They Shoot Paralegals, Don’t They?

Working I was reading The Empowered Paralegal blog the other day and a paralegal was discussing the superior status she thought she had over paralegals who did not have paralegal degrees. In particular, she brought up the Erin Brockovich story and the subsequent movie that was made. Ms. Brockovich, she stated, was not a "real" paralegal because she did not have a paralegal degree.  She went on to state that the duties that Ms. Brockovich performed would never be tackled by a paralegal.  At least, she had never witnessed a paralegal doing what Ms. Brockovich did.

It’s very interesting to listen to the hot debate that the Erin Brockovich role has played over the years. I have heard more paralegals than not state how much they “hate” the role portrayed in the movie. Whether or not you choose to designate Ms. Brockovich as a “real” paralegal, it is very important that today's paralegals understand the history and development of the position.

In the '70’s and ’80’s and far reaching into the '90’s, anyone who wanted to could call themselves a paralegal. At the risk of revealing that I am definitely a member of the Boomer generation, I personally came up through the ranks starting in 1981. There were few paralegal schools at that time. Becoming a paralegal meant, for most, that you would receive training on the job. It is true that some paralegals came through the ranks of legal secretary but those were in the minority. During those times, let’s also understand that certain states, such as California, did not require someone to go to law school in order to take the bar exam. You were eligible if you worked under a mentor but law school was not required. That may still stand today, I’m not certain.

Paralegal schools were also rare in rural areas. This is one reason NALA was formed – to provide education. There was no Internet nor online courses. Even in Los Angeles, a major metro city, there were only three primary paralegal schools for a very long time – UCLA, CalState L.A. and UWLA. Some “match-book” cover type schools popped up. But what was worse? Learning on the job or plunking down good money for a school that also taught you how to be a bartender.

In 1980, I started out as a paralegal in Seattle for $1500 a month. I did have some legal secretary training. I got my first job at a prestigious small firm. I was trained on the job like anyone else. The administrator hired me because, at that time, I was in the theatre. He happened to have seen one of my shows, so he hired me. True story. Later, I moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a large, prestigious entertainment firm that handled the A list. Working with movie stars was an everyday and common experience.

In that role, I was very active becoming the firm’s first paralegal administrator. I recall that some of my assignments included meeting a cargo plane at LAX and working with customs to board the plane in search of fake ET dolls. (Really!) I was sent to the bottom of a famous L.A. hotel in search of evidence for a case. I waded through muck, spiders and ankle deep water in search of the “hot” documents. I went to Georgia to a carpet mill in the middle of nowhere in search of evidence. In Seattle, paralegals were allowed to go before the judge on certain non-contested matters. The first judge I went before put our case over when it was apparent the other side was not showing up. Apparently, the defendant’s counsel had decided to go moose hunting. The judge thought that was a perfectly good excuse not to attend court. Meanwhile, I was always taught by the best attorneys, attended seminars, read books, and learned my job as it pertained to the firms in which I was working. And that’s the key element here – education as it pertained to the firms in which the paralegal worked.

To put down those paralegals who literally blazed the trail for other paralegals while the education system was in its infancy is a travesty. Passing a paralegal course does not ensure that the paralegal will be a good paralegal. Passing the bar does not mean the lawyer will be a good lawyer. It only means that they have studied and should possess core competencies.

It is interesting that years and years later, I make my living in continuing legal eduation. I am a very strong advocate and a firm believer that paralegals should not be paralegals without first obtaining an education in paralegal studies. Good paralegals without the academic training came up the hard way - no schools available, on-the-job training, no real job descriptions.  They worked hard to make this new profession work. They took it among themselves to develop good assignments, they trained attorneys how paralegals could be used, they started paralegal associations (I was one of 8 co-founding members of the International Paralegal Management Association – IPMA); and they worked hard getting the word out about this new position. To discredit your history and those paralegals is a travesty. Remember, it took California 10 long hard years to get AB 6450 passed. That law now requires mandatory education for paralegals.  However, when it passed, it still grandfathered in those without the required education.

As for Ms. Brockovich, not once in the movie was she referred to as a paralegal. Was she rough around the edges? You bet. Was that taking literary license in the movie? For those of us who haven’t met her, we don’t know. Was she then and is she now called a paralegal? No. Was her purported $2 million bonus a “percentage” of the settlement and ethics violation as some charge? Now, we really don’t know, do we? In California in the ’80’s and decadent ’90’s, paralegals at some firms were given large bonuses. (The firm I was with in 1986 was giving out $20,000 – $30,000 bonuses – and that was 1986 dollars.) Truthfully, none of us know except Ms. Brockovich and her boss, Mr. Massry, what that bonus was based upon nor how it was calculated. We only know rumors. If there was any impropriety, I am quite certain the State Bar of California would have stepped in.

Some paralegals have made up a story about Brockovich, believed it and made it their truth. It’s not that this message is defending Erin Brockovich. It’s that those paralegals flouting their Masters, A.A.'s and B.S.’s in Paralegal Studies claiming they are better than those without have no respect for the trailblazers that came before them. It’s disrespectful and an arrogant slap in the face to the thousands and thousands of paralegals who came before them. Things have changed and improved but only very recently. Those paralegals without the schooling are the very same paralegals who pushed for more acceptance,professionalism, better training and education for all paralegals nationwide. The least we can do is honor them.

One Reply to “They Shoot Paralegals, Don’t They?”

  1. I can’t thank you enough for this article. I grew up in my dad’s law office and started out as a paralegal in 1982 and was trained on the job. I am now in intellectual property law where I learned everything “on the job.” When asked by others about obtaining a paralegal certificate I tell them that if they want to practice IP the degree/certificate is basically worthless (law schools don’t do much better in preparing attorneys for IP). The schools still don’t know how to train properly for this area of law. Most don’t offer a course and those that do only offer one. In addition, the vast majority of what you would learn will have nothing to do with IP and will be of no use.

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