Posts Tagged ‘definition’

What is suitable qualification for a paralegal? -Louisiana Edition

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Yesterday’s post concerned a non-paralegal accepting a position as a paralegal while not having the qualifications required for the job and then quitting because she was not given any meaningful work. This story seems somehow related, but I can’t quite put that relationship together. Anyway, a candidate for Kenner (Louisiana) mayor, is having trouble justifying his claim that he worked as a paralegal in the Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office. He has

produced a copy of a Nov. 9, 1998, letter on Jefferson Parish letterhead from Tom Wilkinson, the parish attorney at the time, to then-Finance Director Penny Anderson, transferring Yenni from Citizens’ Affairs to the attorney’s office as a full-time paralegal making $11.75 per hour effective two days earlier. He also provided a parish personnel form noting his Jan. 15, 1999, resignation as a paralegal.

But in response to a request for public records of Yenni’s work as a paralegal, the parish on Wednesday released only a form indicating he started working as a temporary “typist clerk” making $5.23 per hour on Aug. 31, 1998. Handwritten on that form is “Resigned 1/15/99.

I let the Louisianan politicians and voters sort out whether Yenni actually worked for the parish attorney or was just paid from his budget for working as a typist clerk in another department, something which appeared to have happened with some regularity in Jefferson Parish. My question is by what standard did Yenni qualify to work as a paralegal anywhere at anytime? According to the report at,

Two weeks ago, The Times-Picayune reported that the biography page at said Yenni at one point in his career was “Director of Communications with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.” The page also said that when he became director of the Citizens Affairs Department, he oversaw an operating budget of $116 million.

In reality, while working in Citizens Affairs, Yenni said he “directed communications” with the Sheriff’s Office during Carnival parades. And his budget was closer to $1 million.

Be that as it may, there is no indication under either description of his experience that he has any experience, education, or certification that qualifies him as a paralegal. I don’t know about the courts in Louisiana, but I am sure the Minnesota Court of Appeals would agree. Unfortunately it continues to appear that just about anyone can call themselves a paralegal.

Can anyone call themselves a “paralegal?”

Friday, March 12th, 2010

John Stossel of Fox News says his show tonight will include “interview David Price, a Kansas City paralegal who went to jail for half a year because he helped 86- year old Eldon Ray write a letter defending himself against the charge of “unlicensed practice of architecture.”  I’ve never seen John’s show and, if the contect of the show is as misleading as the announcement, I suspect it is just as well. I’ve reviewed a number of news reports on Mr. Price’s situation. Perhaps the most comprehensive and clearest is here.

There are a lot of problems with John’s characterization of David Price, what Price did, and why his was in jail, but my chief concern here is that Price is characterized as a paralegal. It does not appear that Price has any education or training that would justify that designation.  He also has little experience other than having “challenged dozens of judges, attorneys and court officials in the Kansas justice system with a variety of lawsuits found to be frivolous by the state and federal courts.”

The story linked above states, ”

However, it becomes clear through his own admission that his personal battle with the legal system is deeply rooted in a domestic relations case that went awry. Court files indicate Price filed legal motions for four years to stop the adoption of his biological child after the court severed his parental rights in 2001 and allowed the mother of the child and her husband to voluntarily put the child up for adoption.

Price said the experience spurred his interest in the law, his distrust for the system and the desire to advise others.”

If the news reports are correct, while the experience spurred his interest in the law, it apparently did not spur any interest in obtaining education or training in the law before starting to give advice. Stossel appears to argue that there should be no government licensing of anyone. In essence any one should be able to say they are a paralegal, a lawyer, a doctor, or a pilot, regardless of their knowledge, training, education, or experience. Apparently he’d just let the free market decide whether they survive competing against those that have actual knowledge of the topic.

In my last post I suggested that UPL laws that restrict legal services solely to attorneys were not the best way to deal with the difficulties that arise when people go to non-lawyers for assistance because they cannot afford an attorney. Kansas acknowledges this problem. The story linked above includes this:

While nonlawyers aren’t permitted to advise pro se litigants, a committee established by the Kansas Supreme Court found a growing number of people need help in the court system.

Valdez, who serves as a member of the Kansas Supreme Court’s Pro Se Committee, said public education through town meetings and allowing limited scope assistance from attorneys may help.

“The pro se litigant issue isn’t going to go away,” Valdez said. “You’ll always have people who can’t afford lawyers. Going into it, you want to make sure they have enough knowledge.”

However, the way advocated by Stossell and Price is also not a viable solution. At the very least the government ought to require disclosure of creditials to consumers in a clear, prominent way. However, the public would be best served if there were standards in place that has to be met before someone is allowed to call themselves a paralegal. Mr. Stossel, David Price is not a paralegal.

 All that being said, the legal community must give much more thought to utilization of people who meet that standard to solve access to justice problems, including the possibility of allowing well qualified and regulated professionals to perform some basic legal services without the supervision of an attorney.  It should be noted here that our conception of paralegal varies significantly from the conception of paralegals in many, many other countries. Vivek Mairu, in a well crafted essay appearing in THE YALE JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW [Vol. 31: 427] proposes a full definition, but starts with a statement that does appear to catch that conception, “In bare terms, paralegals who provide justice services are laypeople with basic training in law and formal government who assist poor and otherwise disempowered communities to remedy breaches of fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Suggested Reading

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

It should be clear by now that I’m a fan of Practical Paralegalism and Paralegalese and recommend each of them be added to your RSS feed. In case they are not, please do take the time to check out these two recent posts which relate to topics discussed here with some regularity: “Today’s Quote: I Have a ‘Paraprofessional’ Headache” by Lynne DeVenny and “Legal Aid and Paralegals” by Melissa H.

Maybe he just wasn’t professional enough

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 reports on a man who pled guilty to smuggling contraband into prison. It would be of little interest except that he initially claim he was paid for paralegal work, not for contraband. It is likely that his claim was inherently suspect due to a lack of professionalism on his part. As even drug lords’ paralegals know, you have to be professional even when performing duties in prison for prisoners.

This is in no way to suggest any misconduct on the part of the drug lord’s paralegal, who did appear to be both a paralegal and professional. Rather it is another lament at the ease with which people call themselves paralegals and claim to be doing paralegal work. At least in this case the police might have been helped by the ABA, NFPA, NALA, AAfPE definition of paralegal which requires that services be performed with attorney supervision – simply ask the claimant to produce the attorney by whom he was being supervised.

On “becoming” a paralegal

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

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!

Paralegals in Film – Another Point of View

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Normally I let comments be comments, but the post, “Paralegals in Film – One Point of View,” drew a comment from Chere Estrin of KNOW: A Magazine for ParalegalsSue Magazine for Women in Litigation, The Estrin Report, and a bunch of other organizations, that merits a full post not only because of its length, but because of its content. Also it helps prove my original point which is that a course on the depiction of paralegals on the big and small screen would provide a good forum for discussion and education regarding paralegal practice, history, ethics, and professionalism. So here is her comment in full:

It’s very interesting the hot debate that the Erin Brockovich role has played over the years. I have heard more paralegals than not state how much they “hate” the role portrayed in the movie. Whether or not you choose to designate Ms. Brockovich as a “real” paralegal, it is very important that you understand the history and development of the position.

In the 70’s and ’80’s and far reaching into the 90’s, anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal. As the risk of revealing that I am definitely a member of the Boomer generation, I personally came up through the ranks starting in 1981. There were few paralegal schools at that time. Becoming a paralegal meant, for most, that you would receive training on the job. It is true that some paralegals came through the ranks of legal secretary but those were in the minority. During those times, let’s also understand that certain states, such as California, did not require someone to go to law school in order to take the bar. You were eligible if you worked under a mentor but law school was not required. That may still stand today, I’m not certain.

Paralegal schools were also rare in rural areas. This is one reason NALA was formed – to provide education. There was no Internet or online courses. Even in Los Angeles, a major metro city, there were two primary paralegal schools for a very long time – UCLA and UWLA. Some “match-book” cover type schools popped up, however, what was worse? Learning on the job or plunking good money down for a school that also taught you how to be a bartender?

In 1980, I started out as a paralegal in Seattle for $1500 a month. I did have some legal secretary training. I got my first job at a prestigious small firm. I was trained on the job like anyone else. The administrator hired me because, at that time, I was in the theatre. He happened to have seen one of my shows, so he hired me. True story. I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a large, prestigious entertainment firm that handled the A list. Working with movie stars was common.

In that role, I was very active becoming the firm’s first paralegal administrator. I recall that some of my assignments included meeting a cargo plane at LAX and working with customs to board the plane in search of fake ET dolls. (Really!) I was sent to the bottom of a famous L.A. hotel in search of evidence for a case. I waded through muck, spiders and ankle deep water in search of the “hot” documents. I went to Georgia to a carpet mill in search of evidence. In Seattle, paralegals were allowed to go before the judge on non-contested matters. The first judge I went before put our case over when it was apparent the other side was not showing up. Apparently, the defendant’s counsel had decided to go moose hunting. The judge thought that was a perfectly good excuse. Meanwhile, I was always taught by the best attorneys, took seminars, read books, and learned my job as it pertained to the firms in which I was working. And that’s the key element here – as it pertained to the firms in which the paralegal worked.

To put down those paralegals who literally blazed the trail for other paralegals while the education system for paralegals was in its infancy is a travesty. Passing a paralegal course does not ensure that the paralegal will be a good paralegal. Passing the bar does not mean the lawyer will be a good lawyer. It only means that they have studied should possess the core competencies.

It is interesting that years and years later, I make my living in continuing legal eduation. I am a very strong advocate and a firm believer that paralegals should not be paralegals without an education in paralegal studies. However, to discredit those who came up the hard way – with no schools available, training was on the job, they took it among themselves to develop good assignments, they trained the attorney how paralegals could be used, they started paralegal associations, they worked hard getting the word out about this new position, is to discredit your history. Remember, it took California 10 long hard years to get AB 6450 passed that now requires mandatory education for paralegals but still grandfathered in those without it.

As for Ms. Brockovich, not once in the movie was she referred to as a paralegal. Was she rough around the edges? You bet. Was that taking literary license in the movie? For those of us who haven’t met her, we don’t know. Was she then and is she now called a paralegal? No. Did she get a “percentage” of the settlement? Now, we really don’t know, do we? In California in the ’80’s and decadent ’90’s, paralegals at some firms were given large bonuses. (The firm I was with in 1986 was giving out $20,000 – $30,000 bonuses – and that was 1986 dollars.) Truthfully, none of us know except Ms. Brockovich and Mr. Massry what that bonus was based upon or how it was calculated. We only know rumors. If there was any impropriety, I am quite certain the State Bar of California would have stepped in.

Paralegals have made up a story about Brockovich, believed it and made it their truth. It’s not that this message is defending Erin Brockovich. It’s that those paralegals flouting their Masters and B.S.’s in Paralegal Studies claiming they are better than those without have no respect for the trailblazers that came before them. It’s disrespectful and has an arrogant tone to the thousands and thousands of paralegals who came before them. Things have changed but only very recently. Those paralegals without the schooling are the very same paralegals who pushed for better training and education for paralegals nationwide. The least we can do is honor them.

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.

Some Thoughts on California

Monday, August 24th, 2009

California’s legislation relating to paralegals has come up in previous posts, particularly Independent Paralegals and UPL. The legislation capped “CAPA’s [California Alliance of Paralegal Association] longtime goal of obtaining a statutory definition of the paralegal/legal assistant titles came to fruition in 2000 with the passage of AB 1761, now codified as California Business and Professions Code sections 6450 et seq..”

The definition itself does not add much to that agreed upon by ABA and NALA:

6450. (a) “Paralegal” means a person who holds himself or herself out to be a paralegal, who is qualified by education, training, or work experience, who either contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity, and who performs substantial legal work under the direction and supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California, as defined in Section 6060, or an attorney practicing law in the federal courts of this state, that has been specifically delegated by the attorney to him or her. Tasks performed by a paralegal include, but are not limited to, case planning, development, and management; legal research; interviewing clients; fact gathering and retrieving information; drafting and analyzing legal documents; collecting, compiling, and utilizing technical information to make an independent decision and recommendation to the supervising attorney; and representing clients before a state or federal administrative agency if that representation is permitted by statute, court rule, or administrative rule or regulation.

However, the legislation puts some meat on the bones of the phrase “who is qualified by education, training, or work experience,” stating,

(c) A paralegal shall possess at least one of the following:
   (1) A certificate of completion of a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association.
   (2) A certificate of completion of a paralegal program at, or a degree from, a postsecondary institution that requires the successful
completion of a minimum of 24 semester, or equivalent, units in law-related courses and that has been accredited by a national or
regional accrediting organization or approved by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education.
   (3) A baccalaureate degree or an advanced degree in any subject, a minimum of one year of law-related experience under the supervision
of an attorney who has been an active member of the State Bar of California for at least the preceding three years or who has
practiced in the federal courts of this state for at least the preceding three years, and a written declaration from this attorney
stating that the person is qualified to perform paralegal tasks.
   (4) A high school diploma or general equivalency diploma, a minimum of three years of law-related experience under the
supervision of an attorney who has been an active member of the State Bar of California for at least the preceding three years or who has
practiced in the federal courts of this state for at least the preceding three years, and a written declaration from this attorney
stating that the person is qualified to perform paralegal tasks. This experience and training shall be completed no later than December
31, 2003.
   (d) Every two years, commencing January 1, 2007, any person that is working as a paralegal shall be required to certify completion of
four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in legal ethics and four hours of mandatory continuing legal education in either
general law or in an area of specialized law. All continuing legal education courses shall meet the requirements of Section 6070.
Certification of these continuing education requirements shall be made with the paralegal's supervising attorney. The paralegal shall
be responsible for keeping a record of the paralegal's certifications.
   (e) A paralegal does not include a nonlawyer who provides legal services directly to members of the public, or a legal document
assistant or unlawful detainer assistant as defined in Section 6400, unless the person is a person described in subdivision (a).

Many persons within the paralegal profession argue against regulation of the profession. On the other hand, independent paralegals may point to the fact that this legislation was sought by CALA and question the motivation behind the legislation. Still other note that the preference given to ABA approved programs is intended to create or advance a monopoly by the ABA on the legal profession.

So the question remains, does minimal regulation such as California’s benefit the paralegal profession? Whether or not it does, does it benefit the public?

The Most They Can Possibly Get for the Least They Can Possibly Do

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

Paralegal Gateway’s post, Paralegals Beware: Storefront Legal Organizations
speaks to a real problem for the paralegal profession,

These are basically businesses disguised as a non-profit. Why would someone go to the trouble you ask? Money!!! Paralegals and other legal professionals are big business and all you have to do is look at the many legal service providers that exist to realize just how big of a business our profession is. Paralegals specifically are either picking up the phone to call these providers or they are the gatekeepers to those who hold the purse strings. The people who run these storefront associations usually have experience within the legal industry and also realize how much money can be made from the same.

Additionally, in these economic times, these predators recognize that Paralegals and legal professionals are doing all that we can to stand out above the crowd and what better way to do that than with a long list of legal organizations padding our resume? I call them “predators” because that is exactly what they are and we need to attempt to think like they do to expose that they are.

I can’t claim much expertise with regard to store front legal organizations and cannot verify the accuracy of Paralegal Gateway’s statements, but I do see the potential as the profession grows of the profession being judged by the least professional of its members or even “pretenders” to the title of paralegal professional such as the predators described in that post.

Recently I did a post indicating that professional paralegals can help raise the low perception of the legal profession held by the public. In order to do so each paralegal must maintain the highest standards. In the end, professionalism is all about standards.

This reminded me of a comment made in a thread on South Carolina Trial Law Blog. I previously posted another comment from the thread under the heading “Paralegal-Attorney Communication” because the thread was about things paralegals would like their attorneys to know. However, this particular comment is more appropriately included here:

Someone also needs to address the need for quality paralegals and to stop the “get rich quick by becoming a paralegal in 3 days” mentality or the “get your paralegal certificate by taking our courses” when those courses do not establish the need for quality education to begin with.

Paralegals need to be able to spell correctly (or at least know how to use spell check) and have proper grammer. You will not get that with a “weekend paralegal course” and do not expect to make $40k starting the following Monday!

I had to laugh when I read the comment that stated “Trust me were good!” Um, no, you are not good if you cannot write correct sentences. That sentence should say, “Trust me, we’re good!”

I have hired and worked with numerous paralegals and I have generally found that the statement “they don’t know what they don’t know” sums up the lack of quality out there. There needs to be testing and licensing of paralegals just like attorneys and then maybe the attorneys could trust that “you’re good” and not feel the need to micromanage.

From a disgusted paralegal taking the attorney’s side on this subject!

Again, professionalism is all about standards. The profession cannot complain about the public’s perception of the profession if its members do not maintain the standard. The question is, though, how does the profession handle those “members” who do not or will not maintain those standards. Is regulation and licensing the answer as this comment suggests?

This is not, of course, a problem limited to the paralegal profession. As Todd Snyder has been telling us, it seems everyone wants the most they can possibly get for the least they can possibly do. (Sorry about the quality of the video. Todd’s a lot better than this suggests):

he wants that easy money
it’s sad but it’s true
everybody wants the most they can possibly get
for the least they could possibly do
they want that easy money
i don’t understand
if you sceem and you plan you can’t get your hands
on no easy money

“Independent” Paralegals

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

The definition of “paralegal” agreed upon by the ABA and NALA, and accepted by many other organizations and courts, includes the concept that the paralegal works “under the supervision and direction of an attorney” and “performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” (Emphasis added.) The NFPA definition is slightly different and includes the statement, “This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work.”

There are instances in which paralegals form their own business and work “independently” for a variety of attorneys, i.e., they are independent contractors, but still work under the supervision and direction of an attorney. There are other individuals who work independent of any attorney. When they do they often risk being accused of UPL – unauthorized practice of law. (In a later post, I hope to discuss some of the more famous cases of this.) There are a number of issues here for the paralegal profession. One is whether such practitioners should truly be considered paralegals or something else, say “Legal Document Preparers,” a group that has it’s own national association. Another is whether this whole issue argues in favor of regulation and licensing as opposed to voluntary certification.

All of this is a rather long lead-in to a communication I recently received and am posting here ( with permission of the author) for your consideration and comment:

Hello Professor Mongue, I came across your information today as I was doing some research on the Internet. I have been a certified paralegal for 25yrs. I have my own paralegal business Please review my website.  I would like to have an open discussion with you regarding the paralegal field.  As a business owner I am on the opposite end of what you are talking about because my business works with Pro Se Litigants only and this is an area in the paralegal profession that many paralegals would not dare try because of being accused of UPL, Unauthorized Practice of Law.
I have been in this profession for too long and I am never worried or concerned about what attorneys or being accused of UPL. It has never happened to me and never will.  I am a seasoned, veteran paralegal that has worked in the Criminal Justice System for over twenty years in many different environments and positions.  Please go through my website it explains who I am and what I do and like I said I would like to have some discussion with what you are doing for the paralegal profession I am sure I can bring a good perspective to your research.  Thank you and look forward to hearing from you soon.  Efrem
Efrem B. Martin BA, Certified Paralegal & Owner
Martin Paralegal Services LLC