Paralegals Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

In the early days of the American justice system, attorneys became qualified to practice law by reading cases—“lawbooks”—, observing trials and hearings in courtrooms, and assisting attorneys. The phrase “bar examination” came from the practice of orally questioning a person wishing to be recognized as an attorney by members of a Bar Association.  Once satisfied that an applicant was sufficiently knowledgeable in the law and legal procedures to represent others appearing before a court, they approved the person for membership and recommended to a judge that the person “be admitted to the Bar”.  Upon approval of the recommendation by a judge the person was allowed to represent clients in court.  With the passage of time and growth of the legal profession, the procedures for recognition as an attorney by the courts became more formally structured and regulated.

The paralegal profession began in much the same way and appears to be following a similar evolutionary path. In the beginning, there were no formal educational programs for paralegal training. A paralegal developed out of a motivated person who had worked long enough as a legal secretary to develop many, or all, of the skills and abilities specific to a person we now know as a paralegal.

As busy attorneys began to realize they could delegate many non-clerical functions to well-experienced secretarial assistants with a little specific training or instruction, they usually discovered they could handle a lot more work and serve more clients.   The next thing many realized was that by hiring a lesser experienced clerical secretary to take care of purely clerical functions such as phone answering, typing, and office filing, their more experienced assistant was free to handle things requiring more advanced legal training and experience.  Now the legal secretary often had a secretary.  A term was needed to describe these persons who were handling tasks more advanced than those that could be delegated to a secretarial or clerical employee—the job title “paralegal” was coined.

From the late 1950s through the 1980s the paralegal profession grew rapidly in many directions without much uniformity as to what a paralegal really was.  What was a paralegal job or function in one office might be a secretarial or legal assistant job or function in a different office.  In lots of offices the job duties and functions of a first-year law graduate might be the same as those of a paralegal in another office.

A number of professional associations began to offer certifications of paralegal skills and abilities.  These certifications required demonstration of certain levels of skill and ability usually possessed only by persons with experience or specialized training from a paternalistic employer. They facilitated verification of skills and abilities for prospective employers.

Next, formal educational programs began to appear providing the training needed to function at a higher skill level without on-the-job training by the employer. Today paralegal training is available through a vast array of formal educational programs offered by traditional educational institutions such as colleges and universities and two-year schools as well as special-purpose private educators who provide paralegal training in both classroom settings and via Internet web courses.  While training from actual on-the-job experience continues to be valuable, it is no longer the only avenue for becoming a well-trained and highly-qualified paralegal.

As the job we know as “paralegal” continues its growth and recognition as a profession, it is also becoming more formally structured as is common in the progression of a job into a profession. Professional legal associations such as the American Bar Association have begun studying the regulation of the paralegal profession, the functions performed by paralegals, and the education and qualifications necessary for paralegals more closely each year. State legislative bodies have recognized the increase of widespread utilization of paralegals in law firms, private enterprise, and governmental capacities, and have begun discussing and evaluating regulation of the profession.  Usually through means such as standardized testing and licensing. While California is the only state to date that has actually taken any action in this direction, it appears as though in the not-too-distant future significant changes in regulation of the paralegal profession are likely.

A November 2009, Money Magazine article titled “The 50 Best Jobs In America” ranks “corporate paralegal” at number 36. The same article reports median pay for experienced corporate paralegals at $65,600 topping out at a high $96,000. This report projects a 22% employment growth rate over the next 10 years and a higher than average level of personal job satisfaction. Specialization in specific legal areas is already emerging in the paralegal profession. As specialization and regulation become more common, the logical result is very likely both increased recognition of the value a paralegal brings to a legal team and the paralegal’s own job satisfaction.  Paralegals are clearly here to stay with a bright professional future ahead.


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