Published in NH Bar News (8/16/2016)
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the paralegal profession is expected to grow by 17 percent between 2012 and 2022. As the paralegal profession is growing, firms should seek better ways to utilize their paralegals, and require education and certification standards, bringing about regulation on a national level.
With careful planning, law firms will realize the versatility of paralegals and better leverage their legal resources. If paralegals are assigned to matters that make the best use of their skills and time, firms can optimize resources. By setting paralegals’ billing rates based on their education, certification level, and experience, law firms can realize higher profit margins on senior paralegals.
As senior paralegals become more profitable employees, firms should look for ways to retain them: Engage them in matters from the outset; introduce them to clients; allow them to contribute to practice group decisions and participate in meetings and events; and offer them a path for professional development.
Firms should consider designating a paralegal manager who understands the value that paralegals bring to the firm and its clients. This can provide a mechanism for all paralegals to give feedback or voice concerns on how matters are managed, and can improve client satisfaction. A paralegal manager can be responsible for assisting in hiring, training, and optimizing paralegals’ resources.
Larger firms can designate a senior paralegal for the paralegal manager role in each practice area. Firms should provide an opportunity for these paralegal managers to meet every quarter to discuss ideas. Results could include increased client referrals and improved cross-selling between practice areas. Designating a different partner each year to oversee the paralegal managers will allow for better business development.
For many years now, there has been talk about regulating the paralegal profession. Many states, including California, Delaware, Florida, Texas, Virginia, and Washington now have rules regulating paralegals, requiring a certificate or licensure by statute, by the state bar association, or by the state paralegal association. This certificate or licensure requirement varies by state and takes time and money to administer.
It is time to adopt national uniform standards for regulating paralegals in the US. This can be done by way of adopting a new definition of a paralegal, excluding the words “legal assistant” to keep up with industry standards, and by revising the rules and regulations accordingly. The easiest and most cost-effective way would be to adopt a national standard based on the American Bar Association’s widely used definition of a paralegal, combined with requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in any field with a paralegal certificate, or graduation from an accredited paralegal program. This makes paralegals eligible to take the nationally recognized two-day Certified Paralegal (CP) exam offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants - Paralegals (NALA).
It would make sense for NALA, the oldest and largest paralegal association in the US, to administer these uniform standards, as it already administers the paralegal exams. A new uniform standard would provide better guiding principles, and, consequently, better resource utilization resulting in greater profitability. Additionally, with continuing professional development opportunities, paralegals will have more options for advancement in various legal settings.
This approach to paralegal regulation would mirror the increasing use of the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) among law school graduates, which is coordinated by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. This multistate exam is uniformly administered, graded, and scored by user jurisdictions, and it results in a portable score that can be transferred to other UBE jurisdictions. Currently, there are 18 states participating, and more are likely to join.
Creating uniform standards for paralegals would also result in improved credibility for the legal profession. Doing so would conform to the growing trend of centralized and efficient regulation, resolve the uncertainty surrounding the terms “paralegals” and “legal assistants,” and provide for better workflow, improved utilization, thus higher profit margins. Many highly educated and certified paralegals agree that the current standards are not up to date and that regulation on a nationwide level has become a necessity.
Anikó Bouley is an advanced certified paralegal and works in the Corporate Department of McLane Middleton. She is a 2007 recipient of the NH Bar Association’s Paralegal Professionalism Award and can be reached via email.