The Paralegal Profession: A
Look Back and A Peek Forward
By Francis X. Pugh
Thirty years ago, the first
formal program for paralegals in Maryland started at Villa
Julie College in Stevenson, Maryland. It seems timely to recall what was
happening in the then-budding world of paralegalism and to suggest some thoughts
for the future.
founding director of the program at Villa
College, it was readily apparent that first night of classes that the legal
community was on the threshold of a new profession. It was and exciting time
wondering what the profession’s future would be and how it would be accepted.
students were aware that they were pioneers in the field and that employment was
not guaranteed. Paralegal positions were not advertised in the want ads nor were
such positions posted in college placement offices. Looking back, the single
most important factor in getting attorneys to understand and accept this new
career field was the internship requirement of paralegal programs. Firms agreed
to sponsor students who worked 120 hours without compensation. This gave lawyers
a chance to see without risk what paralegals could actually do, what training
they were getting in school, and how helpful they might be.
the idea that nonlawyers could perform many of the tasks involved in practicing
law was an idea alien to most lawyers. For example, when it became apparent that
paralegals were inevitable, some members of the Maryland Bar felt paralegals
were merely people they had to learn to put up with. There were concerns about
the quality of legal services, the unauthorized practice of law, and the
possibility of malpractice claims and similar penalties. Paralegalism was new
and a departure from how legal services had traditionally been delivered.
years, a gradual transformation occurred. Initially, for fear of a negative
reaction from the client, attorneys shielded the fact that a paralegal had done
some of the work on their case. Then suddenly, paralegals became “in,” and the
attorney utilizing paralegals became viewed as progressive. They were also
viewed as financially considered, because paralegals’ time could be billed at a
lower hourly rate. The use of paralegals then became a matter of pride. Clients
came to realize that it was easier to reach paralegals than the busy attorneys
and that either then, or in a follow-up phone call, they would get the
information they were seeking, and at a lower hourly rate to boot.
ago, the members of the Special Committee on Legal Assistants for the State Bar
Association determined that some official recognition of the paralegal was
appropriate. They were not advocating licensing as a prerequisite to practicing
as a paralegal. However, they did believe that there should be an official
definition of “paralegal,” so that persons holding themselves out as paralegals
met some basic minimal qualifications. The Committee proposed a definition to
the Board of Governors, but their timing was bad. At that time, there was
nationwide scrutiny on the unauthorized practice of law because consumer groups
and others were seeking to furnish legal services to individuals who had too
many assets to qualify for Legal Aid but not enough financial resources to
retain private counsel. Although this has since been addressed by an increase in
pro bono services offered by attorneys, it was, at the time, a matter of serious
concern. Therefore, no action was taken on the Committee’s proposal.
is time, or maybe past time, for the Bar to give greater official recognition
and respect to this valuable component of the practice of law. Paralegal
membership is now available in Bar Associations, but there should be more.
Paralegalism should officially be recognized as a profession with the attributes
of a profession. While licensing should not necessarily be a condition to
practice as a paralegal, there should be a clear definition of qualifications
and an opportunity for voluntary registration by those persons meeting the
qualifications. This would enhance the profession without placing undue
obstacles to those wishing to enter the field. Qualifications for holding one’s
self out as a paralegal and, therefore, entitlement to registration as such
could include some prescribed training and some prescribed work experience. The
training could be in a program, such as the one at Villa Julie or at other
educational institutions. On-the-job training could be certified by an attorney.
All this could be done internally by the State Bar without necessarily having to
seek any formal legislation in Annapolis. Without having certification
examinations, the procedure and the cost would be minimal and could easily be
borne by the applicants or the firms.
have accomplished creative and satisfying careers for themselves, have joined
with attorneys in providing needed legal services to the general public, and
have greatly enhanced the professional life of lawyers. It is time to salute
them and to recognize their contributions.
X. Pugh, Esq. is an attorney and mediator. He continues to teach in the
Paralegal Program at Villa Julie College
and serves as Chair of the Advisory Committee for the Paralegal Program.