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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Great Debate

As you may remember from my first post, I have not yet decided what I want to be when I grow up. I know I want to work in the legal field. It's challenging and interesting, and I learn something new every day.

My problem is this: I am smart and driven. There is a part of me that wants a law degree just because I could achieve it. If I can achieve it, that voice says, then why not?

The answer, of course, is that I like my current career. When I weigh the benefits of law school (J.D., bigger salary, getting to use the term "profession" legitimately) with the costs (a ton of money, a saturated market, three years of my life in a place I would have to move to since there are no law schools in my area), my current position as a paralegal seems so much easier to accept.

I don't want to settle, though, not at all. I just haven't figured out yet whether not going to law school would really be settling. Over the past two years, I've grown to enjoy what I do on a daily basis. My attorney supervisor views me as a partner in the business - not literally, that would be unethical - but rather as another person whose daily efforts are necessary for the success of his practice. I've found a niche for myself at our little office. He gives the legal advice, goes to court, runs the major client meetings, and drafts the complicated documents; I do just about everything else. Our jobs do continuously overlap. My goal, though, is to become so competent in all the things non-lawyers CAN do that he does not need to do anything else except that which only lawyers can do.

Perhaps beginning my career in such a small atmosphere has shown me how important yet generally undervalued paralegals are in the rest of the legal world. I'm one of the lucky ones who has a truly appreciative boss.

But the undervalue of paralegals is another reason I want to remain in this career. I like the idea of getting involved with the promotion of paralegalism while it is still a fairly young arena. I want to help shape the legal world's view of the importance of paralegals by encouraging higher standards within my community.

In order to be taken seriously, all "para-professions" and under-recognized career groups need those people who could move on to a supposedly higher level in the field but choose to use their talents and education to further the cause of the under-recognized group. Just look at the nursing field, where more and more highly educated people who could go to medical school choose to become nurses instead.

It is not necessary, yet, for a paralegal to attain the level of education that even a registered nurse must possess. Though I'm not necessarily suggesting that we completely intellectualize the career, wouldn't it be nice if we required at least certification and/or a college degree? Wouldn't it be nice if some group actively governed us? (At least in Alabama, the Bar Assoc. refuses to govern paralegals because, they believe, it would overstep their bounds.)

I am not suggesting we completely intellectualize the field, or that paralegals should all hold master level degrees. But I know first hand that my job requires more than "routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work", as the Department of Labor suggests in its FLSA2005-9 letter/opinion regarding the paralegal career.

I want to be involved in my career field in a way that allows me to watch it grow and expand over the course of my life. Right now, organizations cannot gain a consensus on the very definition of a paralegal, much less the educational standards that should be required and what kind of work they should do. It's exciting to be a part of such a career.

On the flip side, lawyers have a pretty set place in the professional realm. If the career field for attorneys is changing, it is mainly in response to the influx of non-attorney legal professionals carving out these new niches in the legal world. But by and large, most people know and understand what an attorney is and does. While there is much room for individual career growth in that field, it is not nearly as dynamic as the paralegal profession.

For these reasons, I believe I have decided, at least for now, to remain a paralegal. To be a part of something so new is like getting to press one's hand into drying cement. It's exhilerating to imagine that what I do and say, the standards I choose to promote today, might stick around for years to come.

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