A Rose By Any Other Name
The debate over professional titles remains white hot.
By Rod Hughes
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the Bard asked, “What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” While
such romanticism might work in matters of the heart, where the law is
concerned, Shakespeare has been completely undone of late.
In an online opinion poll conducted
during the course of 29 days in the summer of 2002, Legal Assistant
Today gathered 1,897 responses from legal professionals on the issue
of preference between the titles of paralegal and legal assistant. The
results overwhelming demonstrated a strong desire by some in the legal
community to draw a more clear line of distinction between the two
For the better part of the profession’s
history, the legal assistant and paralegal titles have been largely
considered synonymous. However, as the legal assistant community
continues to evolve, the issue of just which title smells sweeter has
become hotly debated. Recently, the membership of the National
Federation of Paralegal Associations voted to remove the legal assistant
title from its definition of the profession, breaking with the industry
standard of interchangeability of the terms (see
July/August 2002 LAT).
Additionally, paralegal-legal assistants have increasingly voiced
concern regarding the trend of some legal secretaries to use the title
of legal assistant in both the law firm and corporate environments.
“Numerous secretaries with no legal
training … and none of the responsibilities of the paralegals in our
office use the title legal assistant because they don’t want to be
called just secretaries,” according to one respondent, who mirrored the
comments of a majority of poll participants who felt the paralegal title
denoted a preferred level of professionalism.
In contrast to NFPA’s move on the issue
of definitions, within the past year a number of associations have
adopted the American Bar Association’s definition of paralegals and
legal assistants, which identifies the two terms as interchangeable.
These associations include the National Association of Legal Assistants,
the Legal Assistant Management Association and the American Association
for Paralegal Education.
While the findings of the LAT
Title Poll are not intended to represent the entire profession, the
results are offered as the opinions of a representative sampling of
professionals with varied experience and expertise in the field and not
as the opinion or doctrine of any one particular group, James Publishing
or the staff of LAT.
Of the nearly 2,000 legal professionals who participated in
LAT’s online poll (at a rate of approximately 65 respondents per
day), 41.7 percent reported they were college graduates. Another 22.7
percent had earned paralegal certificates, 15.9 percent had achieved
“some college” education, and 2.3 percent were high school graduates. A
group of 17.4 percent identified their educational background as other
than that of the aforementioned groups.
When asked for the primary title by
which their employers identified them, 50.7 percent reported being
identified as paralegals.
Those considered legal assistants by
their employers comprised 26.6 percent of poll respondents, while 22.7
percent held titles in the legal profession not typically synonymous
with the paralegal-legal assistant field — such as senior project
manager, legal administrative paralegal, corporate compliance officer,
legal investigator, notary public and so forth. While many
paralegal-legal assistants currently use such titles in the course of
their legal work, many continue to use these more specific titles in
addition to their preferred title of either legal assistant or
On the low end of the poll’s response
rate, the average respondent reported to have worked in the legal
profession in one capacity or another for roughly 13.7 years.
Alternatively, the average experience
level for many veterans who participated in the LAT Title Poll
was approximately 20 years.
In Full Bloom
The majority of those who participated in the poll (76.2
percent) reported they would choose the paralegal title in order to be
recognized as legal professionals versus selecting the legal assistant
designation. While there were a wide variety of reasons for choosing the
paralegal title rather than the legal assistant moniker, a large number
of respondents offered similar reasons for their selection. The
perception that legal secretaries are encroaching on the legal assistant
title; the theory that the word “assistant” denotes an air of clerical
or administrative work; and a noteworthy trend in many law offices of
promoting legal support staff members to the position of legal assistant
were all popular explanations for the preference of the paralegal title.
According to one respondent, “A title
including the word assistant is too often overused and has lost its
meaning as a professional title. I feel the common perception is
assistant equals secretary.”
In contrast, another participant
stated, “I believe the word assistant is important — this is what legal
assistants do — assist attorneys in whatever they need done. I think
this is a better term for the profession.”
Interestingly, many respondents
indicated the paralegal title seemed to denote a higher level of
education and training than that of legal assistant. One respondent
noted, “A paralegal title indicates that you have had additional
educational instruction in the legal field, whereas the legal assistant
title indicates that you have not [achieved a higher level of
education].” While a large number of respondents echoed this perception,
it must be noted that at press time, LAT was unable to confirm
any known, universally discernable differences between educational
standards at the national or state levels for those pursuing education
options labeled for legal assistants versus those pursuing an education
designed for paralegals.
Many respondents also referenced
paralegal certification as a desirable element in the legal community
that factored into their title preferences. However, the question of
what constitutes certification and by whom is an issue not yet settled
within the profession. For instance, is certification of credentials of
more benefit when offered by a state agency, a local community college,
a state-operated university, an AAfPE-affiliated school, an
ABA-accredited paralegal program or a voluntary association? And which
certification carries more weight with employers? (See
January/February 2003 LAT
for details on what employers look for in legal assistant-paralegal
It’s also important to remember that
what defines the profession in one locality, doesn’t necessarily
transfer to other areas of the United States, and in some cases, doesn’t
even apply within the same state. For instance, California law defines
the scope of paralegal-legal assistant work (see
LAT) as well as what is required in order to identify oneself as
a paralegal or legal assistant, while other states lack specific
criteria regarding who can and can’t use such titles, even at the state
bar level. Kimberly Smith, a spokesperson for the Texas State Bar told
LAT that at present, “The state bar has no set guidelines for defining a
paralegal or legal assistant.” However, Smith did note, “[The Legal
Assistant Section of the bar], which is voluntary in nature, recommends
paralegals or legal assistants work under the supervision of an
attorney.” To put it more directly, there are still areas of the country
where anyone — regardless of education or experience — can legally call
themselves a paralegal or legal assistant and be gainfully employed as
When asked if it was important to make the legal assistant
and paralegal titles separate and distinct, 72.2 percent of respondents
indicated this was a priority, while 27.8 percent said it was not.
Again, a variety of explanations were offered, however, a common thread
ran through many of the comments in support of distinguishing the two
titles. Respondents noted they felt the terms were no longer deemed
interchangeable in the public’s perception due to the apparent increase
in legal secretaries using the legal assistant title. In addition, a
large number of respondents pointed out that the title of legal
assistant seemed too generalized, and didn’t appear to offer a clear
picture of what role a person with that title played in the law office.
A minority of respondents who indicated it was not a priority to
distinguish the two titles argued that being identified as a legal
assistant was appropriate, because their work involved assisting
attorneys, thereby making their roles more clear.
“When I say I’m a legal assistant, most people know I work with an
attorney. If I say paralegal, some people do not know what it means,”
wrote one respondent who expressed a desire to see the legal assistant
title as the preferred, professional identifier.
Sixty percent of those who responded to
the online survey noted they believed the public at large understood the
difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal, while 40 percent
disagreed. However, when asked if respondents believed the public could
distinguish between legal secretaries and legal assistants, only 13
percent of respondents believed this was the case.
Additionally, 74.8 percent of
respondents reported they believed lawyers make a distinction regarding
professional ability based on professional titles, while only 25.2
percent disagreed. In the general comments provided by participants in
the survey, a significant number of legal professionals noted attorneys
themselves are not clear on the exact role of legal
assistants-paralegals, further sowing seeds of misinformation and
A Rose With
Although a majority of those who participated in the survey
made it clear they preferred the paralegal title to that of legal
assistant, the gulf between those for and against certain titles reduced
considerably when the subject of actually making a permanent,
across-the-board switch to one title or the other was raised. On the
issue of the profession uniting behind either the paralegal or legal
assistant title, 68.9 percent were in favor of such a move, while a
healthy minority of slightly more than 31 percent reported there was not
a need for a change to a single, distinct title.
“In order to focus on more important
profession-related issues, I say let us put the title debate to rest
once and for all,” was one respondent’s view. Another called the debate
a distraction from the professionalism of the field. However, other
respondents noted that a profession that seems divided can’t move
forward. Noted one respondent, “I think one title would really move this
profession forward with confused legal consumers and bewildered
attorneys who already don’t know what to do with us.” Still another
asked if those in the profession can’t unite behind a single and clearly
defined title, how will those outside the profession “have the first
clue about what we do and why we are a benefit to them?”
More than just a few legal
professionals indicated in their comments that they would support either
title, as long as the qualifications for attaining such a distinction
were standardized throughout the United States. A minority of
respondents reported they felt the legal assistant title had already
been effectively “usurped by legal secretaries” and that the title
should be abandoned in order to draw a clear distinction between the two
Still others insisted that the legal
assistant title provides a broad base of authority and responsibility,
while succinctly indicating the professions’ role as assisting lawyers
and therefore clearly working under the supervision of attorneys.
Repeatedly, the interchangeability of
the two titles was noted as confusing to the public at large and as
such, detrimental to the professionalism of the legal
assistant-paralegal community as a whole.
It’s worth noting, however, that
despite 72.2 percent of respondents calling the need for a title switch
a priority, 57.2 percent of those same respondents noted changing to
either title would not significantly change the professional status of
legal assistants-paralegals, regardless of their strong feelings on the
Conversely, 42.8 percent of respondents
indicated that making a change to one distinct title would enhance the
professionalism of the legal assistant-paralegal community. Of the 57.2
percent who felt a perminant, universal title change would not
effectively improve the status of the legal assistant-paralegal
community, opinions ranged from the perception of adding to the general
public’s existing confusion on the issue to such a change addressing
only enhanced self-esteem rather than professionalism.
One respondent noted that beyond adding
to his or her “personal self worth,” changing to one title or the other
would not change the profession, it’s perception in the legal community
or general public.
The minority’s view on the subject
included the theory that using only one title would warrant increased
responsibility and pay as well as drawing a needed line of distinction
between the legal assistant-paralegal field and other legal support
“If the profession was defined by one
title and the consumers were made aware of the parameters of the
position, then either title would be sufficient and would clear up a lot
of confusion that now exists,” according to one respondent.
However, a number of those supporting a
switch to one title repeatedly insisted that choosing one title over
another would only be effective and beneficial if it was undertaken as a
national effort, either through legislation or governmental regulation.
When questions turned to the debate itself, opinions
regarding its value and its impact — if any — on the profession varied.
Slightly more than 64 percent of
respondents answered affirmatively that the debate regarding
professional titles impacted or continues to impact the profession as a
whole. Nearly 36 percent reported the debate had no impact at all on the
Those who felt the debate regarding
title preference offered no measurable advantage to the profession
provided interesting insight into their reasoning. One respondent noted
the debate itself served to be “something that is divisive and our
attention could be better focused on more important and relevant issues
that impact the profession.” More than a few respondents pointed to the
issue using words such as “dissention,” “divisive,” “wasteful,”
“ridiculous” and “detrimental.”
Such arguments ranged from creating a
divide-and-conquer mentality within the paralegal-legal assistant
community, to making the profession seem less than professional by
squabbling over issues that don’t, on the whole, enhance the profession
in a meaningful way.
One respondent wrote, “As legal
assistants, we should find more important issues to consume our time.
Arguing over a title is utterly ridiculous.”
Offering a counterpoint, one respondent
stated, “Any type of professional debate or discussion, if approached
with maturity and common sense, is good for the profession.” And that
respondent was not alone. Others noted concern over the lack of a
“uniform identity” within the profession itself, asking in one instance,
“if we can’t decide who and what we are as a whole, how can we expect
lawyers and legal consumers to make any kind of reasonable distinction?”
Still, others felt separating or
distinguishing the two titles was not the paramount issue at all. There
were many respondents, not statistically analyzed but clearly speaking
with one united voice, who offered a theme that transcended most of the
arguments regarding preferred titles, the perceived prestige of one
title compared to another and the significance or value of any type of
change on the subject — and that theme was the establishment of
educational standards that define the available titles.
As a handful of respondents noted, many
firms and corporations, in cooperation with or in spite of local bar and
paralegal-legal assistant associations, classify and define those who
can hold one title or another, thus handicapping the justification for
debating the issue within the profession itself.
But a point that was passionately
expressed — repeatedly — the importance of establishing some universal
barometer for use of both titles or just one, either through
self-regulation in voluntary organizations or through state or federal
legislation or licensure.
Regardless of individual positions on
the issue, clearly many in the profession want to see this debate
concluded in one fashion or another.
As noted on Page 16 of this issue, the
ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Assistants has acted to make plain its
preference in the debate at hand.
According to sources within SCOLA, the
proposed revisions to the official guidelines that legal assistant
schools must follow to receive ABA approval include a recommendation by
SCOLA to replace the legal assistant title with that of the paralegal
designation in the majority of the language.
Additionally, a number of
paralegal-legal assistant associations throughout the United States,
such as the Alaska Association of Paralegals, South Dakota Paralegal
Association and Sacramento Valley Paralegal Association have all changed
their names recently to demonstrate a preference for the paralegal
One respondent seemed to summarize the
debate best by noting, “If a consensus can be reached as to what term
means what, it can only help the profession. There is no universally
accepted definition for a legal assistant or paralegal. The definition
changes from firm to firm, and sometimes, from association to
Participants in the online survey were required to provide
their full name and contact information by way of the LAT Web site so a
random sampling could be made to verify the accuracy of submitted
opinions. Privacy was assured to all participants, and contact
information for those who submitted survey responses is considered