What? You Don’t Have a License to Practice as a Paralegal?

A couple of recent events led me to prepare this final section on the overview of the paralegal profession.  Namely, clarification of formal requirements as they pertain to paralegal licensure and paralegal regulation.

Not long ago I was talking with an attorney friend, answering her questions about the paralegal profession, the type of support paralegals provide, and professional requirements.  As was the case then, I sometimes find attorneys are under the impression that paralegals have similar licensing and reporting requirements.  While this may be due, in part, to the close relation between the professions, it may also be partly due to inaccurate information published for the public.

You see, last week I received a link to a web page providing information and resources on the paralegal profession and paralegal careers.  The page included links to [mostly] credible sources, which did provide accurate information about the profession. However, the information on the page itself was inaccurate.  It emphasized, among other things, that paralegals are licensed to support attorneys.  Granted the distinctions between general responsibility for professional conduct, certification, regulation, and licensure are not widely understood.  Still, I cringed thinking about the information given to individuals relying on it to decide on a career.

These events reaffirmed my plan to clear the air on general governance of the paralegal profession as it stands today.

Paralegal licensure

Because paralegals do not practice law, they are not licensed.  The attorney delegates to the paralegal legal tasks the attorney would ordinarily do in the course of work and is responsible for supervising and approving the paralegal’s work.  As an extension of the attorney, the paralegal’s work falls under the attorney’s license.  However, that doesn’t mean paralegals have no oversight or responsibility; as with all other legal professionals, paralegals are still required to adhere to the same codes of ethics and rules of professional conduct as their attorneys.  Nor does it mean that the profession won’t move toward paralegal licensure at some point in the future, although there is more interest in paralegal regulation.

Paralegal regulation

Uniform regulation has been a topic of interest for quite some time now.  And, while no formal regulation by a single governing body currently exists, support for regulation is increasing.  Currently, the national paralegal associations have adopted definitions, ethical rules, and guidelines for paralegals, as have certain states.  Paralegals who become members of national, state, and local paralegal associations are bound by the guidelines of their respective associations and are required to meet continuing legal education (CLE) requirements just like attorneys.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) has dedicated a page of links to each state’s information and position on paralegals, including definitions, standards, and certification options.  The NFPA has also developed a chart, by state, that identifies any steps each state has taken to regulate paralegals.  California is perhaps the closest to regulating paralegals in its Business & Professions Code §§ 6450-6456.  There, a person cannot hold him- or herself out as a paralegal or be given the title of paralegal unless specific requirements are satisfied.  However, with increasing support for paralegal regulation, more and more states are considering various levels of oversight and/or formal requirements for the profession.

Professional responsibility

While some states have moved forward in identifying standards for paralegals, all states have rules of professional conduct to which paralegals must adhere.  These state rules are enforceable.  Most states’ rules of professional conduct follow the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) Model Rules.  The ABA has put together a great list of links to ethics and rules of professional conduct for each state.

Paralegal certification

In addition to various movements toward regulation and professional conduct requirements, the national paralegal associations and a growing number of states are now offering volunteer paralegal certification programs.  In these instances, paralegals can prepare and register to test their legal knowledge and ability.  Those who pass these rigorous exams are identified as certified paralegals (or similar title authorized by the state or association) and must satisfy strict CLE requirements to maintain their certification.

So, while the paralegal profession is not licensed and is not yet formally regulated by a single governing body, we are still held to the same level of ethical responsibility and professional conduct as you.  Our conduct is governed by the ABA; national, state, and local paralegal associations; state statutes; and court rules and rulings.

Do you know how paralegals are governed in your jurisdiction?  If so, please share in the comments below and include citations, if possible, to share with others in your jurisdiction who may be wondering.

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