Only Time Will Tell
LAT takes a look at the future of the paralegal profession.
By John Caldwell
little-known, yet pioneering legal profession is carving out an
ever-more-important role in a rapidly changing legal landscape. However,
increasing numbers of paralegals are banding together through a diverse
array of associations to search for definition while heading into the
profession’s fourth decade.
As current events create the future
foundations of expansion for a highly dynamic legal industry, those
within the profession ponder and debate what the future holds for them.
Will paralegals move closer to actually practicing law in some limited
ways? Will regulation of the profession become more strident? And what
role will technology play in the continued development of paralegal
Some experts said they believe
education is the only true barometer for quality and success in the
profession. Where and how long a paralegal attended school is frequently
measured against methods for establishing how much he or she actually
learned and applied at work. Discussions about education often lead to
larger debates about certification. How certification will not only
govern education, but whether it will become mandatory, is seen by many
as a critical issue.
Additionally, the expanding role of
paralegals as the curators of information in the law firm often means
technology is central to their job descriptions. Techno-savvy lawyers
and legal technology consultants almost universally agree paralegals who
champion technology will find themselves at the head of the pack; a pack
of increasingly competitive and career-minded paralegals vigilant in
their pursuit of the lead in a tumultuous legal race.
In this article, Legal Assistant Today
asks some experts and seasoned professionals what the future holds for
paralegals in the next five years. What can paralegals expect to be
doing and what will be expected of them in 2007? And what do the changes
we are currently seeing bode for that future? Almost all the experts LAT
interviewed agree a brisk expansion of duties and frenzied competition
currently define the profession, so attempting to predict what will
happen could be daunting, but important none-the-less.
The areas of expanding legal practices that defined the past
few years have created many new areas of opportunity for legal
assistants. Almost as if by inertia, paralegals have been breaking into
a number of specialized areas including environmental law, technology,
immigration law, national security and corporate mismanagement. This
isn’t to say members of the profession have not been pushing for
expanded roles, but the past few years have demonstrated a drive by
corporate and law firm clients to reduce costs while maintaining quality
— and that often means bringing legal assistants into the mix.
To meet the increasing legal needs of
our complex modern society, many firms have been hiring more paralegals.
One prediction from a number of experts that carries considerable weight
is that the ratio of paralegals to lawyers will continue to increase
during the next five years as law firms recognize the potential for
profitability — boosting opportunities for those entering the
profession. By not only expanding paralegal roles in the firm, law firms
that increase the number of paralegals on staff can boost revenue by
offering clients quality services at lower rates.
“I recently read an article about a law
firm that had altered the paralegal/attorney ratio so that paralegals
outnumbered the attorneys,” said Mary Ellen Perkins, president of the
Legal Assistant Management Association. “It resulted in dramatically
higher per-partner profits, and greater satisfaction among young
associates who are better able to delegate discovery and drafting tasks
to paralegals. We’ll be seeing more substantive work delegated to
paralegals and increased specialization [in the next five years].”
As law firms become more specialized,
so too do paralegals, agreed Vicki Kunz, CLAS, a risk management
specialist for MDU Resources Group Inc. in Bismarck, N.D., and president
of the National Association of Legal Assistants. With titles that denote
their higher credentials, such as litigation manager, trademark
administrator or risk management specialist, a larger percentage of
paralegals will take on roles as specialists. As time passes, widening
varieties of clients might become attracted to the idea of paralegals
who possess special skills handling more significant legal work, albeit
under the supervision of an attorney.
“Work that is administrative in nature
is not billable and work that requires substantive legal knowledge is,”
She cautioned, however, that this
doesn’t mean paralegals will ever take the place of lawyers by
representing clients in the courtroom, a hotly contested issue that has
recently had some judges and state lawmakers weighing in on the matter.
“There has been no indication of need
for this,” she argued, “nor would it be supported by lawyers who are
currently the only ones allowed to represent clients in court. I do not
see this changing in the next five years.”
Lee Davis, the immediate past president
of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, agreed. Even as
the regular duties performed by paralegals continue to expand to meet
the demands of rapid change, she said there is little chance that will
lead to paralegals engaging in the practice of law. “We are hoping that
as the profession gains more credibility through regulation and
standards, paralegals will be attending default hearings, certain
depositions and [helping with] the production of documents,” Davis
However, Davis noted this will not
happen without a statute or other rule to guide the profession,
comparing the paralegal future to that of nursing and nursing
“I don’t think paralegals are looking
to be minilawyers,” Davis said. “I can see us working in a limited
expanded capacity, but it’s going to take time. We need to get standards
set first. I personally cannot see us going in and doing depositions and
hearings in the next five years.”
Short of actually practicing law,
Attorney Robert J. LeClair, president of the American Association for
Paralegal Education and head of the paralegal program at Kapi’olani
Community College in Hawaii, said he hopes to see the envelope pushed
out a little more, giving paralegals a chance to fill a more important
role in the legal system — maybe to include giving legal advice to
“I’ve been a little disappointed in
lawyers not willing to move in that direction,” he said. “We’ve been too
reluctant to experiment with paralegals. There’s a huge need in our
population for legal services.”
Standards, such as those that Davis alluded to, can be
established with adequate regulation of the paralegal profession, she
explained. Associations such as NFPA have been pushing for increased
regulation for some time, and the next five years will likely mark a
significant increase in various types of regulation in her opinion.
“From my readings, most paralegals are
for [regulation],” Davis explained, noting that in Arizona, paralegals
are pushing the state bar to make paralegal regulation a reality.
“It’s really aimed at controlling some
of the unauthorized practice of law. They’re working on bringing some
level of professionalism to the profession. One of the problems is we
have no standards,” Davis said.
Some argue that such standards will
continue to be self-regulated by the profession on a voluntary basis,
rejecting the notion that government should step in and provide the type
of framework currently in place for attorneys. As long as paralegals
remain under the supervision of those who are licensed by the states,
such as attorneys, many in the profession, and some of LAT’s interviewed
experts said they believe there will be no need for additional
On the other hand, certification
through testing could — within the next five years — become a broader
symbol of standards; a benchmark expected by attorneys looking for
paralegals best suited to take on expanded duties. But whether
certification will continue to be voluntary or become mandated by some
oversight authority is still far from universally agreed upon, and
because there is greater opportunity for disagreement on legislative
particulars, definitions, such as the common one adopted by the American
Bar Association, NALA and LAMA might be a lot more prevalent than
legislation in years to come.
“For generations, professions have
routinely established standards through voluntary certification
procedures that are administered by their professional organizations,”
Kunz said, noting she believes this will remain true of the paralegal
“I predict that standards will remain
the main focus. Legal assistants and their employers are insisting on
established standards to differentiate paralegals from others in the
legal field, and such standards also serve to recognize professional
Davis, however, said she sees a need
for something more, such as the paralegal regulations governing minimum
education and experience currently in place in California. With
additional court rulings and state legislation, she said, the paralegal
profession can take the next step, achieving recognition that goes
beyond what associations are able to provide.
“It’s not going to happen on the
association level,” Davis argued, “because we already have definitions.
It’s going to have to be on a government level.”
It’s also worthy of note that NFPA’s
membership recently eliminated the title of legal assistant from the
association’s definition of a paralegal (see
July/August 2002 LAT). It
was a move Davis called necessary to draw a line of distinction between
secretaries and legal support staff being rewarded with the legal
assistant title, and the trained paralegal.
“Law firms are really driving this,”
Davis said. She added that NFPA’s move will eventually lead to the
dissolution of the profession’s ability to use the titles of legal
assistant and paralegal interchangeably.
However, as the various paralegal
associations focus more on the pressing need to raise professional
standards, Kunz said she believes legislative activity that seeks to
define the paralegal profession might well decline, offering a
counterpoint to Davis’ perspective. Moreover, NALA’s new president said
she believes increased use of voluntary certification will likely
supplant efforts to legislate the profession.
“It is only those who hold
certification, and a reputation of excellence for the career field, that
impart stature,” she said. “Surveys have demonstrated consistently that
certification is a factor in enhancing the economic opportunities of
both the paralegal and the employer. Paralegals wanting additional
recognition to set them apart from others in their field will continue
to seek certification and specialty certifications as the obvious path
to promote their stature in the legal community.”
However, voluntary certification exams
can only impart limited stature to the profession, LeClair argued.
“The problem is the superstars get
certified,” he scoffed. “The bad ones don’t take the voluntary tests.”
He said mandatory testing is necessary
to ensure legal expertise and will likely play a role in the future of
the paralegal profession, but he refrained from saying it would happen
in the next five years.
“I firmly believe in the paralegal
profession,” LeClair noted. “It makes me mad that anybody can come along
and say that they are one.”
To that end, a number of state
legislatures, bar associations and both state and regional paralegal
associations are endeavoring to tackle the issue of what standards are
appropriate for defining the scope of legal assistant work. Some are
incorporating voluntary certification; others, as noted in LAT’s
November/December 2001 issue, are adopting various efforts to regulate
the profession on their own.
LeClair’s concerns about a lack of educational standards were
addressed last year when AAfPE reaffirmed its strict requirements for
member schools that mirrored ABA guidelines for the minimum number of
credits needed to get a paralegal certificate. AAfPE also set forth its
own definition of a paralegal. The impetus for which was the
association’s recognition of a need to develop a heightened stature for
paralegal education and to ensure that at least some schools lived up to
it, LeClair noted.
Many paralegals and educators described
these actions as steps in the right direction, but they still see a need
for higher educational standards in the next few years. A proposed
requirement of a four-year degree for paralegals seeking certification
has become a hot topic in the industry recently.
Davis said she likes that idea. In
addition to the advent of widespread regulation governing testing and
experience, she said she hopes regulations eventually will require
paralegals to obtain a four-year degree in a general subject before
enrolling in a paralegal certificate program.
“I do believe it’s going to become a
reality in five years,” she said. “Attorneys are looking for
accountability. Especially if we’re looking to expand [paralegals’]
roles, we’ve got to have some standards set.”
Davis claimed many distinguished law
firms already require paralegals to have a four-year degree plus a
certificate from an ABA-approved school. “It’s already happening,” she
explained. “It’s pushing itself.”
But there also needs to be a
grandfathering element in any official requirements that exempts those
paralegals whose experience dictates their abilities, she contended.
LeClair agreed that minimum educational
requirements could be enhanced over time, but stopped short of
advocating that legal assistants be required to get a four-year degree.
“I don’t personally think that’s
necessary,” LeClair said, arguing community colleges can do a great job
of creating competent and effectively trained paralegals, but the need
for ABA standards to govern them is still an overriding concern.
Five years from now, there might be
industry-wide ABA regulation, he said, but getting dubious lawyers to
acquiesce will be difficult. “Lawyers don’t want people telling them
what to do,” he said.
Before that happens, two emergent
trends will continue to plague LeClair with distress: Short-term
programs that lack ABA guidelines for minimum credit hours; and distance
The former is a consequence of an
increasing number of students looking for a faster route through the
Today’s students read less and possess
shorter attention spans, LeClair said. Thus, he said he believes many
are gravitating toward “short-term” paralegal programs that offer course
work containing, what he termed, inadequate levels of instruction.
The latter can largely be attributed to
the pursuit of profits.
“One of the biggest challenges we face
is what the role is for distance education,” LeClair said. “The
assumption that we’re going to be able to train people [this way] is a
huge leap of faith.”
In the next five years, bigger and
bigger schools will offer more distance education as they seek to
capture more students, LeClair said.
“The driver has been to make money
through this mode of education,” he said. “The result is going to be a
flattening of the quality. I’m very worried that five years from now …
there’s going to be a drop in quality [paralegal education],” he noted.
However, a number of schools, many of
which receive state subsidizing for disadvantaged students, will
continue to hold their own, LeClair offered. “We have a large number of
schools that are committed to quality and they’re not going to change.”
A Techno Coup
With the precipitous expansion of legal technology comes
additional opportunities for paralegals to solidify their positions in
the next five years. As those employees of law firms who often use
technology the most, legal assistants will likely become more depended
on by attorneys and support staff.
“Smart paralegals will advance by
making themselves experts in technology,” said Ross Kodner, an attorney
and president of MicrowLaw Inc., a legal technology consulting firm in
Milwaukee. “There’s really no one better positioned to head the charge
in this area.”
Kodner also sees a trend in which law
firms looking to increase profits are hiring more paralegals, thereby
bolstering the profession. “One way paralegals can push that process is
to become invaluable in technology,” he said.
And one area in which paralegals could
be the champions is case management systems. As document and case
management software continues its steady move out of obscurity and into
the law office limelight, paralegals are frequently the ones holding the
reigns. They are the curators and managers of information; therefore,
they can ride the wave of interest in this new mode of practicing law.
But don’t expect it to happen
overnight, cautioned Andrew Z. Adkins III, an attorney and legal
technology consultant in Florida. Case management systems force firms to
change the way they practice law, so most are reticent about
implementing them. Currently, about 27 percent of the industry uses case
management software, according to a recent survey conducted by Law
“I don’t think you’re going to see a
big growth spurt,” Adkins said. “Over the next five years, you’ll see a
Adkins agreed paralegals can buoy
expansions in the use of technology, thus increasing their own worth.
“People talk about going paperless,” Adkins said. “But then there’s more
stuff in the computer that you have to go in and find. I see paralegals
playing a major role. They are the ones finding stuff in the computer.
They are the ones who know how stuff works.”
Adkins asserted “knowledge management”
is the next big step in legal technology. Knowledge management is
basically consolidated systems that incorporate documents, litigation,
research, client relations and financial information. This will help
paralegals handle more tasks efficiently. Additionally, Adkins
explained, some new systems actually analyze data contained in
documents. Using what is called “fuzzy logic,” a search for the word
“automobile,” for example, could also produce “car,” “boat” or “truck,”
helping the user to find other key concepts and information related to a
“I think we’ll also see more online
collaboration, such as videoconferencing,” Adkins continued. “I think
paralegals are going to be the ones actually doing the work.”
It will be gradually more incumbent
upon paralegals to move stubborn lawyers and antiquated law offices onto
the Web, Kodner explained, adding that legal assistants should push for
more online presentation and electronic transfer of information. “As law
firms exploit the Web, I think there is a significant role for
paralegals in that process,” he said. “In other words, get Web-savvy
The use of trial presentation software,
such as TrialDirector or Sanction, also will steadily increase over the
next five years, Kodner postulated. “This is another quiet revolution
that’s happening,” he pointed out. “It behooves any paralegal to become
intimately involved in the process and become the in-house experts in
Both Adkins and Kodner agreed that
most, if not all, legal assistants will have their own handheld Personal
Digital Assistant’s or BlackBerry’s within five years, and any paralegal
whose work takes him or her outside of the law firm at least 20 percent
of the time will probably be equipped with a firm-supplied laptop
All hardware and software will become
more user friendly, but some problems that exist in legal technology
today will inevitably continue. “Unfortunately, we’re still going to be
seeing problems with the conversion between [Microsoft] Word and
WordPerfect,” said Adkins, noting both versions will continue to
permeate the industry and, from his perspective, lawyers and their
paralegals will always have to know how to use both.
Technology is going to be easier to use, offering
opportunities for advancement. Regulation, whether voluntary or
mandatory say the experts, will provide more stature, securing jobs and
higher pay for paralegals in the field. And the pressure on law firms,
big and small, from clients to keep fees down and service quality high
will force corporate and law offices to hire more paralegals with
expanded functions beyond what has been the norm lately.
“In such a dynamic situation,
continuing legal education will be crucial for the career paralegal to
keep up,” Kunz said, “or they will be left behind.”
And no one wants to be left behind as
the paralegal profession moves forward, but it will not be a smooth
ride. Despite the field’s growth in popularity, or perhaps because of
it, competition for employment positions will become more intense (see
March/April 2002 LAT). With
national associations such as NFPA and NALA differing in their
approaches to the tools or mechanisms that will allow expanded roles for
legal assistants, the progress might be slow. However, debate is often
the parent of invention, and paralegals have choices, both in terms of
the affiliations, and the level to which they wish to advance their
professional roles. How will they do so?
Only time will tell.