Does your attorney understand what you do? – An Encouraging Sequel

Melissa H. over at Paralegalese takes Time Out for a Moment of Encouragement starting with:

When I first decided to enter the paralegal career, I geared up to constantly be on the defensive. I just knew that many attorneys, especially young ones fresh out of law school, would look down on me and my lowly position on the legal totem pole. In a few instances, my assumption turned out to be correct. Fortunately, ignorance is usually the proponent of such attitudes, and ignorance is fairly easy to cure. I remember talking to one baby lawyer last year about my studying for the NALA certification exam, and how I excited I would be to be able to add “CP” or “CLA” to the end of my name. All of a sudden, an understanding came to his face, and he said, “So that’s what those letters mean! I thought our staff was just making it up!” I do not know whether he appreciates the staff members at his firm more because of my revelation, but I believe that conversation revealed to him that paralegals, while we usually have not spent three years in law school, take our jobs and roles very seriously.

Do not assume that your attorney really understands what a paralegal is. Here are just some of the reasons they may not understand:

  • Some attorneys do not understand the distinction between a legal secretary and a paralegal. In some small firms, especially a single attorney office, all the staff is used to doing about everything. There is no file clerk, so everyone just does the filing when they are using a file. While there are differences in the positions of the staff, there are no clear job descriptions. This blurring of lines in daily practice can cause confusion.
  • Often the problem goes deeper than that. There is substantial confusion in the legal system itself. The ABA and NALA may have agreed upon a common definition. You know this from school, but few attorneys know the definition much less understand it. In fact, while many attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants feel there is no difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant, others draw a rather unclear distinction. For them there is an hierarchy that runs some thing like this: receptionist, secretary, legal secretary, legal assistant, paralegal. Almost nobody has a clear idea of exactly where the lines are drawn between the various stages in the hierarchy. In areas where this distinction is made, generally the paralegal is more educated and/or more experienced than the legal assistant and is often paid more. Similarly, the paralegal is given more responsibility for substantive legal work while the legal assistant may have more clerical and/or secretarial duties.
  • Your attorney may be aware that paralegals are more than legal secretary and less than an associate attorney, but be quite vague as to where they fall between those two goal posts. As a result, the attorney may expect you to do work that is really attorney work and give you less guidance and supervision that you need and deserve. Or she may be unaware of just how much help you can be and give you tasks you feel underutilize your talent because she views you as a “fancy” legal secretary or “just” a legal assistant.
  • The ABA/NALA definition does not help such attorneys much. Unlike the attorney who must meet specific educational and licensing requirements, how a paralegal becomes a paralegal is a bit of a mystery to many both in and outside the profession. There was a time when a person could become an attorney just through experience by “apprenticing” to an established lawyer, or by studying and passing the bar exam, but those days are long gone. So it can be unclear to an attorney (and almost everyone else) just what qualifies a paralegal to be a paralegal.
  • The definition says “education, training, and/or work experience,” but how much of each is needed? Not long ago, there were no formal paralegal education programs. Most paralegals simply moved up the receptionist, secretary, legal secretary, legal assistant ladder by gaining more and more responsibility as a result of more and more experience which gave the attorney more and more confidence in their ability to handle that responsibility. At what point did they become paralegals – after five years? Ten? Fifteen? At what point did the responsibility level become that of a paralegal rather than that of a legal assistant? What is “substantive legal work?”
  • The present status of paralegal education is no less confusing to many attorneys. What is the difference, in terms of the work the paralegal can perform between a paralegal certificate, an associates degree in paralegal studies and a bachelors degree in paralegal studies? What does it mean to be certified? Is being certified the same as having a certificate? Who does the certification?

When I am asked to give advice to attorney on training their paralegals I soon discover that it is the attorneys that need to be trained! They are perfectly competent, sometimes extremely competent, attorneys, but know little about the capabilities of their own staff.  (Excerpted from The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient and Professional)

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