Posts Tagged ‘definition’

Sharpening the Line Between Lawyers and Paralegals

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

A previous post entitled “The Line Separating ‘Lawyers’ from ‘Paralegals’ Becomes Blurred” noted a post by Lynne at Practical Paralegalism entitled, “Paralegals, Watch Your Backs! Out-of-Work Lawyers Want Your Jobs. ” I had intended to follow up on that issue by noting the differences between paralegals and lawyers to explain why it is a mistake for lawyers to take jobs as paralegals. It is not just a matter of protecting paralegal turf. The fact is that lawyers and paralegals are trained differently for different roles.

However, that territory was covered quite well by Lynne in a comment she posted on a blog post on – Should You Work as a Paralegal if You Can’t Find a Job as a Lawyer?.  Carolyn Elefan, who did the post answered in the negative stating,

In general, lawyers are either over-qualified or under-qualified for many of the available non-lawyer positions. For example, one firm that advertised for an administrative assistant was inundated with lawyer résumés. But the firm declined to hire a lawyer because it felt the candidate would simply leave once a better job came alongIn general, lawyers are either over-qualified or under-qualified for many of the available non-lawyer positions. For example, one firm that advertised for an administrative assistant was inundated with lawyer résumés. But the firm declined to hire a lawyer because it felt the candidate would simply leave once a better job came along.

The point is not, however, that the lawyer is over-qualified. The lawyer is simply not qualified by training or experience to do what paralegals do. For example, the paralegals role in client management is quite different from that of an attorney.

Lynne summed the training aspect up well in her comment to Elefan’s post:

While lawyers’ training is usually a three-year immersion in case study and analysis, many paralegals have undergone two to four years of specific paralegal training which is much more practice-oriented and very different from most law schools’ current curriculum.

Chere Estrin, Editor-in-Chief of Know: The Magazine for Paralegals handles the experience issue in another comment,

Besides differences in training – lawyers are trained in the practice of law while paralegals are trained in procedures and processing – few lawyers have the on-the-job experience to be a paralegal. In fact, while lawyers can delegate a paralegal assignment, very few can execute it. The awarding of a law degree does not guarantee knowledge of the finite and detailed responsibilities of paralegals.

And Melssa H. from Paralegalese, who I have previously quoted in an encouraging sequel on the topic “Does Your Attorney Understand What You Do?” makes an point that may be even more important:

Also, we need to stop tiering in the legal world. When we say that paralegals and attorneys are trained differently for different jobs, we are not saying that the attorney’s job requires a smarter or more capable person. We are saying the attorney’s job requires a person with a law degree and license to practice, while the paralegal’s job has other requirements (which I personally feel need to be more uniform as we move forward). If I were a lawyer, I would want the most capable, intelligent person I could find to assist me in my practice. After all, if the paralegal is doing work that, absent the paralegal, would be done by the attorney, I would hope the paralegal is at least as competent as the person who chose to go to law school would be.

I am so thankful I have an attorney supervisor who views me and my education as valuable resources to his firm. While technically, he is the boss and controller of the work product, he places a ton of faith in my abilities. At some point, when I have a few more years under my belt, I expect he may even trust me more than he will trust himself in some areas. This says nothing negative about his own abilities and intellect. It just means that our daily jobs are slightly different, and I come into contact with some situations more often than he does. Over time I will develop a more detailed knowledge of some parts of the legal field that do not require a licensed attorney. Rather than a viewing this as a problem, I like to compare it to the different jobs nurses and doctors do. The doctor may be fully capable of performing the duties of a nurse in a technical sense, but the nurse’s experience and training probably make him better at the job.

The attorney and paralegal are parts of the legal team. The attorney, like a quarterback, directs that team.  Except in exceptional circumstances, the quarterback is not expected to play the role of the other team members – primarily because he is not trained or experienced enough to perform those roles. No one want the quarterback responsible for protecting against a 300 lb defensive lineman. The same applies to the protection a paralegal gives from many clients through skillful and professional client management.

Paralegal v Legal Assistant – Does It Matter? (Part Two)

Monday, August 10th, 2009

As a follow up to a recent post on this topic, in 2007 the Legal Assistants Section of the State Bar of Michigan changed its name from “Legal Assistants Section” to “Paralegal/Legal Assistant Section.” name change in May 2008. A story by Linda Jevahirian in the Michigan Paralegal reports the reason for the change and some research she performed regarding the use of the terms.

The change occurred “Because both terms are used in the field, similar to the way in which ‘lawyer’ and ‘attorney’ are interchangeable, the membership felt the section name should reflect both titles.” I am not sue this characterization is correct, as is somewhat indicated by Linda’s research on “Which term is more accurate?”:

In an effort to determine whether one term—“paralegal” or “legal assistant”—is more applicable, I researched the terminology most often used by a range of paralegal organizations. What I discovered is that neither is used more often than the other.

The report gives a good history of the use of both terms by organizations such as the ABA, the International Paralegal Management Association,NALA, NFPA, and some Michigan state associations. While this research does show that there is not yet a consensus on the subject, it does appear to me to indicate a trend exemplified by the report that “IPMA changed its name from ‘The Legal Assistant Management Association’ (LAMA) to its current name to mirror the ABA’s name change two years earlier.”

As I stated in the earlier post, the profession would be well served by some standardization in this regard. This report set forth at least one reason for this in its analysis of  NALS:

Get ready for even more confusion. Many legal secretaries refer to themselves as “legal assistants.” I asked a representative of NALS (a national association with state and local chapters) for its view since it originally represented secretaries and only recently changed its focus to include a broader range of legal professionals, from receptionists to lawyers. NALS has concluded that, although the terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” were at one time interchangeable, the term “legal assistant” is now a generic term for someone who works for an attorney.


Paralegal v Legal Assistant – Does it matter?

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

A few months ago a post on the Western New York Paralegals Association bulletin board forum on professionalism included a survey asking whether law firms used the term “paralegal” or the term “legal assistant,” and which term respondents preferred. There were only twelve respondents so, in addition to not being a representative sample of personnel in American law offices  the responds are statistically significant. It is, nonetheless, interesting. One firm used “legal assistant,” five used “paralegal,” and two used the terms interchangeably. Nine of the respondents preferred the use of the term “paralegal,” while none expressed a preference for “legal assistant.”

As noted in a previous post here there is still a lot of confusion both within and without the legal profession as to just what a paralegal is. This confusion is aggravated by the use  of multiple terms for people who perform essentially the same roles. While NALA and ABA have agreed upon a definition, it is of little help to those outside the profession. As the medical profession has learned with regard to physician assistants, standardization of usage would be helpful in the legal profession. The fact (assuming a larger study confirmed this survey sample) that those persons performing the role prefer “paralegal” is significant.

This difficulty is compounded by “independent paralegals” and “legal document assistant professionals,” terms that will be discussed in later posts.

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)