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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.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Paralegal Misconceptions

If you have been following Mr. Mongue at The Empowered Paralegal Blog, you may have read his entry regarding community-based paralegals in Sierra Leone. In that post, he references Sonkita Conteh, LLM, LLB (Hons), BL, Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of Sierra Leone, a man with a mission of providing legal empowerment to the poor of his country. This, of course, is a goal of many legal professionals and associations in our own country, providing access to justice for those without means. 

Mr. Conteh has been advocating the use of paralegals as low-cost legal aid in Sierra Leone, but he is finding that not everyone is on board. In his article entitled "10 Misconceptions About Paralegals in Sierra Leone," he discusses those most common issues that members of the legal profession in his country seem to express when it comes to using paralegals in legal aid to the poor. I was intrigued to find that citizens and lawyers in Sierra Leone share the same misconceptions about the paralegal profession that we find in the United States. I have listed below the misconceptions most shared between our two countries, as well as my own response to them. 

1) "Paralegals will impersonate lawyers." - Mr. Conteh disputes this impression wisely. While the requirements for paralegals in Sierra Leone are different, as well as more stringent, than here in the States, he argues that while there will always be criminals who will gleefully take advantage of unwitting victims, gainfully employed paralegals who meet the required paralegal standards are far less likely to impersonate lawyers.

3) "Paralegals will want to appear in court." - Okay, you got me. I do want to go to court. I want to see the culmination of all our efforts played out before a judge or jury. But I do not want to appear before the judge. I can only speak for myself, though. However, if a paralegal does want to appear in court, he or she should go to law school, take the bar, and get the credentials to do so. Or move to one of the few states that allow limited paralegal practice. Or become a lay advocate before those few federal administrative agencies that allow it. As for Sierra Leone, states Conteh, "Organisations providing paralegal services never intended for paralegals to represent clients in court, that is why they employ lawyers to do legal representation. In terms of litigation, paralegals can and do provide lawyers with support services- filing and serving documents, chasing up witnesses, taking down notes during court sessions and more." Sounds an awful lot like my own job. To state the same sentiment in American terms, law firms don't hire paralegals with the hopes or expectations that we will take the place of lawyers. They hire us with the hopes and expectations that we will assist lawyers in a way that maximizes profit while keeping costs (for the firm and the client) as low as possible. At least, they should.

4) "Paralegals are not properly trained." - I can't speak for Sierra Leone paralegals, but here in the States, training and education seem to be top priorities for new paralegals. Clients have begun to demand better credentials of all time-keepers, not just their lawyers. And associations like NALA, NALS, and NFPA have been very successful with efforts at promoting continuing legal education among non-lawyer legal professionals. While there is more to be done, we are getting there. At the same time, paralegals do not need lawyer-level education, especially if their attorney supervision is satisfactory. As Conteh says, "Giving every actor in the justice sector training that is commensurate to a lawyer’s is both a waste of time and resources and indeed very unwise." 

8) "Paralegals are unsuccessful people." - Writes Conteh, "I have heard colleagues claiming that paralegals are nothing but failures and rejects who had ambitions to become lawyers but for some reason failed to realise their dreams and are now using backyard routes just to be associated with the law." Now where have I heard that one before? I understand this misconception about as well as I understand that nurses used to put up with the same kind of attitudes. The truth is that not everyone who loves the law wants to go to law school, has the means to go to law school, or wants the responsibility and time-consumption that often comes with being a lawyer. Having different priorities while still enjoying employment in an interesting field would seem to me to make someone the opposite of unsuccessful. However, the "unsuccessful lawyer" myth can easily be promoted by paralegals who view themselves as "less than" lawyers, or who do not believe the paralegal role is important or rewarding. If you are one of these paralegals, I urge you to find something you love doing. Going through life feeling less than anyone or doing something that feels useless and unimportant can be depressing. 

Only time, education, and consistent good examples will help prevent these common misconceptions of paralegals, whether here in the United States or abroad. 

Conteh's article provides more insight regarding the proposed role of paralegals in Sierra Leone, so please visit the link above to read more.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post Melissa, and a good reminder to us all.