The Future of the Paralegal Profession Includes Regulation
Valerie A. Wilus | The Legal Intelligencer
April 16, 2015
Employment of paralegals is projected to grow 17 percent through 2022, according to the Department of Labor. Most paralegals have a bachelor's degree, an associate's degree or a certificate in paralegal studies. Some have little legal experience or specialized education before being hired and receive on-the-job training.
The benefits to clients for utilizing paralegals, to name a few, would be reduced costs, lower legal fees and increased client contact. The benefits to the employer would be court-approved paralegal fees, pro bono opportunities, acting liaison with court personnel, proficiency in electronic filings, specialized services and being competitive in the legal community.
The future of the paralegal profession includes the regulation of the profession. Like other professions such as nursing, social work, barbers and cosmetology, which all require professional licenses to practice because they all work with the public, the same is true for the paralegal profession. There are already certain governmental agencies that allow nonlawyer practice, some with certain examinations or registrations: Department of Commerce, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor and the Department of Transportation. Certain states, including Pennsylvania, also allow nonlawyer practice for certain agencies: 246 Pa. Code Rule 207—representation in magisterial district court proceedings (Rule 207 is intended to permit a nonlawyer representative to appear but not to allow a nonlawyer to establish a business for the purpose of representing others and is allowed on a case-by-case basis); and Act 5 of 2005 Section 214 in the Unemployment Compensation Law—representation of employers by nonlawyers to advocate at hearings and file unemployment compensation appeals and briefs (see Harkness v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 867 A.2d 728 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005).)
There are three main types of regulation: (1) certification—a voluntary process that is granted to an individual who has met certain qualifications such as education, work experience and/or examination; (2) license—restrictive license that always involves a test given by a competent authority; and (3) registration—can be voluntary or mandatory for individuals who register with an authority that mostly does not include special training or experience.
Currently, Oregon and Washington are reviewing the possible adoption of the limited-license legal technician practitioner program for paralegals in those states. Currently, 11 states have developed a voluntary paralegal certification, either through their bar association or their local paralegal association, and three have an exam in connection to their program, including Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Four states have decided to adopt paralegal standards that have been approved by their local bar associations instead of tackling the regulation issues in their state.
There are two national paralegal associations that currently offer certification exams, National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). NFPA offers two exams, the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam for the CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) credential and the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam for the PACE Registered Paralegal (RP) credential. NALA offers the Certified Paralegal/Certified Legal Assistant Exam for the Certified Paralegal (CP)/Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) credential. NALS also offers a Professional Paralegal Exam for the Professional Paralegal (PP) credential. Each exam has its own eligibility (education and/or experience) requirements set for the exam, fees, testing dates and locations, testing times, composition of the exam and renewal requirements, which include a certain amount of CLE hours in legal substance and ethics.
There are issues facing the paralegal profession such as billable hours, conflicts of interest, outsourcing, disbarred/suspended attorneys, cutbacks, work satisfaction, growth and promotion opportunities and others. There is also the rise of the role of the non-traditional paralegal in the legal community, such as an e-discovery specialist, educators, contract specialist, employee benefits, legal document preparers, freelance paralegals, compliance officers and others. The future of the paralegal profession may also include paralegals working in the field of equal justice, as limited licensed technicians or administration agency specialists. In its final report delivered at the midyear meeting in February 2014, the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education encouraged courts, bar associations and other regulators to develop programs for limited legal services to be provided by nonlawyers and directed schools to develop educational programs to train nonlawyers to provide limited legal services.
There are reasons that paralegals should become regulated and certified by passing a nationally recognized test that would establish levels of knowledge, skill and competency. Some of those reasons would be that it would clarify roles, establish standards, there would be surety that the paralegals hired are qualified, it would expand the utilization of paralegals, it would restrict the use of the title, there are public benefits and there could be career growth. There are various reasons why regulation for paralegals should be supported: (1) attorneys need to be assured that the paralegals they employ to assist in their practice are better educated and qualified to provide legal services; (2) members of the public indirectly rely on the work performed by paralegals; (3) paralegals should know and understand their ethical duties and meet the minimum standards of paralegal competency; (4) it would give attorneys a benchmark to assist with the hiring practices; and (5) would identify qualified candidates and allow attorneys to publicize the employment of a certified paralegal.
Paralegals should make professional development a priority by (1) volunteering for a pro bono or community service project or assignment, (2) involving oneself in a committee or with a group with a local association, (3) participating in a luncheon or special event in the legal community or local association, (4) continuing your legal education through seminars or conferences, [Advise & Consult is hosting an all day conference where you can earn up to 6 CLE creidts on May 15th - click on the link to learn more!] and (5) respecting your chosen path and remembering it is not just a job, it is a career.
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