The “Independent Paralegal Movement”
Those who frequent this blog know I use quotation marks around “independent” in the phrase “independent paralegals,” because of the seeming incompatibility of the concept of true independent paralegals when the only accepted definition of paralegals in the United States defines paralegals as working under the supervision of an attorney. (Even freelance and virtual paralegals work under contract with and the supervision of attorneys rather than under contracts directly with clients.) I receive emails fairly frequently from “independent” paralegals and, from time to time, have given them a forum in which to express their positions. (See the category “‘Independent’ Paralegals.”) Recently, during a particularly busy time, I received an entire article from Clifford C. Smith. Without taking a position on his position, I helped him edit it a bit. While it is far too long to reprint here in its entirety, I’m posting the beginning and end for your consideration. If you’d like to comment on it feel free to do so, but first read the entire article which is available at http://napa.club.officelive.com/Documents/ArtCSmithEdited2.pdf:
The independent paralegal movement gave birth to non-lawyers that provided self-help legal services to people who simply could not afford the high cost of legal services. Because paralegal educational programs were scarce in the late 1960s and ‘70s, most of these non-lawyer practitioners had no formal legal training. Much of what they learned was based on hands-on experience and applying that knowledge towards the legal self-help movement.
For the most part, the independent paralegal movement emerged in California around lawyers that had worked in legal aid, only to realize that many of the people they saw were the working poor, who simply didn’t meet the requirements of legal aid. Among other factors, it culminated in the formation of Nolo Press, a legal self-help publication based in Northern California in the 1970s. Nolo’s self-help books became the main resource for independent paralegals – not only in California – but in many other states too, along with resources like, The Independent Paralegal’s Handbook, which provided legal guidelines for them to set up businesses as independent paralegals. The handbook was written by Ralph Warner, a lawyer and one of the founders of Nolo Press.
Through the visionary efforts of Nolo, coupled with the courage and commitment of independent paralegals, those paralegals earned the trust and admiration of many working people. Eventually, this self-help movement spread throughout the United States. It also made its way into Canada, where paralegals also played a role in assisting consumers with self-help law. It even spawned a Nolo counterpart, entitled “Self Counsel Press.”
While many paralegals continue to strive for independence in order to provide access to justice for working class people, the paralegal profession is constrained from fulfilling its full potential in this regard by the restraints imposed by the American Bar Association in its efforts to prevent competition and by paralegal associations that accept the subservient role of paralegals.
Paralegals today have very little in common with the independent paralegal movement that earned the trust and admiration of consumers. In many ways, this new paralegalism has appropriated the term “Paralegal,” which has now come to signify subservience to and working under the supervision of lawyers. In effect, paralegal associations in both United States and Canada have advanced a doctrine of “non-competition” of the paralegal profession, wherein every paralegal must work under the control and supervision of a lawyer. The only exception is the province of Ontario, where paralegals are licensed to practice law, in limited areas.
Paralegals should not adopt regulations and licensing absent conditions of professional autonomy and independent decision making. This is not to propose that paralegals should be given a blanket license to practice law. Rather, they should be permitted to provide basic legal advice and to practice law in specialized areas. Paralegals should:
- Be permitted to exercise independent discretion and decision making.
- Be permitted to practice before all small claims courts, traffic courts and government agencies.
- Be permitted to work independently or in cooperation with lawyers.
- Not be under the control of state bar associations or provincial law societies, but should form their own independent bodies comprising paralegals and members of the public to oversee the paralegal profession in a way that will balance the interests of both groups.
All of the forgoing will ensure deregulation of the legal profession by the ABA and inject some much needed competition in the legal market place. It is important that all paralegals understand the history of the independent paralegal movement and its goal of gaining people access to affordable legal services. Only with this understanding can the paralegal profession gain an identity as a truly independent profession dedicated to providing access to justice to working class people.
Clifford C. Smith
North American Paralegal Alliance