The Pros and Cons of Licensing for Paralegals: Is Statutory Licensing and Regulation Really Necessary?

Does the paralegal profession really need government oversight? For years, there has been an ongoing debate about the real and perceived benefits of introducing statutory licensing to the profession. Some paralegals are strong supporters of licensing, while others see no need for it.

What are the real issues and benefits? We asked Bob Davidson, a veteran paralegal who has watched this debate play out in numerous discussions, articles and blogs, to share his insights. Also, stay tuned for future posts presenting other positions on this hot topic.

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Q: What is statutory licensing or certification?

First, to be clear, statutory licensing and paralegal certification are not the same as earning a paralegal certificate. One earns a paralegal certificate in a training program. In the meantime, “paralegal certification” means one has met specific educational and/or experience requirements and has passed a test administered by a nationally recognized paralegal association.“ Statutory licensing” for paralegals could mean having to meet specific educational requirements and passing a written examination in order to prove a minimum level of knowledge acceptable to a particular state. The qualifications, testing and licensing process would be mandated by the government through enactment of a law. Compare “statutory licensing” to attorneys passing a bar exam and then being licensed.

Today, no state has implemented such licensing requirements for paralegals. One state, California, has imposed regulations regarding paralegals. In 2000, Governor Gray Davis signed into law AB1761, the Business and Professions Code Section 6450, which established qualifications for paralegals. This law defined minimum qualifications, but it also allowed paralegals several options for qualifying through a combination of work experience and education. So even in this case, paralegals have had some flexibility in attaining their credentials.

Statutory licensing doesn’t have to be the only option. There are already in place voluntary certification options available to paralegals who want to add these credentials to their resume. Three nationally recognized paralegal associations offer voluntary certification programs: the American Alliance of Paralegals (“AAPI”), the National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”) and the National Federation of Paralegals (“NFPA”). NALA and NFPA offer a testing program, while AAPI’s standards require a college degree and a minimum of five years’ substantive paralegal experience.[1]

Q: What is your professional experience regarding certification?

I had earned a four-year college degree many years before deciding to join the legal field. I earned my paralegal certificate from the Denver Paralegal Institute, which was an American Bar Association (ABA) approved school, and that has proven to be all I needed to launch my career. Three months after I graduated, I went to work for an Elder Law firm, and after four years went on to work for a firm specializing in personal injury and workers’ compensation matters. The question of being certified by a national paralegal organization has never even come up.

I do understand, however, that some law firms can require paralegals to meet certain qualifications, including paralegal certification, and that’s where the voluntary certification programs can be useful. The requirements may also sometimes be client driven. For example, a colleague of mine noted that in California her firm’s insurance company clients will request documentation proving that not only are its paralegals in compliance with the law but to ensure its paralegals have kept up on their educational requirements mandated by the law. Anecdotally, we also hear that paralegal certification is more of an issue in some regions than in others. Florida and Texas are two regions that come to my mind. But, otherwise, paralegal certification hasn’t been a significant issue in my experience because legal employers here in Colorado really don’t ask for it.

Q: Why are some paralegals proponents of statutory licensing or certification?

Some paralegals support statutory licensing because they believe it will help to ensure minimum qualification standards for our profession, result in paralegals gaining greater personal respect from attorneys and maybe even result in higher pay. With regard to qualifications, it may establish minimum qualifications, but that won’t necessarily help you land the job. Attorneys will still rely on your resume to identify specific skills and work experience when they’re considering you for a position.

Greater personal respect, in my opinion, is a human relations issue incurable by licensure. As to increasing paralegal pay? I don’t think we can count on that because pay is market driven. Moreover, in my opinion, the licensure process could result in new costs – to the paralegal, perhaps for law firms, and, quite possibly, the government or designated paralegal licensing authority in terms of added bureaucracy. Who is going to pay for certification, continuing education, re-licensing – all the things that make up a licensure program? The paralegal, the law firm, the state?

Also, licensing of any kind connotes a need for insurance. To protect themselves paralegals may need malpractice and/or professional liability insurance – when they did not need it prior to licensure because their work feel under attorney malpractice insurance.

I want to be absolutely clear that all these things are speculative, but, I feel, they are reasonably speculative.

Q: Do you believe statutory licensure or certification is necessary?

No, I don’t believe it is necessary at all for the paralegal profession. I see it as a non-issue. As the NALA website so eloquently states, “the driving force behind a legislature to take action to license a profession is the health, welfare and safety of the public.” I don’t believe paralegal work falls into this category.

Also, I don’t see the need for the paralegal profession to be monitored by anyone but employers who use paralegals. In that regard, I think the legal profession as a whole monitors their work very effectively, because paralegals work under the direct supervision of attorneys. The long and short of it is attorneys are ultimately accountable for their paralegals’ actions. If attorneys are not properly supervising their paralegals, they are not doing their jobs, and, in my opinion, are letting their paralegals down.

Q: What advice do you have for paralegals regarding this issue?

The question of statutory licensing has been going on for many years, and I don’t see it coming to an end in the near future. The best advice I would have for aspiring paralegals is to carefully consider their education options and choose a school that is ABA approved.


[1] Carolyn M. Saenz and Deborah M. McKinney, RP, “Do Paralegals Need to Be Certified?” American Alliance of Paralegals, Inc., http://www.aapipara.org/File/Articles/Do%20Paralegals%20Need%20to%20Be%20Certified.pdf

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3 Comments on “The Pros and Cons of Licensing for Paralegals: Is Statutory Licensing and Regulation Really Necessary?”

  1. Jodi Doerr
    April 18, 2015 at 10:39 pm #

    I am on the fence about this issue. On one aspect because there are many in the field have a Bachelor’s degree in some area, for example, education. Then they decide to be a paralegal and the attend a training program and obtain a certificate and now all of a sudden they are a paralegal. Never having set foot in a law firm or legal setting until they are hired by some place looking for cheap labor and think , wow, they have a degree and a certificate, so they are qualified. (I am not trying to offend anyone, this is personal experience. ) I know that there is no way this person could become licensed. It would be even worse than a situation you have with new associates. At least they have 3 years to clerk and learn something.

    This where I get on the fence. .. those who become paralegals after they have worked for years as legal assistants and in most instances are moving ahead in their career but do not want to make the move to law school and a JD because of tome, cost and the work hours or for whatever reason.

    My hesitation to licensing period is that if we wanted to subject ourselves to licensing, we would have gone to law school and became attorneys. The added pressures of licensure will

  2. Jodi Doerr
    April 18, 2015 at 10:44 pm #

    ….cont. …
    ….have A negative affect on the profession. I believe many will decide to not make the effort to be just certified as a paralegal, they will continue on for J.D. and while that is all well and good. We need less of them and more of the support professionals who are truly qualified in the field. And, also the ability to be paid for the quality of the worth.

  3. Chris Cadogan Coleman F. Inst. Pa
    May 16, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

    Reblogged this on ADR Claims and commented:
    I think this is necessary as it will give paralegals the respect they deserve. For years paralegals have been doing most of the work behind the scene without taking full credit, which remains for the solicitor with conduct of the case.

    The time has come for paralegals to be recognised as lawyers in their own right with their own professional recognition, regulation and acceptance.

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