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Carol W

By: Carol Wells, MBA, BS, RN, Paralegal (Guest Blogger)

Today, we’re featuring one of the most interesting, and heavily debated topics in the paralegal world: paralegal licensure. We’ve certainly heard the paralegal profession compared to the nursing profession on many an occasion, anytime the topic of licensure springs up in the paralegal forums. Carol, a nurse and paralegal, is here to share some thoughts regarding licensure as it applies to both, the nursing and paralegal realms, to offer some comparative value.

We hope this post will not only provide an interesting read, but also spark an insightful discussion (and quite possible a debate) amongst our readership. So, see what Carol has to say on the subject, decide where you stand, and by all means…please leave a comment!  We can’t wait to hear your thoughts.    

I am on my second career. I am a Nurse, formally a patient care Nurse, although like many of my colleagues, I have worn many hats. Nursing is one of those professions that allow license holders to branch out into different specialties and different jobs. In my almost 30 years as a Nurse, I have worked in various specialties and types of nursing practices.

I am also a Paralegal. I am proud that I undertook the certification of completion for work as a Paralegal. After completing an online course with the American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants, I became interested in pursuing more formalized legal education. I found a Paralegal program nearby and also found that Paralegals play a very important place in the legal profession. Paralegals are a very intricate part of the legal process and depending on what branch of the law they work in, they are specialists, just as Nurses are.

Similarities between the nursing and paralegal realms.

While investigating Paralegal education programs, I noticed that there were several similarities between Nursing and Paralegals. The most obvious is that Nurses and Paralegals have several levels of entry. Thirty years ago, I became an LPN, which is a Licensed Practical Nurse. This course took a year to complete and granted a diploma. I was eligible to be hired into a hospital under the direction of a Registered Nurse.

The RN could have a Diploma from a hospital based program, an Associate’s Degree from a 2 year college program or a Bachelors degree from a 4 year college. The one thing they had in common was that they all took the same licensure exam. At that time, the American Nursing Association was trying to standardize Nursing education, so that Nurses would have one level of entry. They succeeded in turning the hospital diploma programs into an Associate Degree program that was in partnership with Bachelor Degree programs for easy entry. But the Bachelor’s Degree is still not mandatory.

When and how did nurses become licensed?

Nurses began the long process of becoming licensure holders in the 1890’s. Nursing education had been under the wing of the American Medical Association because Nurses were thought to be assistants to physicians. Programs of education were apprentice based and certificate of completion based. Nursing leaders organized into an association called the Nurses Associated Alumni in 1901, which became the American Nurses Association in 1911.

A standard of practice was developed in the 1920’s, and in 1955 the ANA released its Model Definition for Nursing. This was significant because this affirmed Nursing as a profession and took it out of the realm of assistant to the physician; but it still was not defined as an autonomous profession until years later. Licensure was not mandatory in all 50 states until the 1950’s. Nursing is an evolving profession and definitions of practice are still being developed.

The issue for paralegals.

Paralegals are dealing with similar issues. Several levels of entry create a workforce that will not have a similar, basic education. In addition, the fact that there is no licensure testing does not provide a way to judge how well the Paralegal can function or how well they can use the education they have received. Additionally, this is a disservice to Paralegals because there is no way to standardize the profession, and therefore, no way to monitor a Paralegal’s professional journey. Paralegals, like Nurses, have people who come into the profession as a second career. Unlike Nurses though, these second career Paralegals have the opportunity to use their previous work experience to specialize in the legal industry.

I am also reminded of the fact that U.S. standards for education in Nursing are different than European and Asian standards, although there is also a move underway to equalize this. There are two types of Legal Professional in Europe and Asia, a Barrister and a Solicitor. The job description for a Solicitor, who does not appear in court, but does handle legal issues for clients as an autonomous legal professional, is similar to the Paralegal job description, although education requirements are more formalized.

A standard of education is the first step to licensure. Licensure is the first step to autonomy. Paralegals, who are an integral part of the legal system, have the potential of being autonomous legal professionals.

Organizing is the first step.

Nurses faced tremendous obstacles in becoming licensed. First, they were women. Nursing was considered a woman’s profession. Secondly, Doctors really didn’t trust them to make decisions on their own. One thing that really helped the Nursing profession was the Womens’ Movement. The Womens’ Movement broke barriers for all women. As in Nursing, many men are also now Paralegals. Organizing nationally and forming standards of practice brought Nursing to educational standards and a licensed profession.

Paralegals can easily do the same. I have been contacted numerous times by Paralegals who want to develop licensure standards. A National Organization is the first step. Developing those standards is the second. Licensure will follow. I cannot imagine that attorney colleagues would be against this. This strong desire to bring the Paralegal profession into a licensure standard would benefit both professions tremendously.

It can be done.

Resource Links: http://doh.sd.gov/boards/Nursing/Documents/WhitePaperHistory2000.pdf/ – The history of Nursing regulation. Colleagues in caring project, South Dakota Consortium. M. Hegge, Project Director.

http://aam.govst.edu/projects/scomer/student_page1.html/ – The history of Nursing licensure.

http://www.sra.org.uk/home/home.page/ – Solicitors Regulation Authority

Carol Wells is a 52-year-old woman with 30 years Nursing experience in diverse areas of the health system. She became a Nurse in 1983, after graduating as a LPN, achieving her ASN in 1987, a Bachelor’s degree in Health Care Management in 1999, and MBA’s in Management Information Systems, Health Care Management, and Marketing. Carol is currently on leave from a Doctorate in Health Administration.

Be sure to check out Carol’s blog, Leftist Moderate Speak, which features political discussions about healthcare topics at: www.leftistmoderatespeak.com.

So, what are your thoughts? Are you pro-licensure or anti-licensure and why? Do you think paralegal licensure will ever occur? Seems like the jury has been out on this subject for awhile, but we’d love to hear your thoughts…so hit that comment button and share away!