Florida Makes a Move to License Paralegals: Coming to your state soon?

 IStock_000007967580Small[1] FLORIDA BILLS PUSH FOR LICENSING, DEFINITION OF PARALEGALS

 

Companion bills in the Florida Legislature are currently under consideration to make Florida the first state in the country to require licenses for paralegals. The bills require the Florida Supreme Court to develop a licensing and continuing education scheme and make it a felony for unlicensed people to identify themselves as paralegals.

 The bills, sponsored by state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and state Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, were filed March 9 and have been assigned to the judiciary committees. They were written by the Florida Alliance of Paralegal Associations, a consortium of paralegal organizations that first started talking to The Florida Bar about enacting some kind of mandatory licensing in 1996. The group wants to prevent legal secretaries and others from using the title of paralegal to market themselves and to for-mally define what a paralegal is.

"We're a group of professionals that want to protect the integrity of the profession and feel legislation is the way to do that," said Mark Workman, a Miami-based Gunster paralegal who is past president of the Florida Alliance of Paralegal Associations and the South Florida Paralegal Association. "There are people out there that say to the public that they have those professional designations they don't have, and they dupe the public. We feel if we have the legislation in place, we'll have a means to avoid that and assist in defining who can and can't be a paralegal."

The group has hired a lobbyist, David Ramba of the Ramba Group in Tallahassee, who presented the bills to Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady and the Office of the State Courts Administrator for comment. He has not received any response.

But not everyone is a fan of the idea, including Florida Bar president Mayanne Downs. Some lawyers question why paralegal regulation is necessary. Currently, lawyers regulate the paralegals who work for them. If paralegals are licensed, it might be possible for them to work directly with clients and bypass the necessity for the public to hire lawyers.

Some lawyers say paralegals are motivated to pursue licensing for financial reasons, while some paralegals say lawyers are motivated to oppose it by the same thing.

'GOOD AND BAD'

"They are trying to raise the bar for paralegals," said David Rothman, a Miami lawyer and member of the Bar's board of governors. "Their intentions are noble. What has happened up till now is paralegals have operated under the auspices of lawyers. If they become independently regulated, they can act as paralegals with clients. There are lawyers that are concerned that some work that needs to be done by a lawyer will be done by a paralegal, and there may be gray areas, and that may work to the disadvantage of a client.

"We're watching this closely," he added, noting he is undecided on the law. "It has good and bad points."

Others say this is not the time to be adding new regulations in Tallahassee. Gov. Rick Scott, for one, has said he wants to deregulate more than 30 industries and professionals including yacht brokers, geologists and manicurists. "To put this extra layer of bureaucracy, I don't see where that is coming from," Miami solo attorney Lisa Lehner said. "In this day and age, we're trying to cut down on bureaucracy. Lawyers should be supervising their own staff and not put on an extra layer of red tape. What's next, are we going to be regulating our secretaries? Where does it end?"

The Bar board of governors has not taken a position on the legislation, which will be discussed at its Friday meeting.  Workman previously accused The Florida Bar of trying to protect its own voluntary paralegal certification program. State certification, which requires certification through one of the national paralegal associations and work experience or a bachelor's degree, costs $150 to renew annually. Nearly 5,500 paralegals have been certified since the program began in 2008.

"It's a cash cow for them," Workman said. "None of the money is going to programs that assist paralegals or paralegal education. It's going back to the general fund of The Florida Bar."

ENABLING LEGISLATION

But the paralegal associations don't feel voluntary certification is enough, Workman said, and want to be regulated through the Florida Supreme Court.

"We have a very successful paralegal registration program within The Florida Bar and have had a high number of participants," Downs said. "We don't believe that this is the climate for additional regulation, nor do we feel this is a necessary regulation. We understand legislation is often the starting place for talking points, and we welcome an opportunity to be a part of that discussion."

What do you think?  Would you want to be licensed?
Reprinted with permission from Law in Motion, Santa Barbara Paralegal Association.

 


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"Hutchens, Senter & Britton Announces Certified Paralegals"

Well, isn't this encouraging news? Law firm sends out press release praising its paralegals!

"Fayetteville, North Carolina-based law firm Hutchens, Senter & Britton, P.A., which specializes in foreclosure and civil litigation, announced that employees Lesley Cavenaugh, Dianne Dunn, and Aileen Gibson have qualified as North Carolina state bar certified paralegals. All three support the firm's bankruptcy group.

“'We congratulate Lesley, Dianne, and Aileen on this important achievement,' said Terry Hutchens, managing partner of Hutchens, Senter & Britton. 'Individually, each one's dedication to the profession is to be commended; collectively, they bring a concentration of expertise and talent to our Bankruptcy Group, which is a significant asset for the firm.'”

Too bad the firm doesn't (yet) post paralegal profiles...


Role of Nonlawyers in Law Practice

What the Michigan State Bar has to say about the utilization of legal assistants:

"Article 1, Sec 6, of the Bylaws of the State Bar of Michigan defines 'legal assistant' for purposes of membership in the State Bar Legal Assistant Section as follows:

"Any person currently employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity engaged in the practice of law, in a capacity or function which involves the performance under the direction and supervision of an attorney of specifically delegated substantive legal work, which work, for the most part, requires a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts such that, absent that legal assistant, the attorney would perform the task, and which is not primarily clerical or secretarial in nature . . ."

"While the Guidelines are directed primarily at the utilization of legal assistants as defined above, many of the same considerations would apply in the utilization and supervision of any other nonlawyer assistants. While the Guidelines necessarily discuss the conduct of legal assistants, they are directed at lawyers who use or supervise legal assistants. The Guidelines are intended to aid the lawyer in fulfilling responsibilities under the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct."

You can find more info in the detailed 9 Guidelines.


"Paralegals in position to improve reputation of legal profession"

Well, yeah! This is indeed a welcome news article:

"Paralegals are critical to improving the reputation of lawyers in the community. The legal profession still suffers from negative stereotypes and some do indeed think we're better off 'at the bottom of the sea,' as the lawyer joke goes. Paralegals can pull lawyers out of this muddy, messy, pool of disrepute by displaying the following qualities.

* Honesty and integrity
* Professionalism
* Giving back through pro bono work and volunteering
* Enthusiasm"

Author Elizabeth Balfour's speech at the annual San Diego Paralegals' Association Luncheon in June 2006 provided criteria for the Distinguished Paralegals Awards.


Paralegal: “A Fairly Well-Educated Chimp Could Practice Law”

Like the creativity involved in this paralegal's pursuit of a law degree, but truly enjoyed all the comments following the blog's post [link in original]:

"A Connecticut paralegal has sued the state’s bar exam committee because it won’t let him take the bar, despite his earning a degree from an unaccredited Internet correspondence law school....

"Mel Thompson took law courses at West Coast School of Law, an Internet correspondence law school based in Downey, Calif., not accredited by the ABA. The school’s program — which has graduated ten students in its brief history — is designed for students who want to practice in California; it requires out-of-state students to sign a waiver before enrolling.

"Connecticut has filed a motion to dismiss the claim. Meanwhile, Thompson has some choice words for the legal profession: 'A fairly well-educated chimp could practice law. It’s not hard to understand. For [the defendants] to put [the legal profession] on this pedestal . . . it’s a lie.'”

No offense to lawyer friends, but here's my favorite comment: "I personally would hire a chimp to represent me than any lawyer."


Editorial: 'Lawyers will regulate paralegals'

Another strong opinion about regulating Canadian paralegals:

"Ontario has passed a law that will regulate paralegals. This is good news. Until now, what has it taken to be a paralegal? Call yourself one. That's it. No training required. No liability insurance. No minimum standards. No discipline for bad ones.

"I've seen some good paralegals. I've seen some bloody awful ones too. Of course, the skeptics will say the same about lawyers. At least lawyers have certain minimum training, have passed competency exams, pay liability insurance in case they screw up, and they can get booted out of the profession if they are unethical. Until now, there was virtually nothing you could do about a bad paralegal.

[snip]

"With the Law Society in charge [PDF link], it will have to strike a balance that protects the public and preserves the roles of both paralegals and lawyers. I'm hoping that it will find the right balance.

"I don't consider paralegals to be competition for me in my practice. We are simply not going after the same work. On the other hand, there are paralegals doing some things that are way out of their league.

"In my view, paralegals should never be doing separation agreements or family law. They should not be doing wills and estate planning. They should not be doing real estate transactions. These are areas of law where the amateurs think that it is just filling in the blanks on a 'standard' form. It isn't."

By Ian Johncox, a partner with the Mason Bennett Johncox law firm in Whitby, Ontario.


Ontario regulates paralegals, 'puts lawyers in charge'

This news is not a surprise, but it does sound like the battle continues:

"Ontario became the first province in Canada to regulate paralegals Thursday, but many in the profession worry they could be forced out of business because they will be regulated by lawyers - the very people they compete against for most of their work.

"The Liberal government had to use its majority to out-vote the Conservatives and New Democrats, who stood in opposition to the Access to Justice Act - a new law that puts the Law Society of Upper Canada in charge of regulating paralegals [PDF link].

"For the first time, paralegals will be required to receive training, carry liability insurance and report to a public body that can investigate complaints.

"'We are really witnessing the birth of a new profession,' said Attorney General Michael Bryant. 'Paralegals are joining the ranks of doctors, lawyers and teachers as a regulated and respected profession in Ontario.'

"But the Paralegal Society of Ontario is fearful the Law Society will stop paralegals from providing a low-cost alternative to lawyers for civil cases, incorporations, wills, divorces and other family law disputes.

"'This legislation is going to hurt the public, as they're going to be limited in choice because it's going to go back to just being lawyers,' warned spokeswoman Susan Koprich.'"


"Lawyer, paralegal square off for justice position"

Love this news story!

"Columbia Falls paralegal Jerry O’Neil and Whitefish attorney Mark Sullivan were the top vote-getters among four candidates for Flathead County Justice of the Peace in the June primary.

"Now they face off Nov. 7 for the judge job that will expand from part time to full time in January. Incumbent Dale Trigg is not running for re-election.

[snip]

"The Flathead County commissioners briefly changed the requirements for the position last spring, requiring the judge to be a lawyer.

"O’Neil challenged that and the commissioners withdrew the requirement.

"Sullivan said he believes the justice of the peace should be an attorney; O’Neil said there is no reason to change the requirements now."


Law firm runs clothing drives for needy women

Good news about a Seattle firm & its managing partner:

"When Russell M. Aoki took a break from college and worked on the maintenance crew of a golf course, he discovered his calling.

"Seniors who he met while on the job 'took me aside and encouraged me to go back to school and consider going to law school,' said Aoki, who was recently installed as one of the board of governors for the Washington State Bar Association.

[snip]

"Aoki is a trial attorney who specializes in criminal defense and business litigation. One of his most prominent cases involved representing a business that was attempting to recover assets from a bookkeeper who allegedly embezzled $5 million. This was considered the largest embezzlement case in Washington state at the time. Aoki and his client were successful, and the defendant was found guilty of embezzlement. Businesses throughout the country have hired Aoki when they are defendants in Internet advertising violation cases.

"A former president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, Aoki is a director on the board of the America Civil Liberties Union, and a trustee on the King County Bar Association. Aoki has worked as a judge pro tem, mediator and arbitrator besides being a lecturer with the Washington Criminal Justice Institute and has taught people about the Bill of Rights for the Heritage Institute.

"His law firm has been involved for more than a decade in clothing drives which help collect clothing donations for women who need proper attire for job interviews and work. Aoki said the idea came from one of his paralegals and started small but now amasses significant amounts of donated clothing."

We always say paralegals have the best ideas!