Posts Tagged ‘profession’

Profesionalism: Being Competent and Maintaining a Credible Front?”

Monday, January 17th, 2011

“The Cultural Study of Work,” an anthology compiled by Douglas A. Harper, Doug Harper, and Helene M. Lawson, (2003) contains an article by Kathryn J. Lively, entitled Occupational Claims to Professionalism: The Case of Professionals that is an interesting read. It’s available in it’s entirety online (go to Goggle Scholar and type in “paralegal professionalism”), but I cannot download or copy-and-paste from the article. Lively conducted an open-interview study of over 50 paralegals to gather an understanding of how individual paralegals understand “professional” and “professionalism,” stating:

Given paralegal’s position in the middle of the occupational continuum, as paraprofessionals they make ideal respondents for studying the appropriation of the symbols “professional” (and the corresponding symbol “unprofessional”) and “professionalism” by nonprofessional workers. Paraprofessionals are members of occupations organized around the work of a master profession. They lack the requisite job autonomy, and, in some cases, depth of experience or knowledge to be full-fledged professionals. [citation omitted] In this case, paralegals are members of an occupation that serves attorneys, but they lack the job autonomy, experience, and knowledge to practice law without attorney supervision.

While some may argue that this is just a matter of definition and anti-competitive rules established by the ABA, i.e., that paralegal have the requisite experience and knowledge to practice some law, just not law as an attorney does, and the lack of job autonomy emanates from the ABA’s refusal to yield any part of law practice to non-lawyers, we will leave that aside for the moment and focus on the results of Lively’s study.

Lively explains,

Because professionalism was an important part of paralegals’ work identity, whenever they used “professional” or “professionalism,” I asked them what these words meant to them personally.  Although no two paralegals completely agreed on what it meant to be professional, they identified two sets of norms they used for judging their and others’ behavior: being competent in one’s work and maintaining a credible front. [Citations omitted.]

She concludes, in part,

Note that, at least for these paralegals, being competent often meant withholding anger, exhibiting civility, and stifling pettiness, which is reminiscent of earlier discussions of display and feeling rules in the workplace. Indeed one of the most striking observations about the use of the term “competency” by paralegals is the degree to which it often contained an emotive element in addition to the basic skill, knowledge and ability required to perform the job….In fact, many paralegals believed that the manner in which they completed their work was almost as important as whether or not they completed the work. [Citations omitted.]

For these paralegals, professionalism, or “being professional,” required not only that they do their jobs, but that they do them with good attitudes (or at very least the appearance of good attitudes.)

None of this is news to most of the readers of this blog in posts such as “Feedback, Attitude, and Control.” We’ve discuss the role of attitude in professionalism here before. To an extent I disagree with this statement of attitude being merely maintaining a credible front, as the statements of the paralegals seem to go well beyond that. However, the article itself is quite interesting and well worth reading.

Paralegal Association Elects Directors and Officers

Thursday, September 30th, 2010
According to the Providence Business News, “The Rhode Island Paralegal Association has elected its Board of Directors and appointed Officers for 2010-2011. President, Carol Blanchard of Partridge Snow & Hahn; Vice President, Melanie Catineault of Cameron & Mittleman; Secretary, Connie McClurg of Kalander & Shaw; and Treasurer, Veronica Colon, a Paralegal with Sovereign Bank. Remaining Board members are: Elaine White of RI Temps, Patricia Lyons of Roger Williams University, Laurie Emond of Little Medeiros Kinder Bulman & Whitney, Erin Dolan of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, Deb Medeiros of Brown Rudnick, and Crystal Dartt of Duffy & Sweeney. Roberta Arsac of Adler Pollock continues to serve as Advisory Director. For more information about the Rhode Island Paralegal Association, contact Carol Blanchard at (401) 861-8254 or Elaine White at (401) 781-840”
While paralegal association electing officers is an everyday occurrence these days, this is important for many reasons.  I’ve posted several times on the importance to the paralegal profession of paralegal associations, the importance of paralegals taking leadership roles in paralegal associations, and the many benefits to members, the paralegal profession, and the public of paralegal associations. But the real importance of this article is the fact that these days paralegal association electing officers is an everyday occurrence. This is a sign of real progress not  just for the associations, but for the profession. Since I contend paralegals are a very real part of the solution to the access to justice problem in the United States, this is also a very good sign for access to justice in the United States.
In any case, congratulations to all the new officers. And a sincere tip-o-my-hat “Thank you for your service. “

No life plan? Kill time as a paralegal.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

There’s a website that begins the discussion of paralegals with

So you’re finishing college and your life plans don’t extend much beyond dinner. Join the club. If you wanna kill some time before applying to grad school or just make enough money to avoid moving in with your parents, you should consider working as a paralegal for a few years, because if you have a college degree and decent grades, you’re qualified to be an entry-level paralegal.

Admittedly the site does distinguish between this kind of “time-killing” paralegal and career paralegals, declaring:

Some paralegal positions require a paralegal certificate, a diploma you get after taking an accredited course in paralegal studies . But these certificates, and the positions that require them, are mostly for people who wish to be career paralegals  So don’t fear — there are plenty of positions available for recent college grads that don’t require a paralegal certificate. And we’re going to tell you how to get those jobs. (If you wish to be a career paralegal, check out American Bar Association for more info.)



Are “7” and “6+1” the same?

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently honor a prosecution team including a paralegal for work done convicting a former Ukrainian prime minister for money laundering. On a previous occasion I noted the significance of the paralegal being honored in his capacity as a paralegal rather than the award going to an attorney and staff. It recognized his contribution as a separate professional and member of the legal team.

The Justice Department appears to have a firm grasp of this concept. But the same is not true for those who report on this honor. Compare, for example, the report in the Contra Costa Times with that posted by CBS Channel 5 in its “Crime Watch” section.

The Times piece is short. Here’s how, in part,  it cast the honor:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder honored six federal prosecutors and a paralegal for their work convicting Pavel Lazarenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister who moved to Marin County.The seven received the Attorney General’s Award for distinguished service during a ceremony Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The award, in its 57th year, was given to 286 honorees this year.

Note that the paralegal is both mentioned separately here recognizing her separate role but included as a member of the seven member team.

The Channel 5 post is much longer and has a significantly different approach:

Six federal prosecutors from San Francisco have been honored by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for pursuing a money laundering case against a former Ukrainian prime minister.

The six prosecutors won a jury conviction of former Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko in federal court in San Francisco in 2004 for using U.S. banks to launder $21.7 million extorted from a businessman in Ukraine in the 1990s.

It is only at the end of a 335 word story that we learn, “Paralegal Specialist Christine Ying Tian also received an award for her work on the case.” Clearly this report does not convey the perception of the role in, and the contribution to, the legal team held by the Justice Department.  In an operation like this, the paralegal is not just an afterthought.

Hats off to the Contra Costa Times for getting it right. Eventually, with the help of reports like theirs, as the paralegal profession gains in professionalism and identity, the public will have a better understanding of the role of the paralegal in the legal team.

The Chicken or the Egg

Friday, September 25th, 2009

In The Empowered Paralegal I make a case for the proposition that one way for the paralegal profession to advance as a profession in light of the confusion within the bar is for paralegals to be more professional. Admittedly there is a “chicken or egg – which came first” problem here. More than one paralegal has written making statements to the effect of one received yesterday, “I am degreed, but it’s difficult for me to push for education when any attorney can simply walk in and call his secretary a paralegal one day.”

There is no simple answer to this question. The professionalization of paralegals (or legal assistants in some of the earlier literature) has been the subject of discussion among paralegal scholars for decades. In 1990, Green, Snell, Corgiat and Paramanith wrote in the Journal of Paralegal Education and Practice of the three stages of professionalization: Identity, Maturation States and Goal Attainment, and a year later Jolee Farinacci addressed the problem that, while the paralegal profession is “truly as ancient as the legal profession itself,” paralegalism had just recently been recognized as a profession in its own right and did not have an identity. Still it is understandably frustrating for practitioners that the profession still appears to be struggling with the Identity stage at the same time it is attempting to work through Maturation States.

Viewing the profession from a position in academia and on the lawyer side of the bar, I tend to take heart in the tremendous progress that has been made since I started practice in 1976. The fact is that professional associations are not only celebrating 25th anniversaries, but growing and serving the profession. The profession has several wonderful voices on the internet such as Lynne DeVenney at Practical Paralegalism, Vicki Voison, The Paralegal Mentor, and Melissa H. at Paralegalese, and in publications such as Know: The Magazine for Paralegals. The profession is being recognized more often by state bars and state governments. I’ll leave aside the controversy over efforts to establish regulatory and certification programs in the various states and point out that the fact such efforts recognize the separate role of the paralegal alone is progress for the profession.

In the end though, I take heart from the professional attitude of many of those now entering the field. Consider this from one of my students who as worked in a law office for a couple of years now:

It is time for more people to be educated on what a paralegal really is.  We need to set higher standards for ourselves and not tolerate being labeled as a glorified assistant.  We’re so much more than that!  …  Some like to say that paralegals are people who couldn’t or wouldn’t go to become an attorney so they settled for working for one.  Once again this is false.  Both are necessary part in a working team in the office and neither can truly be productive without the other.

I get so angry when I hear fellow students or paralegals bad mouth our profession.   The most common thing when they are asked what a paralegal does, or is, I hear “we are the attorneys slave”, “we do all the work and attorneys get the credit”, or “we do the same job and get paid a fraction of what attorneys make”.  For the ones who think this, please change your profession and/or get a new job.  We as paralegals need to do what ever we can to educate ourselves as much as we can, be professional and love what we do.

I continue to believe that if paralegals take charge of their own profession and their own professionalism, the bar and the public will follow where the profession leads.

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

Paralegal Gateway: Paralegals May Be Replacing First Year Associates

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

According to a press release, Jeannie S. Johnston of is finding that

[T]he inside word from some of the nation’s top law firms is that they actual lose money on first year associates. These firms spend big money on recruiting top candidates and offer large starting salaries only to have them begin work without any applicable experience.

“It takes about another year to train the first year associates. Secondary to this, they are not able to bill out as much time and the firms are actually losing profits.” Johnston goes on to say, “The existing paralegals, on the other hand, can do the exact same work much more efficiently and end up billing almost three times as much in the same day. It just makes more sense to increase the hourly rate of the paralegals and reduce the first year salary of the incoming associates.”

Johnston believes that if this trend catches on, paralegals should see an increase in their paychecks.

This comes on the heels of a post by Melissa H. at Paralegalese noting

Over the past several years, paralegals specifically have been carving out a niche for ourselves in the legal community. We grew out of a need for cost control and efficiency as law firms began competing as businesses. We grew out of a need to bridge the gap between the high and mighty lawyer and the lay people he serves. We stem from the legal secretary, a highly efficient and organized specimen who learned procedural law to perfection until one day someone decided her skills should be billable. We sprung forth from professionals of every field who enjoy the challenges in the law yet choose not to pursue a license. And we are becoming ever more necessary in a legal world fraught with runaway costs, inflated salaries, and increasing overhead. (Emphasis added)

And it certainly seems to address the claim that motivated Melissa to write the post, “This topic stems from a discussion I had this evening regarding paralegals and attorneys. I was told that paralegals are becoming less necessary today because young associates are willing and able to do all their own work.”

There is no doubt that financial considerations have been, are, and will be a major factor in the development of the paralegal profession. However, I would not let this factor blind the legal profession to other factors such as that mentioned by Melissa, “We grew out of a need to bridge the gap between the high and mighty lawyer and the lay people he serves.” If the only factor is cost, then it is possible young attorneys could serve as paralegals if they are willing to take the pay. However, as argued in previous posts, attorneys and paralegals differ in training, experience and skill sets, not just cost. It may be possible for a talented and skilled paralegal to take on many of the tasks of young attorneys since those tasks, e.g., research, are part of the paralegal skill set. The same is not as likely to be true the other way as most young attorneys are ill equipped to “bridge the gap between the high and mighty lawyer and the lay people he serves.” In the end quality legal service requires a legal team with each member of that team trained and competent in filling their role on that team.