This is not a job for Warren G or Nate Dogg

Among the reactions to my recent participation in the Paralegal Mentor Mastermind call is this email from Barbara Parkes, which I am sharing with permission:

Hello, Mr. Mongue. I was a participant on the Paralegal Mentor Mastermind call with Vicki Voisin on Tuesday evening. I very much appreciate what you are doing for the paralegal profession, and I agree with you that it should be more regulated. I wish there was more of a clear cut educational path for a paralegal that the ABA would approve and require on a national level. As you mentioned, just as attorneys are required to go through a three year law school program, paralegals should have to complete a program with the same curriculum at every school where it is offered, and paralegals should receive a designation at the completion of this program (whether it’s an associates degree, bachelor’s degree, certificate or certification — whichever the ABA decides upon) without which they should not be permitted to be hired by any lawyer and be titled a paralegal.

However, I think we have a long way to go to get to this point. I recall reading that, a few years ago, this very issue was brought up in New Jersey and it was decided that paralegals did not have to have specific educational requirements to be titled as a paralegal or legal assistant. I’m guessing this was decided primarily because attorneys assume that paralegals’ salaries may be raised as a result of the educational requirements and did not want this extra financial burden. How do we get past this obstacle? I think, as you do, that the paralegal profession would be more respected as a result of this requirement, and attorneys would have a clearer vision of how the paralegals were trained and what they are capable of doing. I would be interested in your thoughts.

This email addresses several substantial issues and I cannot say that I have fully formed opinions on them as they are all subject of my ongoing research.

I do believe that the paralegal profession needs a better established identity if it is to gain the recognition and respect of the bar and the public as a profession. Establishing that identity will require more than the current ABA/NALA definition of “paralegal” which describes the paralegal as “qualified by education, training or work experience” without any content to what education, training or work experience makes one qualified. There does, it seems to me, to be more content and standardization in that regard. However, it is not clear whether that content and standardization should be through licensing, regulation, certification or another means.

Nor is it clear whether whatever form is adopted for this purpose whether it should be imposed through government. If the government is involved, this does not seem to be a federal issue, but I am concerned that each state devising its own definition and requirements will lead to a patchwork that is more confusing than it is helpful. Thus, it would seem to make sense to have some national organization or consortium of organizations develop a model or uniform act for consideration by the states.

It is not at all clear that the ABA should be the organization making these determination, at least not in isolation. Within AAfPE (American Association for Paralegal Education) there is some ongoing discussion about whether the ABA is the correct institution to be “approving” paralegal programs: does it make sense to have lawyers rather than educators determining what makes a good educational program, even if the topic being taught it law?

The same may be true on the issue of standardization of criteria for paralegals. A topic that frequently comes up on this blog and others is that attorneys frequently on an individual basis do not understand the role and abilities of paralegals. Are we to assume, then that as a group attorneys are able to best decide the criteria for those persons who fill the role of paralegal?

Perhaps we need for all interested groups to chose a representative to a committee to establish a model act – ABA, NFPA, NALA, NALS, AAfPE. It may be there should even be a seat at the table for a group representing “independent” paralegals.

I am working on an anthology on paralegal professionalism that will, in part, provide a forum for peer-reviewed articles addressing these topics from educators and professionals. Like Barbara, I would interested in your thoughts.

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