This business of licensing paralegals is a hot topic. I wrote about this the other day and interestingly, received a number of comments but not to The Estrin Report. The e-mails came to my business e-mail address. Why?
I think because it may be such a touchy area for some, that a number of paralegals don't want their colleagues knowing how they feel about licensing. It's kind of like letting someone know whether you are Democrat or Republican. It affects your business relationship with others.
I have always maintained the opinion that licensing aside, this still relatively new field about 35 years old did not go about establishing itself correctly in the beginning. 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 duties the secretary did that could be billed to the client. 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 8 or 9 years that some states such as California, set up required mandatory undergrad and continuing legal education. Several others followed but only in the past 2-4 years. There are 12 or 13 states now requiring some form of mandatory education for paralegals. However, this means over 75% of the 50 states that employ well over 300,000 paralegals or paralegal type positions across the US allow anyone who wants to, to call themselves a paralegal. And we haven't even mentioned here the document processors or folks who deliver legal services directly to the public.
Maybe it's because I've gotten older that I've also gotten more patient. It seems that 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. Before anxious paralegals start crowding into testing rooms demanding to be licensed from the very agencies that license dogs, cosmeticians and morticians, why wouldn't the field make sure that first, paralegals were evenly and equally trained and that certain standards are set in order 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. That training could consist of one hour webinars that quite possibly were overviews of generalized topics given by a vendor whose underlying purpose is to really sell 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. In fact, very few do. The big training dollars are usually spent on associates who will eventually make partner - 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 on accomplishing a standard of training and education first before licensing is even considered. While licensing may or may not accomplish a higher standard in the field, 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 to Bates stamp 1,000 documents and put them in chronological order. Responsibilities for many are now those of what first and second year associates previously performed.
It's a whole different world out there. Putting things in order is one of the mainstays of the paralegal career. We need to clean our own house first before we go on to others. Education first, licensing later.