Posts Tagged ‘qualifications’

So who needs training?

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Much can, has, and will be said about the irony of Idaho Tea Party leader landing a government job, even if that job is to cut spending. However, my focus is on another part of the story:

“If you don’t have a free-market perspective, you’d be uncomfortable,” said Stout, whose title is paralegal assistant, though she’s not a trained paralegal.

My problem with this, of course, is the same as it has been with similar situations in the past. One would think that the first question that would come to  mind, especially for someone professing to be concerned about the cost of government, is “Why are we paying someone with no paralegal training to be a paralegal – or a paralegal assistant what ever that is?”  If the job actually requires performing the function of a paralegal, aren’t the taxpayers entitled to a person who has training in fulfilling those functions? If the job does not actually require performing the function of a paralegal, aren’t the taxpayers entitled to “transparency,” i.e., a job title and description that actually describes what the job requires? After all, this is as “$25,000, 19-hour-a-week post.”  How many actual paralegals get that kind of compensation for those kinds of hours? 

The real problem here, of course, is that it remains the case that just about anybody can call themselves a paralegal because there is no generally accepted set of qualifications for the title. There also has and will be much discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of licensing and other forms of paralegal regulation. “Free market” advocates may oppose the idea of government regulation in all of its forms including licensing attorneys, doctors, etc., but at least an established definition of “paralegal” and a standard set of qualifications for using the title would allow people who are paying $25,000 a year for 19 hours of work a week to know whether the person getting the job was actually qualified to do it.

The Value in Critical and Analytical Thinking

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

It’s been a while since I posted. I appreciate the emails asking whether I still exist! I do, but I’ve been quite busy. I’m teaching extra courses this semester, weekends have been taken up with projects such as teaching Constitutional Law to reserve and part-time police officers. In addition, I’m attempting to complete my Masters in Philosophy and had the opportunity to present a paper at a recent annual conference of the Mississippi Philisophical Association.

Normally when I find myself in such a situation, I fill in gaps by relying on posts that incorporate ideas or actual posts from other blogs or emails that I’ve received, but I even seriously behind in reading the many items backlogged in those two categories. However, I have spent some time reading over the last couple of days and will be working off these materials for posts until I can find time for truly original work.

I’m starting with a post from Judge Larry Primeaux’s blog on “THE VALUE OF THINKING LIKE A LAWYER.” That post itself features an article by Professor Harner of Univsersity of Maryland School of Law, which “begins by accepting some of the premises offered by Ribstein and Susskind: that forces are at work changing the legal profession; that the legal profession is becoming commoditized and generic; and that survival as a lawyer, and indeed, survival of the legal profession, will demand evolution in the way lawyers offer and market services.”  But I focused more on Judge Primeaux’s opening words,

In law school we were taught not so much the law as how to think like lawyers.  That is, we were taught to think analytically, to break complex issues into comprehensible components, and to bring creative solutions to bear using the framework of the law.

The judge’s comments and the post in general are, of course, directed to attorneys, but I belive the judge’s comments (at least) are applicable to paralegals, especially in the context of an ongoing discussion on the Paralegal Today listserv. One comment there states,

I agree finding a job as a paralegal is extremely competitive and the employers want to pay $10.00 an hour even with a bachelor. Its like they no longer value the cost and effort that you put into getting an education. When I graduated from undergrad four years ago I was told from my professor that becoming certified was not necessary, however, I noticed that more jobs are asking for five to ten years experience and requiring certification for anyone with less experience. I think that the schools should be honest and inform the students about how hard it is to get a job as a paralegal making a decent income with no experience.

To this another responded,

I agree with you that the schools and colleges should be notified of what is really going on out here after we spent all this money and time and can’t find a job because attorneys are taking them, and they only want to pay us $10.00.  The should be telling students that the demand for paralegals is diminishing because there are so many unemployed attorneys.

I agree that paralegals schools should be forthright with students regarding the prospects for obtaining employment (to the extent any of us can predict the prospects of obtaining employment in two or four years based on the market at the time of enrollment), but my thoughts today are on the comment that law firm employers do not value the education paralegals get (through formal education or experience) and that the devaluation is at least in part unemployed lawyers. While there are many indications that this is happening, I am writing once again to propose to those attorneys who read this blog that the use of unemployed attorneys as substitutes for paralegals is a mistake.

This issue has been addressed here before, but I’ll take another shot at it today using the concept of “thinking like a lawyer” as an example. Well educated paralegals are trained to do a number of things like an attorney (not identical to an attorney.) If we things of the capacities of paralegals and the capacities of attorneys based on education and experience as Venn diagrams we see that there are capacities (usually varying in degree), but there are many tasks for which paralegals are trained that attorneys are not. For example:

•PARALEGALS
•Client Communications, Docket Management, Calendar Management, File Management, Legal Research, Legal Reasoning, Critical and Analytical Thinking
•ATTORNEYS
•Client Representation in Court, Legal Tactics and Strategy, Legal Advice, Legal Research, Legal Reasoning, Critical and Analytical Thinking
Quarterbacks and guards are both atheletes and they are both football players. Many of their capacities overlap. It’s a mistake to hire a guard to play the position of  quarterback. It is a mistake to hire quarterback to play the position of guard. Likewise, it is a mistake to hire an unemployed attorney as a paralegal. In practical terms they cannot and will not “block” clients or provide the same protection from a malpractice blitz as paralegals.

As stated previously,

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 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 Devenny of Practical Paralegalism  summed the training aspect up well :

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 this way,

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. …  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.

UPDATE: After writing the above post I check through the “backstage” data for the blog over for yesterday and found a link for Superlegal Fun, a paralegal blog that contains a post from last Thursday that asks an newly minted attorney who could not find a job as an attorney, “Dear JD: What exactly did you learn in law school?:”
JD is an attorney (hence the nickname JD), but couldn’t find a lawyer job, so he took a job with our firm as a Paralegal.

Today, he asked what ABN and LR meant.

For those who don’t live in a law office, you may not know that those acronyms stand for “associated business name” and “local rule.”

That’s right. He didn’t know LR meant local rule. Oh the humanity, bring me some sticks to draw that man a picture on the wall of his cave!!

No one is expected to know everything about law or law offices freshly out of law school or paralegal school. However, if a law firm is going to spend money giving on-the-job training to someone for a paralegal position, it seems to make sense to start with someone who has the appropriate basic training and will not be constantly looking to move on to another role in the firm leaving the firm to spend the money giving a real paralegal the same on-the-job training!

What Is a Qualifying Education?

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Michelle Parris is off to a remarkable start of her career as an attorney. According to The New York Times:

Even before she graduated from Stanford Law School in 2010, Michelle Parris knew she wanted to help people with psychiatric disabilities and take a holistic approach to defense law. She designed a project with that in mind and received a two-year Equal Justice Works fellowship and an assignment at the Bronx Defenders. Still in the early stages of her fellowship, which began in September, she already has a caseload of 40 clients facing issues like homelessness, lack of access to health care, addiction, deportation and the ultimate nemesis of her project, criminal recidivism.

But what, you may ask, makes this a matter for a post on this blog? It’s this statement in from the article:

I thought I wanted to be a doctor … But when I went to college and took chemistry and calculus, I realized being a doctor was probably not going to happen. I majored in history and graduated in 2004 not sure of my career path.

I wanted to get some exposure to what being a lawyer would be like, so for two years after college I was a paralegal in the litigation department at Davis Polk. There was a lot of sitting in an office in front of a computer, and it just wasn’t the right fit for me.

Here’s my problem: While I have no doubt that Davis Polk gave Michelle the title of “paralegal,” it seems virtually impossible that she actually performed paralegal tasks. While I concede that there continues to be a lot of disagreement and confusion regarding the qualifications for being a paralegal, almost everyone agrees on the ABA definition of what a paralegal is:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

While the details are sketchy, there is nothing in Michelle’s background that indicates training, experience, or education that would qualify a person to perform substantive legal work. (While chemistry, calculus, and history may all be helpful to a paralegal, none qualify as the requisite education.)

A recent discussion on the AAfPE listserv regarding proposed legislation in Florida that would regulate paralegals (see The Paralegal Mentor’s post on this legislation here) ended with this comment:

I just want to jump in here.  As a paralegal since 1981, I would LOVE to see some licensing and regulation, if for no other reason, than to make educational standards across the country for the profession.  I am so tired of reading about “runners” in the newspaper who get caught, and then tell the reporter that they are “paralegals!”  I think it would bring a lot of credibility and respect to the profession, which is always welcome.   Just my two cents. 

While Michelle career path reflects well on the paralegal if indeed she was one as defined by the ABA, it does seem that this comment makes a valid point.

Meanwhile in Australia…

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

The use of the term “paralegal” has been discussed many times on this blog both in the context of the legal assistant/paralegal designation debate, in the context of asking whether just anyone can call themselves a paralegal, and even discussing Australian for “paralegal.” Despite the rather clear depiction of a in the last referenced post, the lack of a clear statement of qualifications for using the terms “paralegal” in Australia appears to have lead to so much abuse of the term by lawyers that the Chief Justice of Queensland, “has called for a national ban on the term “paralegals” to prevent clients being deceived into paying $300 an hour for work done by unqualified clerks and secretaries.”

According to The Australian

The term “paralegal” is interpreted by clients as meaning someone with a legal qualification but in reality it can be the firm’s most junior clerk performing mundane tasks including booking medical appointments and picking up reports.

Chief Justice de Jersey told The Australian that it was “plainly unacceptable” for a law firm to be charging a client $300 an hour for work done by someone not legally qualified.

“We need to eradicate this kind of grasping rapacity,” he said. “It would be a good start to stop the use of the term ‘paralegals’. It is unacceptable and deceptive and it should not be occurring. The term paralegals appears to be designed to suggest these people have a qualification and experience that particularly suits them for legal work.

“It implies that there is a qualification or expertise justifying their involvement in legal work, as opposed to someone who does administrative or clerical work. It is deceptive to present them under that guise and then charge as if they are somehow qualified.

One recent thread on the Paralegal Today listserv has lead to a similar discussion based on a question regarding whether work experience or education is more valuable to a new paralegal.  During that discussion, Michelle Boerder of Dallas, Texas, noted:

 I worked as a legal secretary while going through a paralegal program 30 years ago.   While I had learned a great deal “on-the-job,”  like you said,  I later understood the big picture, when combining what I learned in my paralegal education and work experience.    Just as lawyers have legal education to become lawyers, so should paralegals have paralegal education.  (and even lawyers in small towns/small firms go to law school;  today, there are many paralegal education opportunities so there is a diminishing excuse that education is not available)

 Your comments are exactly why I cannot understand some firms who hire college graduates but with NO paralegal education and call them a paralegal.     It seems (to me) such a disservice to both the employee and the firm.
 
Since our  profession has matured and grown, I hope to see more and more bachelor degree paralegal education  (or matriculation programs from associate degrees, which is what I did). [Emphasis added]
 
As I noted there in response, it is also a disservice to the public, the paralegal profession and, by extension, to the legal profession. The question becomes, I suppose, when it goes beyond being a mere disservice to pure abuse and perhaps even fraud, as described by the Queensland Chief Justice.

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.)

 

 

Another “paralegal”

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Recently ran across an op-ed in a Philadelphia paper talking about government power. Looks like great fun for those who like to do analytical and critical thinking exercises as several of the contentions were clearly contenders for more analysis than the author had given them. However, my primary concern is that the author is described as “a retired International Business manager, and a Villanova Engineering graduate. Mr. ____ currently provides paralegal help to political candidates.”

Those of you who read my posts regularly have probably already figured out where I am going with this: What about being a manager and engineer qualifies someone to provide “paralegal” services? What are those services? If they are legitimate paralegal services, are they done under the supervision of an attorney or is this a risk for UPL? If they are not legitimate paralegal services, then why are they described as such?

It is difficult, if not impossible, for the paralegal profession to establish an identity for itself as a profession if that identity is being hijacked by persons with no appropriate education, experience, or training. Perhaps, this gentleman has one or more of these, but there is no indication he has and it is, as discussed in previous posts, not at all unusual for just anyone to call themselves a paralegal.

How fast can you become a paralegal?

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

One new paralegal education program managed to get publicity with the headline “Become a paralegal faster than you ever thought possible.” At least it appears to be a legitimate program offering a paralegal education, although I do not see it on the AAfPE membership list. I bet, however, that they can’t beat Mike Yenni, a candiate for Kenner, Louisana, mayor and the subject of some controversy regarding whether he ever worked as a paralegal in the Jefferson Parrish Attorney’s office. As stated previously I’ve little concern with the polictics of this situation, but much regarding the whole idea that Yenni may have been called a paralegal even though he has no education, training, or experience.

Well, today’s headline from the Times-Picayune as posted on Nola.com is “Jefferson Parish confirms Mike Yenni was paralegal.” It appears that Yenni was hired as a “clerk-typist” at about $5/hour in September of 1998, but was then transferred to a “paralegal” position in November where he worked for two months before leaving to become an assistant to the then Kenner mayor. This may answer the political questions, but doesn’t come close to touching the real issue: How can someone who has not experience, no training, and no education, suddenly be a paralegal? Does the Jefferson Parish Attorney’s Office have no standards at all? According to the report, “Yenni said he researched code enforcement issues and oversaw cases adjudicated in 1st Parish Court. “I’m glad I had that training,” said Yenni.”

I am sure Yenni is glad he had this two months of training after he was transferred. The question that professional members of the paralegal profession need to be asking is how it can be that he was transferred into their profession with, apparently, no qualifications?

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 Nola.com,

Two weeks ago, The Times-Picayune reported that the biography page at www.electmikeyenni.com 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.

Court Considers Question “What is suitable work for a paralegal?”

Friday, March 19th, 2010

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled that an unemployment law judge used the wrong standard in determining what was suitable work for a position advertised as a paralegal position. The unemployed person had had ten years experience as a contract manager drafting, analyzing, and negotiating contracts. She then accepted a position paralegal position with  an annual salary of $60,000:

The description provided by UCare summarized the position’s major responsibilities as: “Provide the General Counsel with legal support, particularly in contract drafting, review and management. Serve as a key legal resource for the Government Programs Department, providing assistance in regulatory research, review of RFP or application documents, and legal support in conjunction with regulatory audits.” Relator remained at UCare for 23 days. She attended some training sessions and meetings, but was given little work to do. Relator requested additional work from her supervisor and was given a couple of projects, including looking in the file cabinets where contracts were kept, but not the type of extensive contract work that she had been accustomed to working on in her previous positions. Relator later asked her supervisor if she could look into getting some contract database-management software for UCare, but “was basically making work for [herself].” Relator was also asked to look up agency addresses for the Government Programs Department.

There was a lot going on in this case, much of it confusing. The part that caught my interest was this:

In addressing suitability, we begin by reviewing relator’s challenge to one of the ULJ’s findings. The ULJ found that relator “has more than ten years experience as a paralegal and has extensive experience in contract management.” While it is undisputed that relator has extensive experience in contract management, there is nothing in the record to support the ULJ’s finding that relator has more than ten years of experience as a paralegal. As relator points out, she has over ten years of experience as a contract manager, but has never asserted that she has any experience as a paralegal. We agree that there is not substantial evidence in the record to support the ULJ’s finding that relator had more than ten years of experience as a paralegal. …. The paralegal position advertised by UCare required a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a similar legal-assistant program. UCare also required “[a]t least three years experience as a paralegal or legal assistant, including experience in contract review and drafting as well as legal and regulatory research.” The ULJ concluded the paralegal position with UCare was suitable for relator because “[t]here is no evidence in the record showing that the employer breached any promise to [relator] or made any misrepresentation as to the nature and type of work assigned to a paralegal in this organization.”

A lot of questions arise, including why UCare offered and the employee accepted a position requiring a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, when she did not have the required degree and experience she did not have for work the employer did not need to be performed. But most interesting is the fact that the Court of Appeal recognizes that being a paralegal requires more than just being able to “drafting, analyzing, and negotiating contracts.” It would have been dicta, but it still would have been especially interesting for the court to state exactly what more was required to convert experience drafting, analyzing, and negotiating contracts into experience as a paralegal. (The degree is education rather than experience.)  Inquiring minds want to know!

The court’s opinion is unpublished but posted at Leagle: Popularizing the Law

Paralegal Profession Recognized by Tulsa County Bar Association

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Lynne DeVenny at Practical Paralegalism notes that the Tulsa County Bar Association now allows paralegals who meet the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Minimum Qualification Standards for Legal Assistant/Paralegal to become associate members of the association. Lynne correctly notes, “This is a great opportunity for Tulsa paralegals and legal assistants to expand their professional network and educational opportunities.” More important, she states, this is an important recognition, “of the importance of its area paralegals and legal assistants.”

The latter is of the most significance to me, although I do not mean to minimize the networking and educational opportunities. The bar as all to often neglected to recognize not only the importance of paralegals, but the fact that paralegals are, like the lawyers themselves, part of the legal profession. Opening the bar association to paralegals allows the attorneys and paralegals who must work together as a legal team in the law office to associate together as the professionals they are.

One question that arises is whether this step would have been possible without the establishment in 2000 of the minimal qualification standards by the Oklahoma Bar Association. While such standards do not amount to licensing they do, at least, help establish the identity of paralegals as a profession.