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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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Come On Alabama, Join the Paralegal Bandwagon

The paralegal blogosphere has been riled lately by the South Carolina state bar's stance against voluntary certification. You can read about it at the Estrin Report. My opinion of this news and some of the reasoning behind it could better be expressed by a facial expression rather than words.

However, while I am connected with paralegals all over this great country, and some of you actually live and work in South Carolina - keep up the good fight, you'll get there sooner or later - I live and work in Alabama. This report inspired me to investigate my own state bar's stance on paralegals. It was quite the interesting research project.

The first source I found was the February 2009 minutes report from an Alabama State Bar Board of Commissioners Meeting. The state bar of Alabama has apparently created a "Task Force on Allied Professions," an effort which goes to their credit. At the February 2009 meeting, this task force presented a new definition for the word "paralegal" in the state of Alabama. The presenter gave several reasons for a new definition, including profitability of law firms and proficiency in staffing. However, a few objections to the definition arose. First, someone believed that describing paralegals as performing services similar to lawyers, which the definition apparently provided for, would appear to permit the unauthorized practice of law. Another objector stated that the bar association's job is to regulate attorneys and that the attempt to define the term "paralegal" would lead it down a "slippery slope."

My thoughts on these fine lawyers' opinions vary. First, I understand our first objector's concerns about UPL, however overbroad I think his interpretation of it to be. It is still a valid concern. Yet, if he is concerned about a new definition appearing to advocate UPL, he should be more concerned about the one we already have for legal service providers. Ala. Code section 6-5-572 currently defines a legal service provider as

Anyone licensed to practice law by the State of Alabama or engaged in the practice of law in the State of Alabama. The term legal service provider includes professional corporations, associations, and partnerships and the members of such professional corporations, associations, and partnerships and the persons, firms, or corporations either employed by or performing work or services for the benefit of such professional corporations, associations, and partnerships including, without limitation, law clerks, legal assistants, legal secretaries, investigators, paralegals, and couriers.

Under the definition provided by statute, there is very little distinction between lawyers and nonlawyer legal professionals. A state bar recognized definition of paralegals would only serve to better define and better set the limits of paralegal work.

The second objector's opinion, I also find almost agreeable. My problem is this: one of the inherent characteristics of the paralegal profession as most of us know it includes working under the supervision of an attorney. We do not exist without lawyers. Many lawyers would have a hard time existing without us. Our relationship is symbiotic and mutually beneficial. If paralegals do not exist apart from attorneys, then we need some interaction on a real level with the state bar association. We do not have to be accepted into membership, with fair reason. But it makes no sense for the men and women who hire and utilize us on the one hand to ignore the need to define our presence in the legal field on the other. Makes me feel like that dorky girl who some too-cool guy hangs out with in private but feels like he has to ignore in public. Sigh.

I was unable to find whether the definition has ever been brought to a vote by the full Alabama State Bar. I believe that if it had been accepted I should have been able to find it on their website. Alas, I found no such thing. There's always next year. And a new generation of attorneys who are entering a legal world where the presence of paralegals in this field is the rule, not the exception. I just hope my state's bar isn't the last one to join the dialogue regarding paralegals in meaningful way. Perhaps Alabama will someday jump on to the quickly growing list of states that either define or regulate paralegals. With any luck, it will happen before I retire.

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