Is the Paralegal Profession Going Backwards?

In a recent post I spoke about a LinkedIn discussion on paralegal regulation. The discussion there took an interesting turn when Bonnie Taylor posted, “We have been fighting this battle on a national level since the early 1980’s and it is sad to see that it is still being fought across the country with little resolution or progress. I have been a Paralegal for 35 years and this is the first time that I have felt that the profession is going backwards instead of forward.” I’d like your impression on this question – is the profession going backwards or progressing. Here’s my take on it as I posted in that discussion board:

I disagree with the perception that the profession is moving backwards. Keep in mind that attorneys are regulated on a state-by-state basis, not a national basis, so it is extremely unlikely that paralegal are going to achieve some sort of nationwide status not even held by attorneys. How ever there has been progress in many states. As I noted above the State of Washington created a new practitioner called a Limited License Legal Technician which will allow some paralegals to engage in a limited practice of law without attorney supervision. Several other states, including California, New York, and Oregon, are considering similar programs. As I recently noted on my blog (www.theempowereparalegal.com), an ABA Task Force has endorsed LLLT programs, stating

“Broader Delivery of Law: – Related Services:
The delivery of law-related services today is primarily by lawyers. These services may not be cost-effective for many who are in need of them, and some communities and constituencies lack accessible legal services. State supreme courts, state
bar associations, and admitting authorities should devise new or improved frameworks for licensing providers of legal services. This should include licensing persons other than holders of a J.D. to deliver limited legal services, and authorizing bar admission
for people whose preparation may be other than the traditional four years of college plus three years of classroom based law school education. The current lack of access to legal advice of any kind that exists across the country requires such innovative steps.

In addition, several states have adopted or are considering adopting, registered paralegal programs such as Florida’s. All this indicates that the profession is progressing rather than regressing as a profession, moving closer to a professional identity similar to that held by nurse practitioners. Much of this progress can be attributed to hard work on the part of national organizations such as NFPA, NALA, and NALS, and their local affiliates. Those interested in the development of professional identity for the paralegal profession may be interested in the articles addressing this issue in “The Empowered Paralegal Professionalism Anthology.”

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One Comment

  • Clifford Smith says:

    Ms. Bonnie Taylor is partially correct in that the paralegal vocation “is going backwards instead of forward.” However, I do not consider it a profession, as Ms. Taylor indicates, since paralegals cannot exercise independent decision making, which is the hallmark of a profession.

    If we were to imagine a person embarking on bus with no drivetrain, although it might be correct to say the person has boarded a bus to a specific destination, absent a drivetrain, it is highly unlikely they would arrive anywhere. In many ways, the paralegal vocation is analogous to a bus with no drivetrain, in the sense that, all of the paralegal certifications being issued come with no specific rights to do anything. Therefore, while it might be correct to say paralegals are professionals, absent specific rights to practice in their field, it is highly unlikely they will arrive at a destination resembling a profession, anytime soon.

    Not only has there been a regression of sorts, but a false dichotomy has arisen between the paralegal credentials issued from accredited colleges and universities, versus the unaccredited certifications being issued by paralegal associations that have completely circumvented the accreditation process. In turn, these faux certification standards are driving the paralegal field.

    For those reasons, I do not see major progress in the paralegal field. Rather, I see the same old legal constraints being used to ensure paralegals cannot achieve full professionalism that is based on accredited certification standards, which come with specific rights to exercise professional decision making. Where there has been progress is in the education of paralegals, as most paralegals today hold an certificate or degree from an accrediited school.

    Insofar as nurse practitioners, they are certified to diagnose, treat and prescribe medicine to patients. As such, there is no real comparison to paralegals, except to those paralegals who advocate cases before federal and state administrative agencies. They are independent of lawyers, in much the same way nurse practitioners are independent of medical doctors and have their own practices.

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