In today?s standard of a paralegal is defined as: A person sufficiently trained or experienced in the law and legal procedures to assist, under an attorney?s supervision, in the performance of substantive legal work that would otherwise be performed by any attorney. This definition is however lacks a certain accuracy, because in addition to all those things a paralegal is also a professional. This status however controversial, has not been granted because of the lack of mandatory statutes requiring a license.
The time has long since passed when a paralegal could enter the profession without formal education. Currently many employers prefer paralegal candidates with the following background: (1) a bachelor degree from a four-year institution; (2) paralegal training, preferable from an ABA approved paralegal program; and (3) hands-on practical and work related training such as that obtained through an internship or externship. However, many are contemplating the further requirement of a license.
By their very nature, licensure mechanisms are designed to protect the health, safety, and well being of citizens. Licensure mechanisms are, for the most part, established by governments through their legislative bodies to serve the public interest. In New Jersey, for example, the legislature has established 33 boards which regulate the activities of 60 professions and occupations; 600,000 New Jersey citizens are regulated by these boards which range from medicine, dentistry and nursing to plumbing, psychological counseling and engineering.
It is critical that any licensing or professional certification program must relate to and reflect real-world situations. However, there is a difference. Certification is the formal recognition by a private group or state agency that an individual has satisfied standards of proficiency, knowledge, and competence: ordinarily accomplished through the taking of an exam. Licensing is a government?s official act of granting permission to an individual, such as an attorney, to something that would be illegal in the absence of such permission.
Professional licensing mechanisms are designed to protect the public and to control entry into an occupation. Because there are so many other individual paralegals whom are not practicing under the supervision of an attorney there is always a question of whether or not their conduction of business is within the ethical standards and are not practicing the Unauthorized Practice of Law.
If a license was given that entailed a standard prerequisite educational curriculum this would indeed help ensure or protect these certain individuals from this endangerment. Furthermore, by means of esteem it would bypass the current standard of certification by a state or private agency and solely become a governmental.
As of now there is in excess of 800 formal paralegal training programs throughout the United States. The vast majority of training programs are two-year degree programs found in community colleges or within a four-year institution. However, the number of four-year degree programs and post baccalaureate certificate programs continue to increase. Additionally, there are at least four institutions that offer masters degrees in paralegal studies. And yet certification and licensing exams still remain voluntary.
In an attempt to establish a standard or voluntary licensing plan NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations) understood that it was the goal of the Committee to create a system that would provide minimum standards for paralegal education and practice. Although the Committee promulgates “Rules for Licensure of Paralegals,” (”Rules”) there is no indication in the report that the plan is truly a licensing program. Licensing is a mandatory form of regulation. By definition, licensure is the process by which an agency or branch of government grants permission to persons meeting predetermined qualifications to engage in a given occupation and/or to use a particular title. It is unclear whether it is the Committee’s intention to implement a program where individuals could not practice as or call themselves paralegals unless they met the predetermined qualifications identified through the licensing plan. Licensing is a restrictive form of regulation to control those entering a profession. NFPA respectfully suggests that if the Committee’s intent is a true licensing plan, it should also recommend that the program be mandatory in order to create a fair and equitable means to regulate the profession.
It has frequently been recognized in the lower courts that paralegals are capable of carrying out many tasks, under the supervision of an attorney, that might otherwise be performed by a lawyer and billed at a higher rate. Such work might include, for example, factual investigation, including locating and interviewing witnesses; assistance with depositions, interrogatories, and document production; compilation of statistical and financial data; checking legal citations; and drafting correspondence. Much such work lies in a gray area of tasks that might appropriately be performed either by an attorney or a paralegal. [Id., 109 S.Ct., at 2471-2472].
However, governments and associations can only deal with an individual’s actions. The legal profession is built solely on a foundation of trust and adherence to a code of professional conduct by paralegals is the most crucial element in the growth and acceptance of this career field. Licensing procedures control entry into an occupation or profession; they do not ensure ethical behavior.
This is why I believe that licensing should be strict about the standard training necessary in order to achieve ones license. I believe that a person should receive many hours of training in ethics. Even if a moral code or capability cannot be built into a person at least they would know the consequences of their own actions.
Legal Assistant Today Magazine. Home page. 7 December 1999.
National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Facts and Findings:
New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Determination
Re Licensure of Legal Assistants. May 24, 1999.
National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Model Act for
Paralegal Licensure. 7 December 1999