The Paralegal Profession: A Brief History for Attorneys

As I prepared to explain what paralegals are, I thought it only appropriate to begin with a brief overview of the profession itself. Albeit true to form, my explanation of paralegals is longer than anticipated, so I’ve decided to use a brief overview of the profession as a precursor and give it a home of its own. Perhaps it’s more fitting, anyway, as what follows may just surprise you.

Did you know?

I still work with attorneys who remember what it was like to work without paralegals. No, I don’t mean in the sense of attorneys who just don’t work with paralegals; I mean attorneys who remember when there was no such thing as paralegals. Most attorneys today – especially younger attorneys – will be surprised to learn that the paralegal profession is a relatively young profession. In fact, the youth of the profession still puts me in awe when I think about all we do and how we’re advancing as a profession.

The paralegal profession’s history

The profession was created in the 1960’s in an effort to assist attorneys with their increasing caseload and extend access to the legal system to more socioeconomic groups. The first paralegals were legal secretaries trained on the job to handle more substantive legal work. While on-the-job training was provided by attorneys for many years, formal education opportunities for paralegals have developed significantly over time. Just as they do today, the first paralegals worked under the direction and supervision of an attorney.

I could go on and on about the history of the profession, but that’s the basic overview. If you would like to learn more about the beginning and evolution of the profession, do check out this great article that Susan Mae McCabeon wrote for the Michigan Bar Journal on the history of the paralegal profession.

In harmony?

I should also point out that paralegals were originally given a broad array of titles. Over time, two major titles stuck: the title of “paralegal” and that of “legal assistant.” Confusingly, though, the term “legal assistant” is used synonymously with “legal secretary” by some attorneys and in certain parts of the country. However, the American Bar Association, national paralegal associations, and some states have defined “legal assistants” as synonymous with both the term and duties of “paralegals.” So it’s important to note that, as a general rule, the terms “legal assistants” and “paralegals” are as interchangeable as the terms “lawyer” and “attorney,” even though your particular geographical area or practice may use them differently.

Now that you know the when and why of the paralegal profession, what has been your experience with the various titles these professionals have been given? How do you define “legal assistant” in your area or practice? Is it more synonymous with paralegals or legal secretaries? Share your thoughts below.

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