Paralegal Licensing and Regulation: Part I-The ''Pros''

Efforts at regulating the paralegal profession are becoming increasingly widespread. In 2001, California adopted clear guidelines on the education, work experience, supervision, performance, and confidentiality requirements of paralegals. State legislatures, bar associations, and courts nationwide continue to adopt definitions of the terms "paralegal" and "legal assistant." Most of them reserve those titles for persons who are supervised by an attorney or other entity and qualified through education and experience to perform certain legal tasks.

And paralegals, legal assistants, and paralegal organizations are taking note. Both the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) have released statements on the topic. NALA asserts that state regulation is unnecessary, but stands behind third-party education, testing, and professional improvement efforts. NFPA endorses certain regulation efforts that would allow paralegals to provide certain additional tasks to the public.

But before one may form an opinion regarding licensing, it is important to understand the terms behind it. "A license is something that gives one the right to practice a particular profession. It is usually (put in place) to make sure that whoever is performing a line of work has met the minimum qualifications for it," says Frederick T. Golder, Professor at the Massachusetts School of Law, employment attorney, and author. "Regulations are the requirements imposed on people performing a particular trade or (acting under) a particular license."

The debate over whether to implement paralegal licensing efforts is a hot-button issue among the entire profession. "There are two schools of thought on the licensing and regulation issue," says Renee Sova, Director of Alumni and Advanced Specialty Programs at the American Institute for Paralegal Studies. "One is that (licensing) will enhance the work a paralegal will be able to perform and provide access to legal services for those that can't currently afford it. Others are against licensure because they feel that the profession was created to assist attorneys, not replace them. They argue that attorneys are already licensed, and (because) paralegals work for attorneys, (there is no) need for a double layer of licensure."

Professional development, advancement, and recognition of the profession are significant reasons why paralegals lobby for licensure. "Through licensing, (the paralegal profession) may become more recognized," says Nancy Roney, legal assistant and former Co-Director of Continuing Education of the Massachusetts Paralegal Association. In addition to recognizing the value of the profession, regulating it may also keep out individuals who are not qualified for the job. "Licensing can serve a gate-keeping function, limiting the number of people who may call themselves paralegals," says Mr. Golder.

Licensure and regulation could mean more tangible benefits to paralegals as well. "It may result in pay increases and more opportunities for advancement," Ms. Roney believes. In addition to being paid more, many paralegals hope that licensure and state regulations may lead to better assignments. "Paralegals want to utilize their skills and knowledge they were trained for while attending paralegal training programs," explains Ms. Sova. "If licensure could guarantee that paralegals would obtain assignments that require high-end analytical skills, rest assured all paralegals would come together on this issue."

Furthermore, licensed paralegals could put the public at ease. "Licensing would lead to the public's trust that (paralegals) have certain qualifications," says Ms. Roney. In fact, a license is often imposed on a particular profession as an effort to protect the public from individuals not qualified to provide a certain service. "Licensing can give people a certain level of comfort," Mr. Golder says. Some paralegals also lobby for licensing in hopes that by adhering to statewide regulations, they will be allowed to provide certain additional services to the public, thereby actually reducing the high costs of legal services and elevating the profession as a whole.

For both the public and the profession itself, licensing and regulation could mean some positive results. However, some paralegals and legal assistants believe licensure across the board is unnecessary and unhelpful. Stay tuned for Part II of our series, where LawCrossing investigates the drawbacks behind paralegal licensure and regulation.

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