BY: BARBARA LISS (Guest Blogger)
I’ve been a paralegal for a long, long time and throughout my career I have always participated in the professional association in each community in which I’ve lived and worked. The benefits of doing so have been clear and obvious to me from early in my involvement and I am continually stunned when I come across other paralegals, many of whom I consider to be otherwise professional in most regards, who intentionally elect not to join their organizations and actively partake.
Of course, back when my career began, we needed to band together to stand up for ourselves. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from legal secretaries by task, accomplishment and skill, thus gaining recognition and respect for the distinct level of our contribution to whole of the work. Before Business and Professions Code §6450 came into existence, (or the NFPA definition of paralegal/legal assistant, upon which the federal decisions are based) there was no clear way to distinguish a paralegal from a legal secretary or other non-lawyer staff member providing services to lawyers and their clients. The system of educating us was also not established and how one came to call himself or herself a paralegal or legal assistant was completely uncontrolled.
Our associations (local, state and national) focused untolled hours, contributed by uncounted (and unfortunately, unnamed) participants who examined, discussed, formulated, proposed, testified and ultimately brought forth the reality that became Business and Professions Code §6450 in California. It established the minimum educational threshold enabling one to legally use the title paralegal or legal assistant and set the continuing education requirement for maintaining the right to do so. It was not an easy process and it faced many obstacles and several powerful, competing and opposing interests.
Without NALA, NFPA and local associations throughout California, Business and Professions Code §6450 never would have become law. I think that’s a very important connection. I was part of the process and I am very unwilling to disassociate from the resource which created my profession into codi-fied existence. Should a challenge arise in the future, I want the reassurance of knowing that I continue to be linked to a strong force of like minded people with similar concerns and goals. Certainly, by myself I am not nearly as effective as I am when standing to-gether with all of my fellow paralegals.
Okay, so I’m a dinosaur and life now isn’t like it was then. Most California lawyers now know about Business and Professions Code §6450 and understand that paralegals are different from other staff members, right? (Really? Do you find that true in your experience?) Let’s put that aside for a moment. Let’s assume that the ongoing education of attorneys is no longer essential, and thus no significant, direct value from belonging to a paralegal association (local or through it, a connection to state and national associations) is needed for assistance in this realm. Our association provides several other benefits that I find immensely meaningful:
It contributes to a number of worthy causes in dollar amounts I personally couldn’t afford to pay (for example, last year it gave $200 worth of frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving to a local food bank; it annually contributes at least $500 to Teen Court; it gave $500 to the Courthouse Legacy Foundation last year; it offers educational scholarships to paralegal program students, etc.
It offers the mandatory continuing education programs I need to comply with Business and Professions Code §6450 at a fraction of the cost that CEB and other for-profit entities charge and it does it conveniently — at lunch and after work most of the times, at locations nearby to where I work.
It offers a wealth of contact information. When I can’t find an expert, or need a form I’ve not been able to find or a sample plead-ing, I can reach out to my local paralegal community in the association and find that many stand ready to provide a short cut to research and contacts for me, often saving me hours of frustration and searching.
It keeps me informed of changes in local rules, law, courthouse updates and what’s going on in our community. I want to know first, right away and the association gets the info to me quickly. It’s a great one stop resource.
It offers interesting articles on topics that matter to me in the periodic newsletters.
It gives me a social connection to people who think like I do; they’re smart, dynamic and fun to be with. I like hanging with other paralegals. Go figure?! (Okay, we talk shop a lot.)
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it exists to recognize that I am a distinct professional — and that like me, others working in the field in which I am employed are too. We worked hard to gain our status and we need to stand together to continuously assert ownership of it. We ARE different from other law firm staff members. We are the ONLY non-lawyers who are regulated by statute and who must comply with specific requirements. That elevates us and separates us. We demanded recognition and we got it. Now we must stand together IN OUR ASSOCIATION to continue to have it. Of course, that means we must contribute as well as take. I encourage each and every paralegal to both join a local paralegal association and then participate in it in some way.
Barbara L. Liss is an Estate Planning, Trust Administration and Probate Paralegal at the Law Office of Christopher C. Jones, Santa Barbara, California. She also is an instructor at the UCSB Extension Paralegal Certificate Program and serves on the board of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association as Newsletter Editor and chair of its Full Day MCLE Conference Committee for 2011. She has been a paralegal since the early 1970’s and earned her Paralegal Certificate from UCSB Extension in 1984. She participated in the NFPA’s white paper committee which wrote the first definition of the term, “paralegal.” In the mid-1980’s, she testified before the California State Bar’s Public Protection Committee on the subject of paralegal regulation and before the California Senate’s Sub-Committee on the Judiciary concerning Paralegal Licensure. She acquired a California private, post secondary teaching credential in Paralegal Studies in 1990. Co-author of the Practicing Law Institute’s Workshop for Legal Assistant’s Handbook, she has also published many articles on subjects of interest to paralegals in a variety of newsletters and magazines. She may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.