The Chicken or the Egg
In The Empowered Paralegal I make a case for the proposition that one way for the paralegal profession to advance as a profession in light of the confusion within the bar is for paralegals to be more professional. Admittedly there is a “chicken or egg – which came first” problem here. More than one paralegal has written making statements to the effect of one received yesterday, “I am degreed, but it’s difficult for me to push for education when any attorney can simply walk in and call his secretary a paralegal one day.”
There is no simple answer to this question. The professionalization of paralegals (or legal assistants in some of the earlier literature) has been the subject of discussion among paralegal scholars for decades. In 1990, Green, Snell, Corgiat and Paramanith wrote in the Journal of Paralegal Education and Practice of the three stages of professionalization: Identity, Maturation States and Goal Attainment, and a year later Jolee Farinacci addressed the problem that, while the paralegal profession is “truly as ancient as the legal profession itself,” paralegalism had just recently been recognized as a profession in its own right and did not have an identity. Still it is understandably frustrating for practitioners that the profession still appears to be struggling with the Identity stage at the same time it is attempting to work through Maturation States.
Viewing the profession from a position in academia and on the lawyer side of the bar, I tend to take heart in the tremendous progress that has been made since I started practice in 1976. The fact is that professional associations are not only celebrating 25th anniversaries, but growing and serving the profession. The profession has several wonderful voices on the internet such as Lynne DeVenney at Practical Paralegalism, Vicki Voison, The Paralegal Mentor, and Melissa H. at Paralegalese, and in publications such as Know: The Magazine for Paralegals. The profession is being recognized more often by state bars and state governments. I’ll leave aside the controversy over efforts to establish regulatory and certification programs in the various states and point out that the fact such efforts recognize the separate role of the paralegal alone is progress for the profession.
In the end though, I take heart from the professional attitude of many of those now entering the field. Consider this from one of my students who as worked in a law office for a couple of years now:
It is time for more people to be educated on what a paralegal really is. We need to set higher standards for ourselves and not tolerate being labeled as a glorified assistant. We’re so much more than that! … Some like to say that paralegals are people who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to become an attorney so they settled for working for one. Once again this is false. Both are necessary part in a working team in the office and neither can truly be productive without the other.
I get so angry when I hear fellow students or paralegals bad mouth our profession. The most common thing when they are asked what a paralegal does, or is, I hear “we are the attorneys slave”, “we do all the work and attorneys get the credit”, or “we do the same job and get paid a fraction of what attorneys make”. For the ones who think this, please change your profession and/or get a new job. We as paralegals need to do what ever we can to educate ourselves as much as we can, be professional and love what we do.
I continue to believe that if paralegals take charge of their own profession and their own professionalism, the bar and the public will follow where the profession leads.