What Is a Qualifying Education?

Michelle Parris is off to a remarkable start of her career as an attorney. According to The New York Times:

Even before she graduated from Stanford Law School in 2010, Michelle Parris knew she wanted to help people with psychiatric disabilities and take a holistic approach to defense law. She designed a project with that in mind and received a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship and an assignment at the Bronx Defenders. Still in the early stages of her fellowship, which began in September, she already has a caseload of 40 clients facing issues like homelessness, lack of access to health care, addiction, deportation and the ultimate nemesis of her project, criminal recidivism.

But what, you may ask, makes this a matter for a post on this blog? It’s this statement in from the article:

I thought I wanted to be a doctor … But when I went to college and took chemistry and calculus, I realized being a doctor was probably not going to happen. I majored in history and graduated in 2004 not sure of my career path.

I wanted to get some exposure to what being a lawyer would be like, so for two years after college I was a paralegal in the litigation department at Davis Polk. There was a lot of sitting in an office in front of a computer, and it just wasn’t the right fit for me.

Here’s my problem: While I have no doubt that Davis Polk gave Michelle the title of “paralegal,” it seems virtually impossible that she actually performed paralegal tasks. While I concede that there continues to be a lot of disagreement and confusion regarding the qualifications for being a paralegal, almost everyone agrees on the ABA definition of what a paralegal is:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

While the details are sketchy, there is nothing in Michelle’s background that indicates training, experience, or education that would qualify a person to perform substantive legal work. (While chemistry, calculus, and history may all be helpful to a paralegal, none qualify as the requisite education.)

A recent discussion on the AAfPE listserv regarding proposed legislation in Florida that would regulate paralegals (see The Paralegal Mentor’s post on this legislation here) ended with this comment:

I just want to jump in here.  As a paralegal since 1981, I would LOVE to see some licensing and regulation, if for no other reason, than to make educational standards across the country for the profession.  I am so tired of reading about “runners” in the newspaper who get caught, and then tell the reporter that they are “paralegals!”  I think it would bring a lot of credibility and respect to the profession, which is always welcome.   Just my two cents. 

While Michelle career path reflects well on the paralegal if indeed she was one as defined by the ABA, it does seem that this comment makes a valid point.

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  • Meeghan says:

    What is so wrong with learning on the job? I have an MA in history, with lots of educational experience in researching and writing. I also have five plus years on the job, with two multi-week hundred million dollar trials under my belt. I have corporate, big law, and medium law experience. Why snub your nose at people like me?

  • R. E. Mongue says:

    Learning on the job is a wonderful thing. Several of my best paralegals began with me as part-time file clerks who “learned their way up.” Indeed, the ABA specifically included those qualified by training and experience in the definition of “paralegal.” However, one cannot bea paralegal based on experience on the first, second, third,…day of the job. One cannot be qualified to perform a task based on experience until one has had experience performing the task. Thus, if one has no paralegal education and has just begun a job, it appears the job title may be “Paralegal,” but the job function cannot be.

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