Meet Joseph Spada: Controversial, Trendsetting Leader, Educator, and Paralegal Career Change Agent

SpadaJosephMeet a leader: Joseph Spada, Director of Paralegal Certificate Studies, Boston University. Joe plays a significant role in leading and teaching paralegals who are entering the field. If you think back on significant people who influenced your career path as you entered this field, who might that be? Over the years, hundreds and hundreds of paralegals can point to Joe as a definite contributor to the direction, attitude and success they had as they moved forward in this exciting field. Here's why:

Joe, tell us about your background. Let's start with your your education, always good for an educator!

I have a B.A. degree in English from Boston College and a J.D. from Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of America.

When did you join Boston University?

I first started at Boston University as a Lecturer of Law, in 1995.  I started teaching Legal Research and then added Legal Writing the second year.

Do you have a paralegal/attorney background?

I worked as an attorney for over 20 years, primarily in the public sector. I was an attorney for the federal judiciary, drafting decisions for federal judges.  I loved the research and writing aspect.  I also realized I was in a rather rare position in that I was not writing as an adversary. In other words, we have an adversarial system in the United States – plaintiffs legal team and defendant’s legal team.  Since I was working in the judiciary branch,  I was sifting through fact and law and just looking for what I could determine was the objective truth without the burden of representing a particular side or point of view.  So those were the great parts of the job, the down side for me:  there was a certain amount of isolation that became cumulative.  It was me, a law library and/or legal search engines and a computer.  There was very little interaction with other human beings, research and write, research and write.  A very solo job.  That was what first drew me to teach.  The ability to engage with others. I just wanted to connect in real time with other professionals and share my area of expertise.

What attracts you to the legal field?

I joke with my students on the solid analytical reasoning that went into my becoming an attorney.  “As an adult, I realized there are two things I avoid in life: confrontation and uncertainty. So I became a lawyer.”  Well, the irony is – law is both.  At the end of the day, it is a system designed around confrontation and really, nothing is ever “certain” in the law.  It is all varying degrees of gray: are the facts closer to this case or to another case is the statute to be interpreted broadly or narrowly, or even will that law be overturned.  Who thought there would be a federally constitutionally protected right for same sex couples to marry?  Now the U.S. has that right, that law, and it is settled … except it really probably isn’t.  There will be lots of challenges for religious exemption type tests and who knows with new and different members of the Supreme Court – laws could change – same with Roe v. Wade.  Nothing is certain and everything is gray and constantly changing.  However, I do think, amidst this chaos, there are guiding principles of logic and precedence to help us navigate.  That is what drew me to the law.  The underlying desire to organize and make sense of our system of governance and how that can help individuals fulfill our best potential.

What are some of the changes to the field in the last five years?

Probably the biggest change in the area of paralegal education is the emergence of online paralegal education whether it is for a certificate or continuing legal education, online options are exploding.  In the ten years since BU first offered an online option, I have seen a great progression in the capabilities of the software for online education.  Programs are interactive and can be both synchronous and asynchronous.  Today, BU’s program uses a variety of tools to bring the information to life.  Students interact with each other, the instructor, and the paralegal teaching assistants through discussion boards. Every module includes a live webinar which is also recorded for those who can not attend the “live” classroom.

In the paralegal field, the use of paralegals in general has greatly increased since the economic collapse of 2008.  I know that’s a little more than 5 years but I find that to be a real time marker in the paralegal profession.  Clients started really examining a law firms' billing and no longer paid the high billables of attorneys without question.  Clients were much less likely to question the lower billings of paralegals especially in areas where paralegals thrive.  Paralegals are now doing the work once done by first, second or third year legal associates.  Their work is just as reliable and their billables are more reasonable which clients appreciate, yet paralegals are still billing client hours which supervising attorneys appreciate.  So in general, much greater use of a paralegals skills in both law firms and in-house counsel positions.

What are the most significant changes experienced paralegals don’t seem to be paying attention to?

Everyone in the workforce, be it experienced paralegals or attorneys, doctors, accountants, firefighters or the police has to stay on top of emerging technologies.  When I was in law school, we went to this place to do legal research called “a library”.  Now, the majority of legal research is done online in Westlaw or Lexis or facts are searched for on Google.  At Boston University, we have an entire module called Legal Technologies.  We teach students about Cloud Computing, E-Discovery, CaseMap, Pacer, and Clio.  Our tuition includes a WestlawNext password, so they have time to learn this expensive software while a student and not on a client’s billable clock.  The experienced paralegal has to stay on top of all it all.  So emerging software is key. Tech-savvy paralegals will always have an advantage.

What’s hot? What’s not?

Hot = distance learning, technology, billable hours and paralegals.

Not Hot = libraries, and legal secretaries. Through the growth of computer technologies, laptops and smartphones and tablets – allows a lot of people to work from home and really lessens the traditional role of the legal secretary.  There is no typing anymore. Attorneys and paralegals are typing their own briefs and email has replaced the need for a letter to be typed.  And, legal secretaries can not bill for their time.

What significance does an ABA approved school play on getting a job?

This entire ABA or non-ABA debate can become quite politicized. I do not believe it is an issue in attorney’s offices and hiring circles.  The first job you are going to get in any field, paralegal or otherwise, will always be the hardest.  After that, where you went to school will matter less and conversely your work experience will matter more.  Not so long ago, the only way a paralegal could be called a paralegal was through work experience.  A certificate was not needed.

In 1995, when I first started as an instructor at Boston University, BU’s paralegal certificate program was modeled on the ABA paradigm.  It was a one and one-half to two year undergraduate program costing approximately twenty thousand dollars.  In 1997, I became aware of some new, very intensified and concise paralegal certificate educational programs offered by traditional non-profit four-year colleges and universities.  Boston University asked me to investigate and compare the advantages / disadvantages between the paradigmatic two-year ABA paralegal certificate model and the more intensified and concise model.  Boston University talked to hiring partners in law firms and in-house counsel in corporations as well as in the public service sector and our research indicated that hiring partners were not making a distinction between ABA and non-ABA approved programs. 

This is particularly true if the individual already has an undergraduate degree.  With an undergraduate degree (as a quick aside, we did see a preference for a Bachelor of Arts degree over an Associates degree and a distinction between nonprofit certificate programs such as Boston University’s and for-profit colleges).

What employers are considering are national reputation and rankings of the certificate granting institution.  In 2016, Boston University was ranked #39 in the U.S. News & World Report, and #42 in the Times Higher Education 2016-2017, #4 in the Best Online Colleges – (2016) and #47 Best Values in Colleges 2016 based on academic excellence and economic value – Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.  At that time, Boston University made a determination to convert our program to its’ present, intensive study, skill set oriented 14 week program.

In 2000, I transitioned the program to our present 14 week intensive study program.  I took out most of the legal theory taught, and focused on skill sets all paralegals need, i.e. attention to detail.  This is mostly in the legal research curriculum where students are provided hypotheticals, WestlawNext and asked to actually do research and find the most relevant law for their “client”.  In making this ‘best law’ determination, students need to consider: jurisdiction, primary source of law, real issues and what terms best identify it.  In more transactional subjects such as Real Estate and Business Law, students are provided hypotheticals and standard legal forms utilized by paralegals on a daily basis.  In Real Estate for example, we have students fill out an “Offer to Purchase”, a “P&S” or Purchase and Sale and  HUD statement, all forms utilized by working paralegals.

The employment pie is large enough to accommodate both types of certificate programs. I’m certainly not going to say there is anything wrong with the ABA module.  The ABA model makes more sense if you are an undergrad and looking for a major.  If you know you want to be a paralegal, yes, that would be a fine choice as an undergraduate but for all those liberal arts majors – from math to history to computer science, nursing – all of those majors – too many to list – I believe the ABA approach is too costly and time consuming and not warranted in the field.  Why – after four years of undergraduate study (and over a hundred thousand dollars of educational expense) two more years in school (and probably another twenty thousand dollars or more)? 

Even in those situations where an employer might prefer an ABA certificate program, potential students still have to weigh not only the significantly higher cost of these programs, but also the loss of time out of the workforce – at least a year if you are going full time.  That’s a year the student is not working, not earning any income. The non-ABA certificated candidate could pitch themselves as trained in paralegal studies and willing to work at less salary for a year under the guidance of an attorney with the possibility of a paralegal position in a year.  They may start working at a slightly less salary but they are working and not spending time/money in school and they are gaining experience.  The intensive non-ABA paralegal certificate is a baited hook that draws in potential employers because it evidences training and interest.   Potential students should be able to determine for themselves what is most appropriate for their respective time in their lives.

What are some of your responsibilities

Designing the curriculum and keeping it current is a major responsibility of mine.  I also hire and dismiss staff. I supervise 24 attorneys and 14 paralegals.

I teach two of our subjects: legal research and legal writing.  I was first drawn to Boston University for the classroom and student contact and that remains my first love.  Students bring such enthusiasm and even a certain innocence to the classroom.  All students are different and all are there for different reasons and backgrounds but there are some commonalitie and their desire to learn and conquer really does inspire me.

What significance, if any, does a CLA or CP play in getting a job?

I personally know (and have hired) two paralegals who have their CLA and/or CP.  Both successfully completed the Boston University Paralegal Certificate program.  Having those added monikers had no bearing on my hiring them.  I have hired over 18 paralegals as Director and those are the only two that chose to study for that accreditation.  Nothing wrong with the added accreditation.  I just don’t see it ever playing in an employment decision.  I know there are those that disagree. I specifically asked my two employees if they think it helped them.  Both thought it helped in understanding and gaining further expertise in specific area of the law but not in getting a job. 

One said not one of the employers she interviewed with even knew what the abbreviations were.  Which is not to say they can’t gain traction but I certainly don’t see that now. There is the CORE certification by the NFPA for entry level paralegals.  I hired a paralegal with a CORE certification.  It was not a factor in hiring her but I did ask if she thinks it is beneficial. She thinks it may have helped her get a little bit of an edge at her last job when she received a promotion but she wasn’t sure.  Of course, a little bit of an edge is better than no edge at all.

What happens to states that do not have mandatory CLE?  Do you believe in mandatory CLEs?

Nothing happens to the states that don’t have mandatory CLEs.  There is no national standard for attorneys having CLEs and CLEs for paralegals is even more amorphous.    I know some paralegal organizations are in favor of mandatory CLEs.  I believe both NALA and NFPA are advocates of state mandatory CLEs.  I will always encourage and support the continuation of education to ensure you are on top of your professional game.  I do not feel that has to be regulated by the state.  The free market system will impose the best standards.

While I don’t think CLE’s should be mandatory for paralegals on either a national or a state level, I encourage my students to take CLEs.  They are a wonderful way to gain areas of subject matter expertise and not only are you learning the actual course content, you are meeting people also in that specific area of law and that is a wonderful way to build and nurture your own professional (and perhaps even personal) network.  Classrooms (physical or virtual) are a great way to meet people who share your common interests.

Where is the field headed?

The legal field in the United States is vast.  The familiar metaphor, " a big ship turning slowly" comes to mind.  That being said, the high cost of law school, coupled with the declining employment prospects for attorneys, is in contrast to the lower cost of paralegal certificates and the higher prospects of paralegal employment which obviously bodes well for the paralegal field.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegal employment growth is at 8% over the next five years.  For lawyers, the employment growth rate is less.  It reduces down to 6% employment growth.  For legal secretaries, that employment growth rate goes down to 3%.  (published date: December 17, 2015)

There is an interesting movement regarding well, a type of “advanced” paralegal.  A position between a paralegal and an attorney that is called the Limited License Legal Technicians.  The motivation for this is the belief that legal services may be made more accessible to those with lower economic resources.  The rationale being, it will take less education costs and time to become a limited license legal technician than it would be for an attorney, so in limited areas legal technicians can provide legal services at lesser costs.  This is a state-by-state matter.  Some states will vote for it, and some will not. 

The state of Washington is the first state (and at the time of this writing – 2017 – the only State ) to offer trained and licensed Legal Technicians to assist people in family law matters.  These legal technician positions are not in direct competition with the average paralegal.  The common comparison is to the medical field and nursing.  The majority of nurses are RNs or LPNs but now nurses also have the option of going to more school and becoming Nurse Practitioners, and with that added education – in addition to their nursing degrees – they can with limited parameters – treat patients and prescribe some medications, like antibiotics but nurse practitioners can not prescribe for controlled substances. 

Attorneys will still employ paralegals.  The future may allow for some paralegals to seek more education and state or bar administered testing, to become limited licensed legal technicians and perhaps work independently in restricted legal areas.  Will the majority of states follow this module?  I don’t have a crystal ball.  Many attorneys are not anxious to open the field up to allow even in limited circumstances to anyone other than an attorney who passed that state’s bar to practice law.  Others feel that legal technicians may be a bridge between the lower economic class who has fewer resources as legal funding programs get slashed along with the availability of needed legal help.

This will be a very slow state-by-state process.  I do not see it hurting or even influencing the mutually beneficial, symbiotic partnership between paralegals and attorneys.

What skills do paralegals need today?

Paralegals need the same skills as every other professional working in the U.S (and with increasing globalization – the same skills as international professionals).  Primarily, we need to be self-motivated with an attention to detail. We need to demonstrate this in everything we do.  For example, you can tell a potential employer that you “are a very self-motivated worker with an excellent attention to detail.”  Job seekers think that is a wonderful thing to say in a cover letter or interview.  It is an empty, vacuous and conclusory statement.  Employers don’t want unsupported conclusions.  They don’t want them at work and nor in an interview.  So, how can a paralegal “evidence” or “support” the statement that they are in fact self-motivated and detail oriented?  One example is to write a complete, fully informed, LinkedIn profile.  If you tell me you are self-motivated and detail oriented and your LinkedIn profile is not 110%, then the evidence of that statement does not support your conclusion. 

Show a potential employer a fully articulated, thought out, robust LinkedIn profile, and they will come to the conclusion that you are in fact self-motivated and detail oriented.  Give them the evidence to form that conclusion.

What does global skills have to do with someone in mid-America?

I don’t think global skills are all that different from traditional good business practices.  There are many definitions of “global skills” but pretty much boil down to: cultural sensitivity, collaborative skills, getting comfortable with situations in which you are not traditionally comfortable and being able to work with various cultural norms to accomplish your own firm’s or employer’s goals.

Whether you are a paralegal in mid-America or mid-Manhattan in today’s world with today’s technology, you may be working remotely, virtually, Skyping with others across the country or even globe.

As an example, I am employed at Boston University. I have an office there.  I also work from my home.  At 8:00 pm eastern time, I have a Live Classroom where students can sign in and participate in their education from their own home computers.  I have students not only across the United States but across the globe.  A few years ago, I had an individual who found one of my hypotheticals offensive.  It was a hypothetical that very few U.S. students would even blink at.  This student happened to live in Indonesia.  It involved an unmarried cohabiting heterosexual couple.  If I want to expand BU’s reach and influence, if I want to honor and respect all my students, I have to be willing to examine cultural variances.  I excused her from that particular hypothetical (while also explaining that in the U.S. such cohabitation is not unusual). 

The lesson for me was to accept her cultural sensitivity, and emphasis the research skill set the hypothetical was enforcing with another hypothetical I wrote for her.  I found a way to respect her as a student and also advance the mission statement which is: “Boston University is an international, comprehensive, private research university, committed to educating students to be reflective, resourceful individuals ready to live, adapt, and lead in an interconnected World.”

What advice would you give to new paralegals?

To paraphrase:  I have three words of advice to new paralegals: network, network, network.

Networking does not have to be this difficult, burdensome or even oppressive albatross.  If you think networking is “tooooo hard”, change your mindset. The reality is, networking can be quite invigorating, enjoyable and affirming.

We can start networking  online. Here’s an assignment (come on – I’m a teacher.  I always have an assignment) … so, for every paralegal, or student, thinking of becoming a paralegal, go post on your Facebook page that you are excited about the paralegal field.  Make it an upbeat, joyful, optimistic post.  End your post with a question, “Do any of my Facebook friends know someone in the legal or paralegal field that I might have an exploratory conversation with?”  Or, if you are a working paralegal post something like, “I love working in my area of the law.  What do other paralegals love about their jobs?” Now that’s not hard.  Facebook has  a ‘group’ section.  Type in the group section “paralegal” . Even type your geographic area and the word “paralegal”. Join and participate in group discussions.  You will educate yourself issues in the field and make professional contacts at the same time.  Always make sure your posts are upbeat.

I recently went to a paralegal resume and networking conference sponsored by my local Massachusetts Paralegal Association.  One of the Placement Agents said:  “If you are not on LinkedIn, you are not looking for a job.” You have to have a detail oriented, robust LinkedIn page.  That’s not hard to do. It just takes commitment and time.  If you are not sure how to fill out a LinkedIn profile, Youtube is your friend.  There a 100s of Youtube videos showing how to best fill out a LinkedIn profile.  View several and cull what you think is the best information from each.

Mostly I would tell a new paralegal, everyone is a contact.  From the other parents at a PTA meeting, to people you meet at the dog park, the book club, soccer or football sidelines, church, synagogue, temple … I don’t care if it’s a pagan prayer circle – talk to people.  Share your enthusiasm for this field and don’t be afraid to ask if they know others you might be able to talk with.  You know your friends but you don’t always know the other friends in their lives and how your friends may be able to help you connect with other similar paralegal enthusiasts.  In a small world, you can become a big paralegal.

Chere B. Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing; CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute; President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP). She has written 10 books in the legal field including The Paralegal Career Guide (4th Ed.) and Where Do We Go From Here? Chere is a Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association (IPMA) (formerly the International Paralegal Management Association); a Lifetime Achievement Recipient of the Los Angeles Paralegal Association. She is a former Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms; an executive in a $5 billion corporation; an Inc. magazine Entrepreneur of the Year finalist; Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement Award Recipient; and has been written up in Newsweek; Los Angeles Times; Daily Journal; Above the Law and other publications. She can be reached on her free time Sundays 3:00 a.m. – 6:00 a.m. Talk to her at


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