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Modernizing the Attorney-Paralegal Relationship

The competitive and often cutthroat atmosphere that divulges itself whenever attorneys interact can shock the conscience. The legal industry tends to focus success and failure exclusively on attorneys. After all, it is the attorney who signs off on — and is ultimately responsible for — the work product presented.

Joseph Pastino

However, the industry fails to realize that an attorney’s success often hinges on the success of their counterparts — paralegals — who are in the trenches every day reviewing discovery, producing documents, filing pleadings and scheduling appearances. Surprisingly, paralegals are not subject to the same level of regulation and scrutiny as their attorney counterparts even though paralegals perform many of the same tasks carried out by attorneys.

Regrettably, many stereotypes continue to linger throughout the profession. Some within and outside the industry view paralegals as glorified secretaries, attorney wannabes who lack the aptitude for law school or the types who knowingly engage in the unauthorized practice of the law.

In today’s dynamic legal landscape, modernization is the key to success. Therefore, the legal industry must institute a robust training and development program that advances the paralegal profession alongside their attorney counterparts. The systematic approach outlined below provides solutions that will modernize an antiquated industry.

Modernization requires multilevel industry involvement. Private law firms, government agencies and nonprofit legal organizations must work alongside the various paralegal trade associations, as well as state bar associations, to produce a uniform set of regulations to be adopted industrywide. A three-tiered structure could be the hallmark of any training and development program — general paralegal training at an accredited educational institution, practice area/job-specific training and ultimately licensure by a state bar association — to ensure everyone meets minimum levels of education and experience before one is granted the title of paralegal.


Tier 1: Find the Best Educational Programs

To begin training, research the various educational programs available. Choose a reputable program that is certified by the American Bar Association, which sets rigorous standards for legal education providers. The provider you choose must have a job placement program where students can receive internship/externship experience, career coaching and mentoring.

By way of example, when I began my paralegal studies (I enrolled in a post-baccalaureate certificate program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey) I was fortunate enough to work with knowledgeable and seasoned attorney instructors who were well-versed in their respective practice areas. The students in my program had the opportunity to learn about theoretical concepts of the law in the classroom, while also learning about the practical aspects of working in the legal field through interactive labs and an internship. I worked for a small firm while I completed my studies, and the supportive work environment at that shop was crucial to the success I enjoy today.

Tier 2: Get Job-Specific Training

Support from attorneys is critical to paralegal growth and development. This brings us to the second tier of paralegal training: practice area/job-specific training. Similar to our attorney counterparts, paralegals must have the opportunity to participate in continuing legal education initiatives. Training should focus on an array of legal topics but also on legal administrative ones, such as technology practices, ethics, financial management, research and writing, sales/business development, leadership development, and oral and written communication skills. Training needs to be tailored so that both attorney and paralegal can sharpen their skills, stay up to date on the latest industry trends and drive innovation within their organization.

Firms should encourage their paralegals to broaden their knowledge base and skills because a well-trained paralegal team is beneficial to the organization, the attorney and, ultimately, the client. Furthermore, the presence of a well-rounded paralegal brigade provides a differentiating factor by allowing your firm to close the access gap that exists within the industry. The presence of such a gap brings us to the third tier of paralegal training: licensure.


Tier 3: Discover the Benefits of Licensure

Licensure of paralegals is a controversial topic within the industry. While there are genuine concerns associated with implementing licensure requirements — malpractice, educational cost, etc. — the benefits of licensure outweigh the costs. It ensures that paralegals meet a minimum level of proficiency needed to deliver competent service to a firm’s clients with minimal supervision.

At first glance, the idea of a paralegal working independently seems reckless. However, other industries have embraced, and flourished, by using licensed professionals with varied levels of education and experience. For example, the health care field issues licenses to physician assistants, nurses, dental hygienists and countless other professionals who work independently and alongside an industry superior to care for the ill and injured. The industry recognizes the benefits of having tiers of licensed professionals at the ready to service their clients.

Both the health care and legal industries recognize that a gap exists with respect to their ability to adequately and competently service their clientele. For instance, the health care industry understands that it’s impossible for a doctor to handle every aspect of patient clinical care. Doing so would cause inefficiencies, leading to longer wait times for patients and cost overruns; it may even jeopardize a patient’s care due to doctor fatigue. Allowing a licensed assistant to practice independently within a limited scope frees up the higher qualified professional — the doctor — to tackle more pressing and complex problems.

Think of it this way: is it a more efficient use of a dentist’s time to perform a routine cleaning? The industry asked itself this very question and implemented a practical solution. Today, odds are a licensed dental hygienist will clean your teeth while your dentist focuses on complex dental issues. Similarly, by granting licensure to paralegals, a substantial burden would be lifted from the attorney’s shoulders. It would allow them to turn out the best possible work product without being overwhelmed by run-of-the-mill processes, such as trying to navigate a court’s e-filing system or attending a routine court conference in a low-risk case.


The legal industry needs rejuvenation and expanding the role of its human resources is a logical first step to ignite a much-needed renaissance. By breaking down the barriers that restrain paralegals from operating at maximum capacity, the legal industry will unleash a wave of innovation that will lead to increased efficiency, lower costs and greater access to legal services. Furthermore, the expansion of the paralegal role will decrease the burden that plagues our attorneys and courts. With a new wave of licensed professionals ready to work, an antiquated industry will be ready to operate in a 21st century environment.


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