Licensing Paralegals? Now? Whoa! Hold down there, Big Fella

Hot.iStock_000016332605XSmall[1]This business of licensing paralegals is a hot topic.  I wrote about this some time ago and interestingly, received a number of comments but not to The Estrin Report.  The e-mails came to my business address.  Why?

It may be a touchy area for some paralegals who don't want their colleagues knowing how they feel about licensing.  It's a bit like like letting your workplace know whether you are Democrat or Republican.  It affects your business relationships.

I have always maintained that this still relatively new field (about 40 years old) did not go about establishing itself correctly.  It's been piecemeal, guessing or improvising at best. Why?  Originally, no formal training was required and in most states, still isn't.  The position originated from the legal secretary until administrators and attorneys finally figured out that there were secretarial duties that could be billed.  The problem was, clients would not pay for secretarial duties and the assignments evolving were more sophisticated than the typical secretarial job.  Although there were some pretty fine educational institutions that developed, basically anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal – and did – in all 50 states.  This went on for years and years – and still goes on in the majority of states.

It is only in the past 10 years or so that some states such as California, set up mandatory undergrad and continuing legal education requirements.  Several other states followed but only in the past 2-4 years. There are about 13 states now requiring some form of mandatory education for paralegals.  This means over 75% of 50 states employing approximately 300,000 paralegals or paralegal type positions allow anyone who wants to call themselves a paralegal.  We haven't even mentioned document processors or folks who deliver legal services directly to the public.

Recently, licensing paralegals came about in Ontario, Canada and created a new set of standards for paralegals. Washington state has come face-to-face with it and California has it under consideration. However, most licensing considerations in the states involve those who provide services directly to the public and are no longer considered paralegals. They have brand new names such as legal technician or Legal Document Assistants. (Definitely a topic for another post.)

Maybe it's because I've gotten older that I've also gotten more patient.  The field needs to take one step back before states can jump into the river and demand  licensing. Given the paralegal field is getting a late start with entry requirements, licensing should wait.  It doesn't seem to be able to fit into most states structures somehow set in concrete.

California, for example, considered licensing paralegals some years ago but the agency that would oversee the licenses was to be the California Department of Consumer Affairs. That agency licenses dogs, cosmeticians, morticians and others except, of course, attorneys. Before anxious paralegals start crowding into testing rooms demanding to be licensed, why wouldn't the field make sure that first, paralegals were evenly and equally trained and that certain admission standards are set in place to become a paralegal?  Isn't licensing putting the cart before the horse?

Generally, to be a lawyer, a candidate must complete eight years of education before getting
a license. That's the accepted standard throughout the US.   A nurse must complete certain educational requirements before obtaining a license. How can paralegals obtain a license with inadequate training or education?  Just because they pass one test?  That hardly looks at the whole
picture of what a paralegal is about.

True, Florida now has a certain number of CLEs required per year for paralegals but when did that start?  A few years ago?  So, let me think……..Hmmm…….if a state such as California demands four CLE units every two years that means in the past 4 years, a paralegal would have 8 hours of training. (One day in four years.)  That training could consist of one hour webinars, CLE approved, that quite possibly were overviews of generalized topics given by a vendor whose underlying purpose is really selling software.  Not a comforting thought.

Sure, you might say.  But the paralegal has on-the-job training.  Not so fast, here.  The biggest negative about on-the-job training is degenerative training.  Most paralegals are in firms that do not have a formal training program or, they are included in the firm's in-house attorney CLEs that do not address the paralegal assignment.  In fact, very few firms have training programs.  The big training dollars are usually spent on associates who will eventually make big revenue generating partners - not on paralegals nor staff.  Let's explain degenerative training:

A seasoned paralegal who may have a lot of knowledge but is not trained as a qualified teacher is given the task of training a new paralegal.  The seasoned paralegal says, "Well, I'm a 10, you're a 10 – everyone in the room is a 10.  I don't really need a 10 to do this job."  So the 10 hires and trains a 9.  Time goes on.  The 9 is now given the task to hire and train someone and says, "I'm a 10, you're a 10, everyone in the room is a 10.  I don't really need to train someone as a 10."  So the 9 hires and trains an 8."  The 8 says…….and hires and trains a 7. You get the picture. Pretty soon you walk into a room full of 4's and you don't know what hit you.

Paralegals need to come together to accomplish a standard of training and education first before licensing is even considered.  While licensing may accomplish a seemingly higher standard, you can't get anywhere in this world today without comprehensive training.  The paralegal field is no exception. These are not the days when the duties of a paralegal are Bates stamping 1,000 documents and arranging them in chronological order.  Responsibilities for many now include assignments previously performed by first and second year associates.

It's a whole different world out there.  Putting things in order is one of the basic duties for paralegals.  Let's clean our own house first before we go on to others.  Education first, regulation second, licensing later – maybe.

Join the discussion! Come to the "Meet UP!" on April 22nd. This teleconference is hosted by the Paralegal Internet Association (, a new association with over 700 paralegals worldwide.  Get heard and get known. It's the best career move you can make.

2 Replies to “Licensing Paralegals? Now? Whoa! Hold down there, Big Fella”

  1. Licensing — Certifying — Registering

    First of all, we need to clarify our terminology. Exactly what is it we want to do? And why? They mean different things entirely. Then the regulatory body needs to be established – and, no, not the same one that regulates beauticians and morticians and hands out dog licenses, thank you. (They are probably very good at it – I hope so – but that just doesn’t instill much confidence.)

    Next step – what will your standards be? Who gets to say? Oh, now THERE’S a tricky question for you. The paralegals? Attorneys? Judges? Legislatures? All or some combination? The wrangling could take awhile.

    Who is going to do the testing? Who does the banking? Who will do the recordkeeping? What about renewals? Are you going to have a CLE requirement and if so, who is going to approve courses and keep up with those records? There’s a lot of administrative costs here.

    Which leads to how much are you going to charge the paralegals to do this? And are you going to make it a condition of employment? (Wait for it – here they come – the howls of those who have worked for years WITHOUT having to have this.)

    There’s probably more and I’ve left something out. That will do for starters. Such a prickly topic to discuss……

  2. Sorry to be late to the party, but excellent, thorough and meaty analysis from Ellen of the ongoing paralegal licensing issue. I would point out, though, that Ontario paralegals are unique because they train as and function more like lawyers and U.S. paralegals, who are nonlawyers, do not.

    The licensing issue really boils down to necessity. It is not needed because U.S. paralegals work only under attorney supervision. Attorney places his/her license on the line for his/her paralegals’ work, actions and conduct.

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