The Value in Critical and Analytical Thinking

It’s been a while since I posted. I appreciate the emails asking whether I still exist! I do, but I’ve been quite busy. I’m teaching extra courses this semester, weekends have been taken up with projects such as teaching Constitutional Law to reserve and part-time police officers. In addition, I’m attempting to complete my Masters in Philosophy and had the opportunity to present a paper at a recent annual conference of the Mississippi Philisophical Association.

Normally when I find myself in such a situation, I fill in gaps by relying on posts that incorporate ideas or actual posts from other blogs or emails that I’ve received, but I even seriously behind in reading the many items backlogged in those two categories. However, I have spent some time reading over the last couple of days and will be working off these materials for posts until I can find time for truly original work.

I’m starting with a post from Judge Larry Primeaux’s blog on “THE VALUE OF THINKING LIKE A LAWYER.” That post itself features an article by Professor Harner of Univsersity of Maryland School of Law, which “begins by accepting some of the premises offered by Ribstein and Susskind: that forces are at work changing the legal profession; that the legal profession is becoming commoditized and generic; and that survival as a lawyer, and indeed, survival of the legal profession, will demand evolution in the way lawyers offer and market services.”  But I focused more on Judge Primeaux’s opening words,

In law school we were taught not so much the law as how to think like lawyers.  That is, we were taught to think analytically, to break complex issues into comprehensible components, and to bring creative solutions to bear using the framework of the law.

The judge’s comments and the post in general are, of course, directed to attorneys, but I belive the judge’s comments (at least) are applicable to paralegals, especially in the context of an ongoing discussion on the Paralegal Today listserv. One comment there states,

I agree finding a job as a paralegal is extremely competitive and the employers want to pay $10.00 an hour even with a bachelor. Its like they no longer value the cost and effort that you put into getting an education. When I graduated from undergrad four years ago I was told from my professor that becoming certified was not necessary, however, I noticed that more jobs are asking for five to ten years experience and requiring certification for anyone with less experience. I think that the schools should be honest and inform the students about how hard it is to get a job as a paralegal making a decent income with no experience.

To this another responded,

I agree with you that the schools and colleges should be notified of what is really going on out here after we spent all this money and time and can’t find a job because attorneys are taking them, and they only want to pay us $10.00.  The should be telling students that the demand for paralegals is diminishing because there are so many unemployed attorneys.

I agree that paralegals schools should be forthright with students regarding the prospects for obtaining employment (to the extent any of us can predict the prospects of obtaining employment in two or four years based on the market at the time of enrollment), but my thoughts today are on the comment that law firm employers do not value the education paralegals get (through formal education or experience) and that the devaluation is at least in part unemployed lawyers. While there are many indications that this is happening, I am writing once again to propose to those attorneys who read this blog that the use of unemployed attorneys as substitutes for paralegals is a mistake.

This issue has been addressed here before, but I’ll take another shot at it today using the concept of “thinking like a lawyer” as an example. Well educated paralegals are trained to do a number of things like an attorney (not identical to an attorney.) If we things of the capacities of paralegals and the capacities of attorneys based on education and experience as Venn diagrams we see that there are capacities (usually varying in degree), but there are many tasks for which paralegals are trained that attorneys are not. For example:

•PARALEGALS
•Client Communications, Docket Management, Calendar Management, File Management, Legal Research, Legal Reasoning, Critical and Analytical Thinking
•ATTORNEYS
•Client Representation in Court, Legal Tactics and Strategy, Legal Advice, Legal Research, Legal Reasoning, Critical and Analytical Thinking
Quarterbacks and guards are both atheletes and they are both football players. Many of their capacities overlap. It’s a mistake to hire a guard to play the position of  quarterback. It is a mistake to hire quarterback to play the position of guard. Likewise, it is a mistake to hire an unemployed attorney as a paralegal. In practical terms they cannot and will not “block” clients or provide the same protection from a malpractice blitz as paralegals.

As stated previously,

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 Devenny of Practical Paralegalism  summed the training aspect up well :

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 this way,

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. …  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.

UPDATE: After writing the above post I check through the “backstage” data for the blog over for yesterday and found a link for Superlegal Fun, a paralegal blog that contains a post from last Thursday that asks an newly minted attorney who could not find a job as an attorney, “Dear JD: What exactly did you learn in law school?:”
JD is an attorney (hence the nickname JD), but couldn’t find a lawyer job, so he took a job with our firm as a Paralegal.

Today, he asked what ABN and LR meant.

For those who don’t live in a law office, you may not know that those acronyms stand for “associated business name” and “local rule.”

That’s right. He didn’t know LR meant local rule. Oh the humanity, bring me some sticks to draw that man a picture on the wall of his cave!!

No one is expected to know everything about law or law offices freshly out of law school or paralegal school. However, if a law firm is going to spend money giving on-the-job training to someone for a paralegal position, it seems to make sense to start with someone who has the appropriate basic training and will not be constantly looking to move on to another role in the firm leaving the firm to spend the money giving a real paralegal the same on-the-job training!

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3 Comments

  • Welcome back! Great post, with many terrific points. The economy has adversely impacted paralegals’ salaries in many areas of the country, as well as the salaries, especially entry-level, in many other fields.

    And comparing the formal education of attorneys and paralegals is like comparing apples and oranges. At least paralegal programs train students how to find the local courthouse and what documents the clerk needs to file a case. Then paralegals train new attorneys what is needed at work!

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  • Miechelle says:

    With reference to the last part of this post, I take a touch of issue actually. I have administered deceased estates for a trust company for 20 years and have various bank diplomas for that job – which makes me a paralegal. I chose to obtain a law degree while I was pursuing my career – not because I wanted to practice but because I wanted to be able to operate in various areas of the work I was already doing, a lot more effectively. I happen to think I am a pretty educated and experienced person and can accordingly command a pretty good salary yet would still not be offended if someone didn’t understand what some initials meant because I think that the definition of a real paralegal is anyone who practices the law without a law degree – you don’t need to know initials and abbreviations to do that effectively at all and you can also learn to do that pretty well on the job – of course, while you are learning, you can’t expect to be paid top dollar and I suspect that the new graduate you refer to was being paid rather poorly because pay is often determined by experience and not by education – the market sorts the value of degrees and qualifications out whether we like it or not.

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