Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Paralegal Perception: Does the stigma of 'simply failed lawyers' apply?

Two of my favorite paralegal bloggers recently posted articles with similar themes that really made me think.

Before I tell you about their posts, you should be aware that both are college graduates and both have paralegal certifications. They’re literally paralegal dynamos who have passion for the paralegal profession. They could never be considered ‘second rate’ professionals.

Melissa Hinote CP penned The Compliment That Wasn’t at her blog, Paralegalese. Melissa is a paralegal (the only paralegal) in a small town in rural Alabama. Recently a well-meaning person tried to pay her a compliment: You are too smart for this job!

Actually, Melissa was too smart to interpret this as a compliment:

“You are too smart for this job”, however nicely intended, still comes across as slightly insulting when the person you are saying it to loves the career she has chosen and finds her daily work both challenging and interesting.’
Then, more recently, Lynne DeVenny NCCP who blogs as ExpertParalegal posted UK Paralegals Struggle to Overcome Perception as “Failed Lawyer” where she quoted an editorial written by Husnara Begum at Lawyer 2B regarding the view of the paralegal profession in the United Kingdom:

Paralegals have always been regarded as the poor relations of the UK legal family. But thankfully the negative labels that have long been associated with paralegalling are gradually being peeled away.

The article continued:

Isn’t it about time that paralegals were seen as professionals in their own right ant not simply as failed lawyers?

Lynne noted that Begum acknowledges she’s re-thinking her perception of paralegals as ‘not good enough to secure training contracts’, and that being a paralegal is a valuable and valid alternative to becoming a lawyer.

Husnara really needs to re-think this issue, as does anyone else who thinks considers ‘paralegal’ to be a to be a label that says 'not quite good enough.'

This is how it is really is: paralegals are paralegals because they have chosen to be paralegals.

Paralegals love the law but do not want to practice law...in fact they do not want to practice medicine, nor do they want to be accountants or firefighters or policemen or...the list goes on and on.

They haven’t ‘settled’ for the job of paralegal, they have chosen a challenging profession that requires a great deal of skill, discipline and dedication. Are they ‘not smart enough’ to be lawyers? That's not the issue. They have chosen to be paralegals.

Are nurses 'not smart enough’ to be doctors?

Is a teacher who chooses to teach in elementary school ‘not smart enough’ to teach at the college level?

Is a lawyer who chooses to practice in a small firm ‘not smart enough’ to work at a large firm?

Is a lawyer who chooses not to practice law at all but, instead, to pursue a different course of work that utilizes his or her lawyer skills, ‘not smart enough’ to practice law?

'Smart enough' has nothing to do with it. It’s all about choices. Choosing to work as a paralegal is not an alternative to becoming a lawyer, any more than choosing to work as a nurse is an alternative to becoming a doctor. Instead, these are valid choices to work in valid professions.

As Melissa says so well, “...my job requires me to become proficient in areas where my attorney supervisor may not be so proficient. He should be an expert on the law, absolutely, but...it takes more to run a law office than legal expertise. While I work under his supervision...if he knew it all or could do it all, he would never have hired me.”

Lynne ended her post with this thought:

To see the words ‘stigma” and “failed” associated with the choice to work as a paralegal in any country is an unpleasant eye-opener for me, and means there is still a lot of work to be done to recognize the integral role that educated, intelligent and highly skilled paralegals play in the practice of law today.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if only lawyers worked in law offices? That idea makes me smile! It takes a team to run a law practice...and paralegals are an essential part of the legal team.

The general public may forever be in awe of lawyers (and doctors, too) and regard anyone who works with them as someone who couldn’t quite cut it as a lawyer. This just isn’t so. First of all, not everyone in this world wants to be a lawyer. Second, the law firm is a team of equals who do different work. Every single person working on the legal team is a crucial contributor to the firm’s success.

What can paralegals do about this perceived perception? Continue to pursue continuing legal education, continue to act as a professional, and, above all, continue to stress their dedication to the success of the legal profession.

The paralegal profession isn’t about failing; it’s about choosing...and doing a darned good job at what we do.

6 comments:

Lynne DeVenny said...

This is a compelling and well-articulated post, Vicki. Thank you for representing the paralegal profession so well.

ParaMel said...

Great entry! Thankfully our profession has within it dedicate individuals who work every day to change this perception.

Cathy L. Ribble said...

Great points, Vicki. We are professionals who are passionate about the law -- just in different ways from attorneys. We are called to a different place of service.

I'm thankful that, to the best of my knowledge, I've not been viewed as a "simply failed lawyer". I'm not sure I know a single paralegal who failed at trying to be a lawyer.

Change of public perception, however, often takes time. I believe our best defense against such stigmas is to stay on the offense through continuing legal education, professional organization, and viewing ourselves as the professionals we want others to see in us.

I would also point out that I do not believe "failed lawyers" are going to make good paralegals! We have seen several stories recently of attorneys who have forfeited their licenses and are now trying to work as paralegals. Would a "failed doctor make a good nurse? Don't think I want to visit that doctor's office!

I'm anxious to hear more comments on this story.

Margaret Lucas Agius said...

It is by no means a majority, but there is a subset of the paralegal profession that is comprised of former lawyers and law school dropouts. Some of the former lawyers are suspended or disbarred by their chosen profession, and now are settling for whatever legal job will have them. Some of the law school dropouts are really law school flunk-outs with nowhere else to go. Some earned a paralegal degree or certificate as a deliberate stepping stone to law school, never intending to work as paralegals at all. Some intended to work as paralegals only long enough to pay their way through law school. Whatever the case may be, these are “accidental paralegals.” I am an “intentional paralegal.” Most of you are probably intentional paralegals as well.

I’ve known and worked with a number of accidental paralegals over the years. With only one exception, I don’t miss them--or working with them--in the least. Here are my observations about most of the accidental paralegals I’ve known:

1. They do not join paralegal associations or run for office.
2. They do not seek out other paralegals for networking in any form.
3. They neither seek out paralegal mentors nor seek to mentor others.
4. They think they are better than other paralegals simply because they have at least attempted to become lawyers.
5. They take only the barest amount of CLE possible to keep the job-of-the-moment.
6. The view being a paralegal as a mere job, not a career.
7. They do not take certification or registration exams offered by national paralegal associations.
8. They do not follow other paralegals on Twitter or read their blogs.
9. They actually avoid other paralegals as much as humanly possible.
10. They are almost universally disliked by intentional paralegals because of Nos.1 through 9.

Confession: I’m an intentional paralegal who has peeked over the fence. I took the LSAT soon after completing my paralegal degree. After much deliberation and research, I decided against going to law school. Have I had any regrets? Sure, especially during this long period of unemployment (going on a year). Would I call a do-over if given the chance? I might, but there are a lot of other factors involved too. If the stars were aligned just so, my LSAT scores hadn’t expired more than a decade ago and someone else was footing the bill, would I do it now? Heck, yes! Why? I’ve been informed that I would need a graduate degree or a Juris Doctor to teach in the ABA-approved paralegal program at my alma mater.

Until then, I will continue to seek a new career position as a paralegal! Anybody hiring?

legilbegil said...

Oh Margaret, so over the top. My, my, my what a broad stroke you paint the "accidental" paralegal with. I think many more paralegals my age are of the "accidental" type than the younger ones. I personally went to paralegal school after the steel mill I worked at closed for good in 1982. I went to paralegal school because at the time the Federal government was offering retraining assistnace to displaced steelworkers. I already had a bachelors degree and my teaching certification, but decided afte student teaching that I didn't have the patience for teaching. I went to paralegal school because I've always been fascinated with the law and perhaps it might be a stepping stone to law school. Paralegalism, for lack of a better word, was a new and evolving profession back in the 1980's. Not many people who went into the field initially knew what the job was all about or what the future might hold for paralegals. In my first job experience which came out of an internship from paralegal school, I pretty much defined my own role in a small law firm that had never before had a paralegal employee and thought they were getting cheap help for 12 weeks. I made myself indispensable in that short 12 weeks.

I am also a "failed lawyer" because life has dealt me some pretty tough blows that made gong to law school nigh onto impossible. I am extremely intelligent, but reticent and a bit of a loner by nature. So you got me since I rarely network or read blogs about my profession.

In my experience there are far more failed paralegals than paralegals who are failed lawyers. Paralegals who punch a time clock, gossip with their co-workers, or talk on their cell phones or surf the web during large chunks of their work day. They take numerous breaks and watch their "shows" on the little television in the lunch room.

Whether you work for a law firm, a corporate law department, an insurance company or any other number of paralegal jobs, their are professional paralegals and their are paralegals. Period.

Margaret Lucas Agius said...

Okay, I'll back up a little--but just a little.

There is a (hopefully very) small segment of the paralegal population that is comprised of "simply failed lawyers" or what I personally consider "accidental paralegals." Just because I'm not one or you're not one does not mean they don't exist. If you haven't met or worked with any of that type, you are lucky. Some of the ones I've known in the past made fun of my certification, ridiculed my involvement with state and national paralegal associations, and made light of other career accomplishments in which I take pride. If my tone reads as bitter, so be it. My experiences are uniquely my own.

Being a paralegal as a second career or becoming one later in life does not make one an accidental paralegal--at least not the type I've encountered or described here. It is only those who see being a paralegal as a consolation prize to whom I refer. Chances are very good that anyone who follows other paralegals via blogs or social networking doesn't fit in that category.