On “becoming” a paralegal

Buried deep within a story on possible problems at a Vermont nuclear power plant is this:

Wife Maggie, a former journalist who met her future husband in 1977 when both worked for a proposed nuclear power plant that was never built on the shores of Lake Ontario, became a paralegal after they moved to Burlington. Together, they run a consulting company, Fairewinds Associates, that has come to specialize in doing legal work for those trying to intervene in nuclear issues across the country.

In their New North End home, the couple sit with laptops, sorting through an avalanche of information they have collected about Vermont Yankee. Between the two of them, they meticulously document everything. Within seconds they can retrieve information about who said what to whom, when. They helpfully finish each other’s sentences. He is the scientist with a steal-trap memory for dates and details. She is the paralegal who digs for documents, compiles reports and prepares testimony.

This blog is not about nuclear power, so I take no position on the work done by this couple or the power plant issues raised in the article. What draws my interest is the statement that Maggie “became a paralegal.” What exactly does that mean? Is there some educational criteria that she met? Did she work for a law firm and, if so, in what capacity? Is she certified and, if so, by whom.

I am not here critiquing Maggie as I have no knowledge of her other than what appears in the story. She may be highly qualified as a paralegal (although there are no uniformly accepted standards by which to make that judgment). My concern is with the nonchalent use of the term “paralegal” which almost necessarily flows from the lack of any uniform standards. In fact, the only generally accepted definition of “paralegal,” that endorsed by ABA, NFPA, NALA, AAfPE, NALS, etc., would indicate this sentence is not correct: “She is the paralegal who digs for documents, compiles reports and prepares testimony,” because that definition insists that a person is a paralegal only if he or she works supervised by an attorney and there is no indication that Maggie is supervised by anybody.

The fact of the matter is that, with very limited jurisdictional exceptions, one can simply become a paralegal. In fact, all that appears to be needed is the willingness to say you are a paralegal!

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