While paralegals have gained recognition in the public eye as professionals, Ms. Widoff fears the proliferation of short-term paralegal certification programs will destroy the reputation she and others in the profession helped to build.
As the founder of the Paralegal Resource Center in Boston, one of the country's first paralegal placement agencies, Ms. Widoff places paralegals in temporary and permanent positions at law firms and businesses. She also provides information on the profession to would-be paralegals, and she started a paralegal education program at both Northeastern University and Boston University.
"I'm one of your hardcore paralegals," Ms. Widoff said. "I go way back-I'm one of the originals. I call myself a pioneer in the field."
Ms. Widoff started her paralegal training in 1972 after graduating from Skidmore College. It was a new career opportunity that was particularly attractive to women at a time when many fields were male dominated, she said.
"But there are far too many educational options now where all you need is two years of college," she said. "If you have the money, you can buy a certificate."
While paralegals today might have a difficult time freelancing after just three or four years of experience in a law firm, Ms. Widoff was successful in building her own practice and then placing others. After just over three years of experience in a traditional firm, she started the Paralegal Resource Center in 1976. Demand quickly grew.
"I started it out as a freelance paralegal, where I would perform freelance paralegal services by the hour for law firm clients," she said. "And as I developed the research and document-retrieval aspects of the business, lawyers came to me seeking full-time paralegals. And that's when the business just evolved into a placement service as well as a recruiting agency. Because I knew the business, knew what they were looking for, and could interview and assess the candidates and send the best ones to them."
Around the same time that Ms. Widoff started her company, she realized she wanted to teach other paralegals. The only people teaching paralegals at that time, she said, were attorneys. She believed that paralegals should teach paralegal students, but feared colleges would not let her teach because she did not have the credibility of an attorney.
"So I decided to start my own program, and the unique concept of it was the lawyer/paralegal teaching team," she said. The program started at Northeastern and eventually moved to Boston University, where Ms. Widoff stayed for 20 years and eventually designed a Bachelor of Science degree in Paralegal Studies.
She resigned from the university two years ago, and the Paralegal Studies program no longer exists the way she designed it. Now the program is part of the continuing education department and is not a Bachelor's degree course.
"The American Bar Association only suggests in their educational requirements that you need a two year degree. So I feel it's the Bar itself that has lowered the bar for entrance into the field," she said. "So it's up to the paralegals themselves or the educational institutions themselves to do that."
These days, the most sought after paralegals are the most educated and the most specialized, she said, and that "you're apt to be more in demand if you have some niche you can sell." It's easy to find clients, she said. But it can be a challenge finding the best paralegals to keep the clients happy. Despite her stringent belief that paralegals should have a four-year degree (in any subject, not just paralegal studies), when it comes to business, she will place recruits without a degree. She generally has between 50 and 100 paralegals in her candidate resource pool.
"You cannot graduate a paralegal program and then start freelancing. You definitely have to have a few years under your belt," she said, adding that there was increasing demand for freelancers. "Years back, law firms didn't use temps at all for paralegals or lawyers, now they certainly do. Back then, they thought there were issues of confidentiality, this and that, but as it became, I believe, an economic necessity, those kinds of issues went out the window."
Ms. Widoff said running her own business came naturally and that although it was not something she always dreamed of doing, once she started, it was hard to imagine working for someone else again.
"I think I always wanted to be independent, not have a boss, do my own thing. I think I perform much better in that way than as an employee," she said. "You know when something just feels right and you can feel better when you just enjoy what you're doing and the environment that you're doing it in?"
Ms. Widoff urged young paralegals to maintain the professional image of the field and pursue higher education.
"What I've always tried to do in all my years was professionalize the position. Because when I first started, even though you needed a four-year degree, we had to fight to hold that niche not to be a legal secretary," she said. "I would say, 'I'm a paralegal,' and people would say, 'Oh, what is that, a glorified legal secretary?' And my first 10 years, you had to fight that attitude, that impression."