There has been an enduring debate in the legal professions regarding giving paralegals licenses, similar to how lawyers need to pass the bar before they can practice law. Instituting a level of minimum qualification makes sense especially in a field that not everybody can pick up easily. But there are also significant problems getting in the way of licensing becoming a reality, and the answers aren’t forthcoming.
What’s the Difference?
Just to be clear, this isn’t meant to advocate for either side, only to illustrate the arguments of the debate and why it’s yet to reach a conclusion. First, it’s important to know the difference between statutory licensing and certification. Students can earn the latter through physical and online paralegal programs. Certification means that a person has met specific educational or experience requirements and passed a test from a nationally recognized paralegal association like AAPI, NFPA, and NALA.
Statutory licensing, on the other hand, adds a wrinkle to that process by including a written examination to establish that an aspiring paralegal possesses a minimum level of knowledge, which varies by state. The difference between the licensing test and current certification is that the former requires a government mandate, and the supervision of the state instead of an authoritative group.
Where is the Minimum?
Proponents of the licensing side believe that including a government test will formally establish a minimum level of knowledge and expertise on people wishing to enter the industry. According to the pro-licensing groups, the profession will get more respect and authority because of such a standard. This is a reasonable wish, but there is a snag in determining what those minimum levels have to be.
Should paralegals first earn a college degree? Should they already have work experience related to law practice? These questions have no easy answers, especially when significant problems are yet to arise from the current license-less system. The last is the most important part of the debate, because the majority of paralegals is neutral regarding the issue, and don’t mind either way.
It’s unlikely for anything to change with this debate soon, but there are some states that are experimenting with temporary minimum knowledge requirements. Real progress – in either direction – will most likely follow the success of paralegals coming out of those experiments.