Monday, November 9, 2009

Dear Vicki...

I receive mail daily from paralegals with a multitude of questions. With their permission, I feature them here so that we can all work to formulate solutions for the good of the paralegal profession. The following message comes from Barbara Parkes of Princeton NJ.

Dear Vicki,

I enjoy receiving your newsletters and find they are some of the most interesting and informative paralegal networking resources I've seen.
I wanted to comment on today's newsletter -- specifically, the section in which you repeat the ABA's definition of a legal assistant/paralegal. (Note: Barbara is referring to the November 5, 2009 issue of Paralegal Strategies and the feature article titled 'Paralegal Resource: The American Bar Association'; to view this article, follow this link)

Many secretaries are now referring to themselves as legal assistants, and that this is not only confusing to clients but damaging to the paralegal profession. It seems to me that most attorneys do not have a problem with this, and I wish somehow this distinction would be made more clear.

"Secretary" is now a title that many do not care to have and they prefer to be referred to as an "assistant," as it is with "waiter/waitress" and the more accepted title of "server." However, this is confusing since, as you point out in your newsletter, the title of legal assistant and paralegal is synonymous.

If secretaries are going to start referring to themselves as assistants, because they work for law firms, it is natural for one to assume they are a "legal" assistant. However, secretarial duties are very different from paralegal duties, and those who are titled as paralegals are usually more educated in the legal field having a degree, a certificate or certification.

I wish the ABA's House of Delegates and the entire paralegal profession would make a distinction between these two terms rather than refer to them as synonymous, and start referring to paralegals as paralegals and secretaries as legal assistants. This would satisfy the secretaries, make things much less confusing for everyone, and maintain the respect for the paralegal profession that it deserves.

I would be interested in comments from other paralegals on this topic. Thank you.

Barbara A. Parkes, Paralegal
Princeton NJ

My response:

Dear Barbara...

Thank you for writing and also for your kind words about Paralegal Strategies.

You are referring to my recent article 'Paralegal Resource: The American Bar Association' that is available for review by following this link.

In that article I referred to the definition of a paralegal as adopted by the ABA (this is also the same definition adopted by the NALA):

The ABA's policy making body is the House of Delegates. In 1997, the House of Delegates adopted the current definition of "legal assistant/paralegal." The definition reads as follows:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

According to the ABA's Web site, "The current definition of "legal assistant/paralegal" replaces the definition adopted by the ABA Board of Governors in 1986. It adds the term "paralegal" since the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are, in practice, used interchangeably. The term that is preferred generally depends on what part of the country one is from. The current definition streamlines the 1986 definition and more accurately reflects how legal assistants are presently being utilized in the delivery of legal services."

Your complaint is not uncommon, Barbara. You are correct that many attorneys are annointing their legal secretaries with the title 'legal assistant' though they do not meet the definition of a 'legal assistant or paralegal' as adopted by the ABA.

This not only confuses and misleads the general public. It is also unfair to the consumer when attorneys charge their clients for work done by this employee who is not trained to do substantive legal work.

In NALA's 2008 Utilization/Compensation Survey, 18% of respondents reported using the title 'Legal Assistant' while 75% use the title 'Paralegal.' This percentage has changed rapidly over the years. Ten years ago, the percentage would have been about 50-50 and depended largely on geography. For instance, in Michigan the term 'legal assistant' was most prevalent while in other states, it was 'paralegal.' There was a day when I said I would NEVER use the term paralegal. Well...that's a good lesson in 'never say never' because it's my preferred title today.

I do believe the change you propose is slowly taking place, Barbara. This is evidenced by the tremendous increase in numbers using the title 'Paralegal.' I believe, too, that the ABA's House of Delegates will eventually change the definition. However, 18% preferring the title 'legal assistant' is still significant and those members of the profession deserve recognition and representation.

There is something every paralegal can do, though, and that is to make attorneys aware that in order to use the title 'legal assistant or paralegal' the employee must meet the standards set by the ABA. In order to charge clients for the employee's time, the employee must meet the standards of the definition. This is reinforced by two significant Supreme Court cases: Missouri v Jenkins and Richlin v Chertoff. To read more about those cases and their significance to the paralegal profession, follow this link.

For the ABA's definition to change, paralegals and paralegal associations will most likely have to petition the ABA's Standing Committee on Paralegals with a request for this change. Again, our backs cannot be turned on the practicing legal assistants who meet the ABA's definition and wish (or their employer wishes) not to adopt the term paralegal.

That said, I must must MUST stress the importance of legal secretaries. They are the backbone of the law firm and attorneys absolutely cannot function without them. They, along with legal assistants and paralegals and all remaining staff, form an important team. Perhaps attorneys should take steps to show their appreciation for the legal secretaries' hard work.

Readers...please weigh in on Barbara's comments. Your opinions, as well as your suggested solutions, are welcome.



Margaret Lucas Agius said...

Great timing! Just today, I got an email from a friend at my old firm. Her signature block has the title, "Legal Administrative Assistant." Problem solved?

ParaMel said...

I have heard this gripe, too! As the only staff in my tiny office, I am known as the paralegal, legal assistant, and even the secretary, depending on which person is referring to me. I waiver between the desire to clarify my title and the knowledge that my job is my job no matter what people call me.

That being said, I think that as the legal community continues to modify and clarify these roles, paralegals and legal secretaries will achieve the distinction our respective titles deserve.

Paralegal Mentor said...

Thanks for the comment, Margaret. This might be a great solution.

Paralegal Mentor said...

Melissa...Good comments!

The Goodwill Fangirl said...

This is a very timely post. I keep getting emails from students that want to know the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal, especially in job listings. I used to say "NONE!" without thinking twice, but with so many law firms calling secretaries "legal assistants" and so many others having arbitrarily created their own internal three-tier system - legal secretary, legal assistant and paralegal" - it's not nearly so clear as it ought to be. Now I tell job seekers to carefully read the want ad itself, and remind them the chances are good they'll have some clerical and administrative duties regardless of the job title.

As I listen to paralegal listserve members and paralegal association executive committee members argue about the "difference" between a legal assistant and a paralegal, and what to call themselves or their groups, I agree that it's up to associations and professionals to remind attorneys how the designations should be used - but it's a tough sell to firms that have already arbitrarily modified the term "legal assistant" to suit their own staffing needs.

Colin said...

Dear Ms. Voisin,

I discovered your blog from the blogroll at "Practical Paralegalism."

I am grateful for this posting. Currently I am pursuing an ABA-approved program for a paralegal certificate.

I just would add my vote in my concern that there should be a distinguishing between the work that paralegals and legal secretaries do. Your posting and everyone else's comments are excellent, so for me to say the same thing is like playing a broken record.

However, just to let people know if they didn't already... the website/magazine "Legal Assistant Today" is no more. My impression is that they are overhauling both their website and magazine and re-naming them "Paralegal Today." So people are recognizing this distinction. I think addressing paralegals as "legal assistants" will go the way of the dinosaur in the not-so-distant future. Thankfully.


shatch said...

I agree with Margaret! Our local paralegal association (a NALA affiliate)tries to educate the legal community in this regard suggesting that secretaries use the title "Legal Administrative Assistant." That said, I rarely see it in practice.

Paralegal Mentor said...

Thank you all for your fine comments and suggestions. We may be closer to a solution to this problem than it seems.

shatch said...

I have to admit that I have not spoken to any representatives of the National Association of Legal Secretaries about this issue. I know they offer the designations of ALS (Accredited Legal Secretary), PLS (Professional Legal Secretary), and PP (Professional Paralegal). Does anybody know what their position is regarding use of titles?