When Lawyers and Paralegals Compete

I continue to watch the Ontario experiment in licensing paralegals with great interest.  It can put paralegals and lawyers as competitors rather than the legal team we have here in the U.S.  My hope is that we may yet find a middle ground where paralegals gain the maximum ability to aleviate the access to justice problem in the United States.

I previously posted on efforts of paralegals there to expand their role in family law. According to the Law Times that fight continues:

The fight between paralegals and family lawyers over the scope of paralegal practice looks set to go to another round at next year’s Law Society of Upper Canada annual general meeting.

In an open letter to paralegals, Marshall Yarmus, who tabled and later withdrew a motion to expand paralegal practice into family law at the law society’s annual meeting in May, said he’s not satisfied with the LSUC’s promise to study the issue and will therefore reintroduce his proposal next year…

He went on to suggest that paralegals have no power in the law society with only three benchers out of a total of 40 at Convocation. Even on the LSUC’s paralegal standing committee, he noted his colleagues are in a minority.

“What is the purpose of having a paralegal chair of the committee if she cannot even set the agenda for the meetings?” Yarmus asked.

For more on this issue, see “Paralegals call truce over law society motion.

But there is a brand of competition here in the United States also. Take, for example, this exerpt from a post on the Paralegal Today listserv:

[T]he problem for our profession NOT addressed here is the fact that there are TOO MANY law schools, churning out TOO MANY new lawyers who can’t get jobs and who are looking for paralegal positions as the alternative – just to be able to pay their bills.  This, I believe, is the future problem for our profession and one we need to address so that new law school students don’t dilute our profession over the next few years.

This echoes a post by Lynne DeVenney at  Practical Paralegalism entitled, “Paralegals, Watch Your Backs! Out-of-Work Lawyers Want Your Jobs ” that was the subject of posts here some months ago. While some responses to the Paralegal Today listserv post took the position that this was simply a matter of competition, e.g.,

Everyone needs to work. If I couldn’t find a job as a paralegal, you can bet I’d be taking away a secretary’s job. If I was a secretary, and couldn’t get a job as a secretary, I’d be hopping on receptionist jobs. I just can’t take the position that the paralegal profession is some kind of specialized, elite group whose duties should only be performed by someone who has a specific degree from a specifically approved school with specific accreditation and with a specific type and amount of specific experience. From my own perspective, if you can do the job and someone will hire you… hey… have at it.

The point of my previous posts, however, is that for the most part lawyers cannot do a paralegal’s job. 

It is not just a matter of protecting paralegal turf. The fact is that lawyers and paralegals are trained differently for different roles.

However, that territory was covered quite well by Lynne in a comment she posted on a blog post on law.com – Should You Work as a Paralegal if You Can’t Find a Job as a Lawyer?.  Carolyn Elefan, who did the post answered in the negative stating,

In general, lawyers are either over-qualified or under-qualified for many of the available non-lawyer positions. For example, one firm that advertised for an administrative assistant was inundated with lawyer résumés. But the firm declined to hire a lawyer because it felt the candidate would simply leave once a better job came along. In general, lawyers are either over-qualified or under-qualified for many of the available non-lawyer positions. For example, one firm that advertised for an administrative assistant was inundated with lawyer résumés. But the firm declined to hire a lawyer because it felt the candidate would simply leave once a better job came along.

The point is not, however, that the lawyer is over-qualified. The lawyer is simply not qualified by training or experience to do what paralegals do. For example, the paralegals role in client management is quite different from that of an attorney.

Lynne summed the training aspect up well in her comment to Elefan’s post:

While lawyers’ training is usually a three-year immersion in case study and analysis, many paralegals have undergone two to four years of specific paralegal training which is much more practice-oriented and very different from most law schools’ current curriculum.

Chere Estrin, Editor-in-Chief of Know: The Magazine for Paralegals handles the experience issue in another comment,

Besides differences in training – lawyers are trained in the practice of law while paralegals are trained in procedures and processing – few lawyers have the on-the-job experience to be a paralegal. In fact, while lawyers can delegate a paralegal assignment, very few can execute it. The awarding of a law degree does not guarantee knowledge of the finite and detailed responsibilities of paralegals.

And Melssa H. from Paralegalese, who I have previously quoted in an encouraging sequel on the topic “Does Your Attorney Understand What You Do?” makes an point that may be even more important:

Also, we need to stop tiering in the legal world. When we say that paralegals and attorneys are trained differently for different jobs, we are not saying that the attorney’s job requires a smarter or more capable person. We are saying the attorney’s job requires a person with a law degree and license to practice, while the paralegal’s job has other requirements (which I personally feel need to be more uniform as we move forward). If I were a lawyer, I would want the most capable, intelligent person I could find to assist me in my practice. After all, if the paralegal is doing work that, absent the paralegal, would be done by the attorney, I would hope the paralegal is at least as competent as the person who chose to go to law school would be.

I am so thankful I have an attorney supervisor who views me and my education as valuable resources to his firm. While technically, he is the boss and controller of the work product, he places a ton of faith in my abilities. At some point, when I have a few more years under my belt, I expect he may even trust me more than he will trust himself in some areas. This says nothing negative about his own abilities and intellect. It just means that our daily jobs are slightly different, and I come into contact with some situations more often than he does. Over time I will develop a more detailed knowledge of some parts of the legal field that do not require a licensed attorney. Rather than a viewing this as a problem, I like to compare it to the different jobs nurses and doctors do. The doctor may be fully capable of performing the duties of a nurse in a technical sense, but the nurse’s experience and training probably make him better at the job.

The attorney and paralegal are parts of the legal team. The attorney, like a quarterback, directs that team.  Except in exceptional circumstances, the quarterback is not expected to play the role of the other team members – primarily because he is not trained or experienced enough to perform those roles. No one want the quarterback responsible for protecting against a 300 lb defensive lineman. The same applies to the protection a paralegal gives from many clients through skillful and professional client management.

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  • Bob, thanks so much for the mentions – I actually forget half the places I post comments, so this was a fun reminder! 🙂 But the point is well made; lawyers and paralegals are not trained to do the same substantive legal work. Yesterday, I explained to a recent graduate of a very prestigious law school what to look for and how to summarize medical records – and this is from someone who wants to practice in the area of catastrophic injuries. But this is absolutely not covered in law school – which is insane since civil injury law is very prevalent and lawyers must know what to do with medical records in order to represent their clients. I gave her the chapter on reviewing and summarizing medical records from Workers’ Compensation Practice for Paralegals (Carolina Academic Press, 2008), as well as a copy of the commonly used medical abbreviations contained in the glossary of the book. Lawyers and paralegals are apples and oranges, but both need to be in the law practice fruit basket 😉

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