Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin

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.

As the founding director of the program at Villa Julie 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.

The 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.

In 1973, 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.

Over the 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.

Some years 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.

Perhaps it 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.

Paralegals 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.

Francis 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.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: January, 2003

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