Sharpening the Line Between Lawyers and Paralegals

A previous post entitled “The Line Separating ‘Lawyers’ from ‘Paralegals’ Becomes Blurred” noted a post by Lynne at Practical Paralegalism entitled, “Paralegals, Watch Your Backs! Out-of-Work Lawyers Want Your Jobs. ” I had intended to follow up on that issue by noting the differences between paralegals and lawyers to explain why it is a mistake for lawyers to take jobs as paralegals. 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 alongIn 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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