The Future of Paralegals: Why Waiting for the Future to Arrive is a Career Buster

CannonTeriTodays Guest Blogger is Terese Cannon, J.D.,

We are entering a era of major, perhaps even revolutionary, shifts in law practice, legal education, and the role of both lawyers and nonlawyers who deliver legal services.  Already in motion but accelerated by the economic meltdown five years ago, these shifts have already resulted in significant downsizing and reorganization in large law firms, decreased demand for legal services affecting large and small firms alike, and high under- and unemployment of lawyers. 

Roles for paralegals are changing, requiring a re-envisioning of what paralegals can and should do and a concomitant rethinking of paralegal education.  The idea of nonlawyer practice has reemerged as a compelling subject of discussion within the ABA and the influential State Bar of California, and is ever closer to becoming a reality in the state of Washington. This renewed interest is related to the disruption of models for delivery of legal services and has spurred serious nationwide discussions about how to reform legal education and requirements for entry into the legal profession. This cluster of concerns together with the continuing challenge of providing access to legal services for low- and middle-income Americans has commanded the attention of legal commentators, educators and the bar.  

Several important books have been written on the need to reform legal education and to restructure law practice. Richard Susskind’s The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services explains that technology and the commoditization of legal services demand a new way to practice law, one which calls for streamlined law firms and new roles for both lawyers and nonlawyers (Oxford University Press, 2008). In his most recent book directed to aspiring and new lawyers, he starts by saying, “Tomorrow’s legal world … bears little resemblance to that of the past.  Legal institutions and lawyers are at a crossroads, … and are poised to change more radically than they have over the last two centuries.”  He predicts that we will have virtual courts and law firms, global legal businesses, extensive legal process outsourcing, and web-based simulated practice. (Tomorrow’s Lawyers, Oxford University Press, 2013)

On the law school front, a compelling book, Failing Law Schools, by law professor Brian Tamanaha has brought a clear voice and strong evidence for the idea that the American legal education model needs radical reform. Tamanaha systematically addresses the high cost of legal education, unacceptable levels of student debt, a decreased return on a student’s educational investment and blames an antiquated educational model, curriculum, and instructional practices that, among other things, fail to prepare law students for practice.  (University of Chicago Press, 2012) 

The ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education has been charged to study the “key challenges facing the delivery of legal services and the provision of legal education” including the rising cost of legal education, declining employment prospects, practical skills training, and the changing nature of legal work. One of its subcommittees has issued a preliminary call for states to create a common framework for licensing nonlawyers to provide a limited range of legal services and for law schools to provide the requisite educational programs, which the ABA would then accredit.

In California, the State Bar Board has adopted the resolution of its Limited Licensing Working Group to “study and develop a proposed limited license to practice law….” And the state of Washington has already adopted a Legal Technician licensing scheme that hold promise to increase access to legal services in high-need specialties like family law. 

In a series of columns, we will address these emerging issues, give examples of changes we are already seeing, and discuss how this rapidly shifting environment is affecting paralegals.  To be sure, we are already seeing new kinds of jobs appear in the legal landscape up every day.  As an example, after we decided to write on this topic, the ABA Journal published a list of new and expected jobs, among them: legal risk manager, legal knowledge engineer, expert trusted adviser, consumer financial protection bureau compliance officer, internal investigations lawyer, client teams specialist, and law firm integration coach, wellness expert, and protocol expert.  

First in a series from Terri Cannon, Stacey Hunt and Nancy Heller.

If you want to be ready for the here and now and increase your chances for success in the future, get yourself the best continuing legal education as possible! Go to the Paralegal Knowledge Institute ( and get current in Litigation Support, eDiscovery, Information Governance, and other topics that are greatly affecting your career. Don't get left behind!