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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, December 4, 2009

Who Should Set and Control Paralegal Standards?

Being only two full years into my paralegal career, I'm not sure how long this question has been asked. I am willing to bet it has been a regular question since the dawn of paralegalism, though. I keep crossing this question in my perusing of other blogs and articles. For instance in Patty Dietz-Selke's article at Paralegal Gateway, titled "Paralegals are Professionals," she states:

"[W]e have to stop relinquishing control to Attorneys, the ABA, and other organizations or professionals! Paralegals need to step up. We may work for and with Attorneys, but we need to take ownership of our profession starting with the education of our new/prospective members (Paralegal education/certification). We need to determine our own destiny, set our own course and resolve to approach the legal business/environment from the standpoint of being valuable and significant contributors. "

Robert Mongue of The Empowered Paralegal, in a recent entry, posed the following:

"It is not at all clear that the ABA should be the organization making these determination, at least not in isolation. Within AAfPE (American Association for Paralegal Education) there is some ongoing discussion about whether the ABA is the correct institution to be “approving” paralegal programs: does it make sense to have lawyers rather than educators determining what makes a good educational program, even if the topic being taught it law?"

On the one hand it seems obvious that the ABA, as the apparent standard bearer of legal education, should have the controlling opinion over paralegal educational standards and perhaps even over the ethical conduct of paralegals. First, the ABA is already there as an accrediting institution, whether we all agree it should be or not. It has already developed a set of educational criteria, and while questions remain as to whether it should maintain that sort of subtle control over the paralegal profession... it does right now. Also, an ABA accredited paralegal education looks great to employers, most of whom are beholden to the ABA criteria for their own educations.

Yet at the same time, paralegals are not lawyers. And bar associations all over were created for lawyers, not paralegals. Paralegal education is not "mini lawyer" education, either. It does not only consist of shorter versions of law school classes, and it does not train students to "think like a lawyer," as my Boyfriend the Lawyer calls it. Paralegal education should be tailored to the specific skills and requirements of this challenging and often demanding career. Those skills and requirements, while often similar to their attorney-styled counterparts, are importantly different. We all know or should know that not all lawyers could or should be paralegals, and not all paralegals could or should be lawyers. So why should an association for lawyers be in charge of our careers, our standards, and our educations?

While the two sides I've stated above are very black and white, there is at least one possible solution. Mr. Mongue further states in his entry, "Perhaps we need for all interested groups to chose a representative to a committee to establish a model act – ABA, NFPA, NALA, NALS, AAfPE. It may be there should even be a seat at the table for a group representing “independent” paralegals."

With a group of representatives working in collaboration, I only see good things happening. Patty is correct: if paralegals are to be widely accepted as professionals, we have to take/keep control of our education and standards. Of course the groups for legal professionals listed above by Mr. Mongue are all doing so in their own terms. Now imagine how much more ground could be made if all of them were working together.


  1. Nice, but I do not think that we can "relinquish" anything from the very people that supervise us. I think it is a wonderful thing that we have set our own standards through organizations and just our own personal ethics, but we are not attorneys. Since attorneys are ultimately responsible for our actions it makes sense that they would be the individuals that help define the role and responsibilities.

  2. You make a good point, Undercover-Princess. In a perfect world, I would agree with you. However, in today's world, three years of law school and a license, while necessary to practice law, do little to teach law students how to use their staff. And there is very little consensus among lawyers as to what constitutes paralegal work. The ABA definition of a paralegal is broad and vague. I believe our goal should be collaboration. While lawyers inherently help define our roles and responsibilities, most lawyers, having never been paralegals themselves, are lacking the perspective of someone who has worked in this inbetween world.

    To use a cliche comparison, the roles of nurses may be defined by doctors in many necessary ways; nevertheless, nurses themselves are in control of their roles in a meaningful way. Likewise, I don't believe paralegals are setting standards in these associations just for the heck of it. We do so as a meaningful contribution to our field. I believe the men and women in these organizations participate and discuss not because it feels important but because it IS important. Our voices are necessary contributions to the discussion of the roles and responsibilities of paralegals.

    Lastly, we have to take control of defining our careers. While attorneys exist who are interested in defining the roles of paralegals and creating true standards, the vast majority are understandably only concerned with defining the roles and standards of their own paralegals while holding true to the already well-established standards for attorneys. And many of those individual attorneys have no idea where to start when setting ethical and educational standards for their staff. This is not because they don't care or because they are ignorant. It is simply because without well-established pre-set standards or years of painful trial and error, it is difficult to expect them to just know.