Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Case for Regulation

As more paralegals enter the job force and more law firms utilize paralegals, paralegal regulation has emerged as an issue. Nowhere does this become more pressing than in cases where paralegals handle the bulk of the legal work and engage in intense client contact. Currently, anyone can call himself or herself a paralegal, regardless of training or experience, and inadvertently wreak havoc on a client or firm. Regulation of paralegals can mitigate the damage caused by untrained people using the title of “paralegal,” as well as offer benefits to those receiving some sort of certification or licensure.

Several years ago, I worked with a woman who called herself a paralegal. Unfortunately, she would often stumble over the most basic procedural rules, insert careless typos into her work, and send out erroneous information to clients. Yet because there is no regulation for paralegals in Massachusetts, she could continue to add “Paralegal” to her signature line. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum are the paralegals with either many years of experience, college degrees, paralegal certificates, and/or advanced degrees being lumped in with those who barely have any education or experience. There is a wide gap between these types of paralegals, and regulation could close that gap.

Firms and lawyers would benefit by knowing that the paralegals they hire have gone through some sort of process and have actual credentials. By actually having some sort of credentials, paralegals who cannot perform more advanced legal work would be weeded out of the pool, thus making it easier to distinguish a paralegal with training and experience from someone who once worked for a lawyer or took a quick course and now calls himself or herself a paralegal.

Meanwhile, paralegals can benefit from regulation. There certainly is the question of money, and if regulation becomes standardized, attorneys may be willing to pay more for a paralegal with that piece of paper or license. It seems that being a Notary Public or having a paralegal certificate offers an advantage, so why not a paralegal certification?

We can also hold ourselves to higher standards with regulation. It can be good publicity for the profession. If someone is not up to par, is not able to pass an exam, and is not able to provide some sort of actual qualifications, they cannot call themselves paralegals. That can be reserved for those of us who do have experience, knowledge, and/or education to back up our titles. We can say, “Yes, I’m a paralegal,” and have some acknowledgement of all the work we’ve done to get here, rather than, “What’s that?” or “Yeah, my cousin took a correspondence course and she’s one, too.”

Regulation could be anything from a formal exam given by the state to a fee and an oath taken. It could be administered through a private organization such as NFPA. As long as the paralegal in question could show some sort of qualifications, either through experience or coursework from an accredited school, he or she should be able to apply for the certification. NFPA has already laid out requirements for the PACE exam, which would work well to qualify and disqualify applicants. For example, someone who has been working for ten years as a paralegal but only has a high school diploma definitely should have the opportunity for licensure, as should someone with a degree or certificate in paralegal studies and minimal experience.

With such safeguards in place, paralegals can continue to move forward into more substantive legal work. A regulated paralegal could be trusted with more client contact, more document drafting (ok, more work, but also more responsibility, more challenges, and more money).

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2 comments:

  1. I somewhat disagree that certification is needed. But I also agree... let me explain. I interned in undergrad as a paralegal's assistance. At the end, I knew more about trials than some of the attorney's around here.

    I'm now a Case Assistant at a big firm and I still think I know more than some of the paralegals here. Yet sometimes, I wish there were some paralegal tasks I did know more about - specifically facts about the law and administrative legal processes.

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  2. I'm not sure that certification is needed - I do think it is an admirable goal. You're right about there being people around with years of experience, certificates, and degrees.

    California has paralegal regulation and paralegals without certification or degrees were grandfathered in. Some of them have since obtained degrees and/or certificates, but many of them haven't not and have probably forgotten more than lots of attorneys will ever learn.

    I have yet to understand the logic of hiring someone as a paralegal with a degree in anything. I've heard of people with degrees in drama, music, etc. getting jobs over paralegals with years of experience. Usually, it doesn't work out. The exception being very large firms which provide training to their staffs.

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