Profesionalism: Being Competent and Maintaining a Credible Front?”

“The Cultural Study of Work,” an anthology compiled by Douglas A. Harper, Doug Harper, and Helene M. Lawson, (2003) contains an article by Kathryn J. Lively, entitled Occupational Claims to Professionalism: The Case of Professionals that is an interesting read. It’s available in it’s entirety online (go to Goggle Scholar and type in “paralegal professionalism”), but I cannot download or copy-and-paste from the article. Lively conducted an open-interview study of over 50 paralegals to gather an understanding of how individual paralegals understand “professional” and “professionalism,” stating:

Given paralegal’s position in the middle of the occupational continuum, as paraprofessionals they make ideal respondents for studying the appropriation of the symbols “professional” (and the corresponding symbol “unprofessional”) and “professionalism” by nonprofessional workers. Paraprofessionals are members of occupations organized around the work of a master profession. They lack the requisite job autonomy, and, in some cases, depth of experience or knowledge to be full-fledged professionals. [citation omitted] In this case, paralegals are members of an occupation that serves attorneys, but they lack the job autonomy, experience, and knowledge to practice law without attorney supervision.

While some may argue that this is just a matter of definition and anti-competitive rules established by the ABA, i.e., that paralegal have the requisite experience and knowledge to practice some law, just not law as an attorney does, and the lack of job autonomy emanates from the ABA’s refusal to yield any part of law practice to non-lawyers, we will leave that aside for the moment and focus on the results of Lively’s study.

Lively explains,

Because professionalism was an important part of paralegals’ work identity, whenever they used “professional” or “professionalism,” I asked them what these words meant to them personally.  Although no two paralegals completely agreed on what it meant to be professional, they identified two sets of norms they used for judging their and others’ behavior: being competent in one’s work and maintaining a credible front. [Citations omitted.]

She concludes, in part,

Note that, at least for these paralegals, being competent often meant withholding anger, exhibiting civility, and stifling pettiness, which is reminiscent of earlier discussions of display and feeling rules in the workplace. Indeed one of the most striking observations about the use of the term “competency” by paralegals is the degree to which it often contained an emotive element in addition to the basic skill, knowledge and ability required to perform the job….In fact, many paralegals believed that the manner in which they completed their work was almost as important as whether or not they completed the work. [Citations omitted.]

For these paralegals, professionalism, or “being professional,” required not only that they do their jobs, but that they do them with good attitudes (or at very least the appearance of good attitudes.)

None of this is news to most of the readers of this blog in posts such as “Feedback, Attitude, and Control.” We’ve discuss the role of attitude in professionalism here before. To an extent I disagree with this statement of attitude being merely maintaining a credible front, as the statements of the paralegals seem to go well beyond that. However, the article itself is quite interesting and well worth reading.

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