Have you recently considered hiring a paralegal instead of a new associate? Have you wondered whether your firm or legal department is using paralegals to their full potential? If so, you are not alone. The paralegal profession, which has been in existence for the past 30 years, is now recognized as an integral part of the legal environment. This recognition comes not only from members of the legal profession, but from consumers of legal services as well. More and more, clients are asking for paralegals to work on their cases and are specifically requesting that the paralegals perform more substantive work.1 Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks the paralegal profession among the fastest growing occupations in the economy.2 This expansion, in addition to the expected increased utilization of paralegals for more substantive work, requires the thoughtful practitioner to fully understand the abilities of paralegals and to be familiar with recent happenings in the profession. This article will provide a general background on paralegal education and the abilities and utilization of paralegals. Finally, the status of regulating of the paralegal profession will be addressed.
In today’s legal market, employers dictate the level of education required of paralegals. These requirements vary by organization and by geographic location. The Lawyer’s Assistant Program at Roosevelt University, which began in 1974 and has been ABA-approved since 1976, has found that in today’s market in the Chicagoland area most legal employers are requiring, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree of the paralegals they hire. In addition, most employers in this area prefer some type of formal paralegal education and in many instances specifically require education from an ABA-approved program. Generally, paralegal education programs focus on teaching concepts, terminology and procedures. Theory and analysis are taught to the extent necessary to familiarize the students with the concepts. Quality paralegal programs require their students to learn how to do legal research and to draft documents, pleadings and memoranda. Students learn about the organization and operation of the legal system, the organization and operation of law offices, and ethical obligations of the paralegal profession. Instruction also includes the basics of particular areas of law including contracts, torts, business organizations and litigation. Critical thinking, organizational, communication and interpersonal skills are also taught. In an increasing number of programs, computer skills are also taught, introducing students to a variety of software programs in addition to computerized legal research programs.5 Some programs allow students to specialize in a particular area of law while others offer a more general background. Instructors in paralegal programs are frequently practicing attorneys who have experience working with paralegals.
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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. 7
The best way to answer the question, "What can paralegals do?", is to state what paralegals can not do. Of course, paralegals cannot practice law. This has been interpreted to mean that paralegals cannot establish attorney-client relationships, set legal fees, give legal opinions or advice, or represent a client before a court.8 However, certain administrative agencies do allow non-lawyers to represent clients in hearings and other proceedings. Examples of specific types of responsibilities that paralegals perform are drafting legal documents, assisting attorneys in preparing for trial, interviewing clients and witnesses, conducting investigations, and conducting legal research. The utilization of paralegals varies depending on a number of factors. These factors include the type of organization, the size of the organization, the individual attorney delegating the work and the individual paralegal’s capabilities.
The ABA recognizes the ability of paralegals to perform higher levels of responsibilities than those often assigned to paralegals currently. In a 1998 survey sponsored by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Assistants, it was found that many attorneys in private practice do not use paralegals at all or do not use them to their full potential.9 As a result, The Standing Committee on Legal Assistants is developing a model course for law students and lawyers on the effective use of legal assistants.10 The course is being developed with the intention of providing a large number of experienced attorneys, as well as new attorneys, with practical information and suggestions on the ethical and effective utilization of paralegals.11
The issue of whether the profession should be regulated at all is a topic of current and highly emotional debate. The arguments in favor of regulation are that it will raise the standards of the profession by requiring minimum levels of education experience and competency. In addition, such requirements would eliminate untrained individuals, who call themselves paralegals, from the profession. The arguments against regulation are that it will raise legal fees and place unwarranted limits on the hiring of paralegals.12 Currently, no mandatory regulation of the profession exists. There is some voluntary regulation implemented through state bars and two national professional associations. Seven states have Supreme Court rules regarding the regulation of paralegals although for the most part the rules address only the definition of a paralegal.13 The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) have developed exams for paralegals to take if they wish. Upon successful completion of the NFPA exam, the individual is considered a Registered Paralegal (R.P.). Upon successful completion of the NALA exam, the individual is considered a Certified Legal Assistant (C.L.A). The requirements for eligibility for the two exams differ.
A handful of states have recently proposed regulation in one form or another, but so far no proposals have been successful14. The issue of regulation is one to keep an eye on in the future. Many involved in the paralegal profession believe that it is only around the corner. Now is a very important time for the paralegal profession and its relation to the legal profession in general. The demand for trained paralegals is very high.15 Paralegals are maintaining higher levels of responsibilities than ever before and the debate over regulation is playing a significant role in shaping the future of the profession. Having an understanding of the education, training and abilities of paralegals and being aware of the regulation debate is important to all legal employers as they work to efficiently deliver legal services to their clients. 1 Laurel Bielec, Where Do We Stand?, Legal Assistant Today March/April 1999, at p. 51. 2 Megan Barkume, Bureau of Labor Statistics 1998-99 Occupational Outlook Handbook (last modified Jan. 30, 1998) http://stats.bls.gov/oco/ocos114.htm.
3 According to the 1999 Survey of Salaries and
Benefits published by the Illinois Paralegal Association 89% of respondents to the survey have had formal paralegal training. See Message Factors, Inc., 1999 Survey of Salaries and Benefits, Illinois Paralegal Association at 4. 4 ABA approved programs are also subject to periodic review of many aspects of their programs including staff qualifications and curriculum content. 5 Thomas Eimermann et al., American Association for Paralegal Education Core Competencies for Paralegal Programs Report of the Task Force on Core Competencies 4-7 (Dec. 1994). 6 Judy A. Toyer, Teaching Lawyers How to use the Skills of Legal Assistants Effectively, Scola Update (American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistants) Fall 1999, at 1. 7 ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants (visited Dec. 8, 1999) http://www.abanet.org/legalassts/home.html. 8 Roger LeRoy Miller & Mary S. Urisko, West’s Paralegal Today: The Essentials 82 (Beverly Peavler ed., West Publishing Co.1995) 9 Toyer, supra note 5 at 4. 10 Id. at 1. 11 Id at 5. 12 Bielec, supra note 1 at 50. 13 Id at 47. The seven states are Indiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and South Dakota. The only rule that comes close in Illinois is Supreme Court Rule 5.3, which addresses the responsibilities of attorneys with respect to non-lawyers. 14 Id at 50. These states are Florida, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Utah and Wisconsin. Illinois is not at the forefront of the regulation issue. However, it is one of few states with its own code of ethics specifically for paralegals. This code is published by the Illinois Paralegal Association and although not authoritative, serves as a practical guide for paralegals.
15 As the demand has increased so has the compensation. The Illinois Paralegal Association’s 1999 Survey of Salaries and Benefits found that 21% of respondents make over $50,000 as their base salary. The median base salary of respondents was $41,000 and the median salary for respondents with less than one year of experience was $31,500. See Message Factors, Inc. supra note 3 at 13, 20.
Carrie J. Lausen is the Director of the Lawyer’s Assistant Program at Roosevelt University. Prior to joining the Lawyer’s Assistant Program she was an associate attorney with the law firm of Abrahamson, Vorachek & Mikva. She received her Undergraduate Degree in 1985 from Indiana University, and her Law Degree in 1992 from The John Marshall Law School.