four-year institution. Often scholarship money is available, that can help offset costs even more. And most of my students continue to hold full and part-time jobs while they study.
Some graduate and transfer to four-year institutions and attend law school; others go on to work in related fields; and many complete their two years, receive an Associate of Applied Science degree and immediately begin careers as paralegals. They go on to work in Annapolis, Baltimore, the Eastern Shore and throughout the region in private firms, district and circuit court, corporations and non-profit organizations.
All are greatly enriched and financially ahead thanks to the opportunities and savings they been afforded by a community college education.
Bridget Lowrie, J.D., is an assistant professor and Program Coordinator of Criminal Justice and Paralegal Studies at Chesapeake College.