The Evolution of the Paralegal and Their Future Sophistication


The Evolution of the Paralegal and Their Future Sophistication

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By Sterling Wheeler Dixon,

evolution of paralegal
CBA, Certified Bankruptcy Assistant/Certified Paralegal
I am a paralegal. To be more precise, a litigation paralegal, but a paralegal just the same. My first legal job was for Orange County back in the early 1980s, and once I started in the legal field it did not take long for me to determine that was exactly where I wanted to be.

I began my career in the legal field as a legal secretary.  The terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” were fairly new, and since no real hands-on knowledge or basis had been established for those job positions back in the 1980s, very few were afforded either of the titles.  Those who held either title usually had graduated from an educating institution with general legal knowledge and possessed little, if any, on-the-job training when they began their first job.

It was also the time when lawyers (or those electing to use the term “attorney”) were, for the most part, men.  Women who held juris doctorates were just beginning to make a significant establishment in the legal community.  It was growing experience for everyone: lawyers and legal support staff alike.

I worked up through the ranks, as they say, as the paralegal profession matured and became more sophisticated. There were those who were, in essence, actually doing paralegal-type duties, and grew into the popular job terms as they were accepted.  Some legal secretaries became legal assistants.  Some legal assistants became paralegals.  Early in the 1990s a good paralegal was an individual who was well versed and trained in any one legal discipline, i.e. real estate, litigation or bankruptcy, etc.  Most paralegals were highly compensated for their efforts because the majority of the time, and I do not say this with any disrespect whatsoever to any attorney, the paralegal was more equipped to run the channels of the administration, clerk and court system than their supervising attorney.

In the mid-1990s, the job market and term “paralegal” took a step forward in the educational processes.  Firms began looking for formally educated paralegal staff holding degrees and/or certifications.  Some firms went so far as to overpay new hires holding those degrees and/or certifications merely to get them in the door.  This new trend caused some grief among established senior paralegals since they found themselves lowered in rank and pay to accommodate the newcomers simply because they did not hold a certificate or degree themselves.  However, the push was on for more educated paralegals and intensified as time passed.

In 1986, the American Bar Association’s Board of Governors approved a definition for the term “legal assistant.”  The ABA amended that definition in 1997 as follows: “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”  It should also be noted that when the ABA amended the definition in 1986, it used the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” interchangeably.

The Standing Committee on Paralegals of the American Bar Association has a 30-year history within the ABA.  Their mission statement is “to improve the American system of justice by establishing ABA standards for the education of paralegals and by promoting attorneys’ professional, effective and ethical utilization of paralegals.” (Adopted February 16, 2007.)  You will note that the term “legal assistant” is no longer utilized interchangeably and it is my belief that the use of the term “paralegal” will speak to the identification of the individual’s educational status.  This clarification will assist all in the difference between legal assistants and paralegals: legal assistants will not possess the formal education held by those known as paralegals.

The National Association of Legal Assistants, “NALA,” has long been a frontrunner for the establishment and formalization of the paralegal profession and, in 2001, NALA adopted the ABA’s definition of a paralegal.  NALA is a nationally known paralegal proponent and educator, and provides a national examination at various times of the year and locations.  The successful participant, after much studying and successful passage of a two-day examination, is then awarded the designation of CP, Certified Paralegal.  This accreditation/certification is widely respected and sought by many paralegals – even those who already have a college level diploma or degree in paralegal studies.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that paralegal employment is projected to grow much faster than the average for all other occupations through the year 2014.  Their ranks held about 224,000 jobs in 2004 alone.  Seven out of 10 paralegals are currently employed by private law firms, while the greater portion of the remainder work for corporate legal departments and various levels of government.

The State of Florida’s population grew 23.5% between the years 1990 and 2000.  In overall population, Florida is ranked fourth in the United States, behind California, Texas and New York.  As indicated by FRED, Florida Research and Economic Database, paralegal employment reported in 2006 projections for the year 2014 are 98%.  Quite a number, even to one who already participates in the profession.

The median salary reported in 2004 for paralegals employed with the federal government was approximately $59,000; followed by local government at approximately $38,000.  Others, including law firms and state governments, were between $34,000 and $38,000.  The top ten percent were compensated well over $61,000, while the bottom ten percent were at less than $25,000.

There are a very small number of paralegals who own their own businesses and freelance, contracting their services outside of the realm of a law firm, corporate entity or governmental agency.  Although it is acknowledged that not all of these independent paralegals operate outside of the ethical considerations deemed part of their responsibility, there are rogue paralegals who do. Although definite parameters have been established regarding paralegal responsibilities, there are some that are mandatory.  A paralegal cannot: (1) give legal advice; (2) represent a client in court; (3) set fees; (4) or accept a case or client.  In all communications, the paralegal’s non-lawyer status must be clear.

Considering the great the influx of people moving into the State of Florida, it is more likely than unlikely that there are those individuals who proclaim themselves paralegals, but operate independently and outside of what the greater legal community considers ethical.  These transgressions are referred to as UPL: the unlicensed practice of law.  As the population increases, so do the occurrences of UPL.  UPL can be helping someone fill out a form, and “advising” what or how to fill in the blanks.  UPL can be giving advice on a real estate transaction.  UPL can be interpreting law prior to a hearing.  Anything outside of a lawyer giving advice to a client is considered UPL.  A paralegal giving advice is UPL.  A legal assistant giving advice is UPL.  A disbarred member of the Florida Bar giving advice is UPL.  If a person, or persons, filling out a form does not understand what the form requires, and asks a non-lawyer for interpretation, that interpretation is considered UPL.

Another concern is that an individual contracting a rogue paralegal, or non-lawyer, who finds that the information or assistance obtained is against policy, the law, or produces negative results leaves the individual with little, if any, legal recourse.  It is also of great concern that even though there are individuals who have suffered financial, or worse, damage because of contracting with an independent paralegal, they are reluctant to pursue any remedy whatsoever.  This can sometimes affect them and their families for years and could involve real estate, bankruptcy, foreclosure, DUI’s, divorce, and family law just to name a few.  Wills and probate is another field in which there is a great concern of UPL.  Most events where one finds themself needing legal advice are usually related to life changing or life impacting events.  Even considering the thought that one would need legal counsel should in itself create the realization and understanding that upon such a serious conclusion one should never, ever place such serious interests in the hands of one who is not responsible to a higher legal authority.

On November 15, 2007, the Supreme Court passed Rule 20 under SC06-1622, In Re: Amendments to the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar – Florida Registered Paralegal Program.  The passage of this Rule will enable the paralegal professional to grow and become further sophisticated; will enable the attorney/law firms to further realize the benefits of working with paralegals; will allow those individuals with the education and credentials to increase their income; and, most of all, will benefit and insure the safety of the citizens of the State of Florida and allow them recourse should they find themselves victim of UPL: the Unlicensed Practice of Law.

About the Author:

Sterling Wheeler Dixon is a litigation paralegal and administrator of the law firm of Marybeth McDonald, P.A., specializing in insurance defense. She has worked in the Downtown Orlando legal arena for over 25 years. In addition to being a Certified Bankruptcy Assistant, she has recently achieved designation as a Certified Paralegal from NALA, the Association of Legal Assistants Paralegals. Ms. Dixon holds additional certifications in computer awareness, measurements, controls and supervision / management. She is a past President (2006-2007) of the Central Florida Paralegal Association, Inc.; associate member of the Association of Bankruptcy Judicial Assistants; affiliate member of the Orange County Bar Association; advisory board member of Keiser University; advisory board member of Polytechnic Institute of America; and Treasurer of the Kingswood Manor Association. Ms. Dixon has been an instructor for the Central Florida Paralegal Association’s annual CLA Review courses for the past few years, and most recently spoke at a Lorman Education Services seminar: “Discovery Skills for Legal Staff.” Ms. Dixon is currently seeking a B.A. degree in Art History.

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