Posts Tagged ‘certification’

What Constitutes “Qualifications” for a Paralegal?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

When an employee loses his or her job through no fault of their own that person is generally entitled to unemployment compensation. However, sometimes their right to receive this benefit is challenged by their employer, generally because payment into the benefit fund will increase for that employer. BlueRidgeNow.com today carries a story regarding jobless N.C. residents fighting for their benefits which includes this:

Fayetteville lawyer Sharon Keyes fired a paralegal after just eight days on the job because she wasn’t qualified. When the paralegal filed a claim for $197 a week in benefits, Keyes tried to block it, arguing that as a small business owner she should be able to decide whom to hire and whom to fire.

The ESC disagreed and ruled in the former paralegal’s favor three times before Keyes finally gave up last year.

I don’t know enough about the situation to say whether this should be a sign to all N.C. paralegals to be wary of working for attorney Keyes. My interest here is in the claim that the paralegal “was not qualified.” What does that mean given the overall uncertainty and confusion as to what constitutes qualification for paralegals?

The North Carolina Bar Association has created a voluntary program for certification of paralegals. However, one has to wonder whether Keyes used this as a standard for “qualification” and, if so, whether it was made clear in advertisements and interviews for the job. If one has a clear understanding of what they expect in order for an employee to be qualified and conveys that understanding to applicants, it is hard to see how it can be determined only eight days later that the person is not qualified. If the person misled the employer into believing they had qualification they did not have, then surely that would constitute fault on the part of the employee, would it not?

In any case, this story does seem to serve as another indication that the profession needs to focus more seriously on the issue of paralegal qualification.

Update on OLP e-discovery Certification

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

The Organization of Legal Professionals provides this update on e-discovery Certification:

  • The certification exam for non-attorneys in e-discovery core competencies is well underway.  A certification exam is a complex undertaking and many important decisions are made in the planning and development phase.  We expect to roll out the first exam by March 1st.
  • Training for e-discovery is being made available to The OLP members and non-members. Be sure you are on the mailing list for the most recent courses.
  • As previously discussed  here the need for expertise, and thus training and certification, in the e-discovery field continues to grow. So, watch for the opportunities provided by OLP.

    In the interest of full disclousure, I am on the OLP Advisory Council.

    This is not a job for Warren G or Nate Dogg

    Sunday, November 15th, 2009

    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.

    The Paralegal Voice – Episode Three

    Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

    Practical Paralegalism announces today,

    The third episode of Legal Talk Network’s monthly podcast, The Paralegal Voice, “E-Discovery Trends in the Paralegal World”, co-hosted by “The Paralegal MentorVicki Voisin and Practical Paralegalism’s Lynne DeVenney, is now available. This episode, featuring Tom Mighell, legal technology expert and a consultant at Fios, and paralegal Dorothe Howell, a paralegal with extensive experience in gathering electronic data, as the expert guests, explores everything from the basics of e-discovery to what it takes to train for a career in this growing legal specialty area.

    The importance of understanding e-discovery in today’s legal practice cannot be easily overstated. In this regard, you should check out OLP, the Organization of Legal Professionals, a new organization presently focused on E-discovery Certification as previously discussed here. The professional paralegal makes a point of being up-to-date on important trends in legal practice.

    South Carolina House of Delegates Rejects Voluntary Certification Program for Paralegals

    Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

    Yes, a voluntary program. I’d like to do an extended post on this, but time is short and Chere Estrin of The Estrin Report has done a fine job with it. Check it out. With luck I’ll be able to add my thoughts in a few days.

    AAJ Names “Paralegal of the Year”

    Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

    According to the Jacksonville, Florida, Financial News and Daily Record, a local paralegal, Linda Whipple, has been named “Paralegal of the Year” by The American Association of Justice

    Nominees were judged by paralegal affiliate members and one attorney member of the AAJ Paralegal Advisory Task Force. Judges looked for contributions to the paralegal profession through teaching, speaking/lecturing, mentoring paralegal students, involvement with paralegal associations and publication of articles in legal publications.

    Whipple is active in her local paralegal association (Northeast Florida Paralegal Association) and served as their first vice-president in 2003-04. She became a part of the over 3,000 voluntary registered paralegals in March 2008 through the Florida Bar administered program.

    “Becoming a registered paralegal through the Florida Bar is voluntary now, but I think that will change in the near future,” said Whipple. “It will become a requirement.”

    The certification program was approved by the Florida Supreme Court in 2007 with the goal of setting high professional standards for the profession. The program requires paralegals to abide by a code of ethics while performing their duties under the supervision of a member of the Florida Bar. Registered paralegals must complete 30 hours of continuing education courses over a three-year period, with five of those hours in professionalism or ethics courses.

    Does your attorney understand what you do? – An Encouraging Sequel

    Thursday, August 6th, 2009

    Melissa H. over at Paralegalese takes Time Out for a Moment of Encouragement starting with:

    When I first decided to enter the paralegal career, I geared up to constantly be on the defensive. I just knew that many attorneys, especially young ones fresh out of law school, would look down on me and my lowly position on the legal totem pole. In a few instances, my assumption turned out to be correct. Fortunately, ignorance is usually the proponent of such attitudes, and ignorance is fairly easy to cure. I remember talking to one baby lawyer last year about my studying for the NALA certification exam, and how I excited I would be to be able to add “CP” or “CLA” to the end of my name. All of a sudden, an understanding came to his face, and he said, “So that’s what those letters mean! I thought our staff was just making it up!” I do not know whether he appreciates the staff members at his firm more because of my revelation, but I believe that conversation revealed to him that paralegals, while we usually have not spent three years in law school, take our jobs and roles very seriously.

    Do not assume that your attorney really understands what a paralegal is. Here are just some of the reasons they may not understand:

    • Some attorneys do not understand the distinction between a legal secretary and a paralegal. In some small firms, especially a single attorney office, all the staff is used to doing about everything. There is no file clerk, so everyone just does the filing when they are using a file. While there are differences in the positions of the staff, there are no clear job descriptions. This blurring of lines in daily practice can cause confusion.
    • Often the problem goes deeper than that. There is substantial confusion in the legal system itself. The ABA and NALA may have agreed upon a common definition. You know this from school, but few attorneys know the definition much less understand it. In fact, while many attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants feel there is no difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant, others draw a rather unclear distinction. For them there is an hierarchy that runs some thing like this: receptionist, secretary, legal secretary, legal assistant, paralegal. Almost nobody has a clear idea of exactly where the lines are drawn between the various stages in the hierarchy. In areas where this distinction is made, generally the paralegal is more educated and/or more experienced than the legal assistant and is often paid more. Similarly, the paralegal is given more responsibility for substantive legal work while the legal assistant may have more clerical and/or secretarial duties.
    • Your attorney may be aware that paralegals are more than legal secretary and less than an associate attorney, but be quite vague as to where they fall between those two goal posts. As a result, the attorney may expect you to do work that is really attorney work and give you less guidance and supervision that you need and deserve. Or she may be unaware of just how much help you can be and give you tasks you feel underutilize your talent because she views you as a “fancy” legal secretary or “just” a legal assistant.
    • The ABA/NALA definition does not help such attorneys much. Unlike the attorney who must meet specific educational and licensing requirements, how a paralegal becomes a paralegal is a bit of a mystery to many both in and outside the profession. There was a time when a person could become an attorney just through experience by “apprenticing” to an established lawyer, or by studying and passing the bar exam, but those days are long gone. So it can be unclear to an attorney (and almost everyone else) just what qualifies a paralegal to be a paralegal.
    • The definition says “education, training, and/or work experience,” but how much of each is needed? Not long ago, there were no formal paralegal education programs. Most paralegals simply moved up the receptionist, secretary, legal secretary, legal assistant ladder by gaining more and more responsibility as a result of more and more experience which gave the attorney more and more confidence in their ability to handle that responsibility. At what point did they become paralegals – after five years? Ten? Fifteen? At what point did the responsibility level become that of a paralegal rather than that of a legal assistant? What is “substantive legal work?”
    • The present status of paralegal education is no less confusing to many attorneys. What is the difference, in terms of the work the paralegal can perform between a paralegal certificate, an associates degree in paralegal studies and a bachelors degree in paralegal studies? What does it mean to be certified? Is being certified the same as having a certificate? Who does the certification?

    When I am asked to give advice to attorney on training their paralegals I soon discover that it is the attorneys that need to be trained! They are perfectly competent, sometimes extremely competent, attorneys, but know little about the capabilities of their own staff.  (Excerpted from The Empowered Paralegal: Effective, Efficient and Professional)

    Professional Associations

    Monday, July 27th, 2009

    Belonging to a professional association does not make one professional, and certainly one can be professional without belonging to an association. However, there does appear to be significant value in belonging to an association for paralegal professionals. If nothing else, membership can bring a sense of belonging to a profession as opposed to simply having a particular job or career. So I recommend that paralegals not only belong to an professional association but become involved in one or more.
    o Be active in a local branch of the association.
    o Subscribe to paralegal listservs and participate in discussions.
    o Read, learn from and contribute to publications designed for paralegals.
    o Become certified by your organization.
    o Attend seminars and conference, especially those that include continuing legal education (CLE) credit.

    In many instances your law office or other employer may be willing to cover the costs of such activities.

    I have posted links to several paralegal professional association websites. If you are aware of others, let me know. You can post a comment or email me at theempoweredparalegal@live.com.

    Your comments on this topic or on particular associations are welcome.