The Paralegal Perception: Does the stigma of ‘simply failed lawyers’ apply?

The Paralegal Perception: Does the stigma of ‘simply failed lawyers’ apply?

Two of my favorite paralegal bloggers recently posted articles with similar themes that really made me think.

Before I tell you about their posts, you should be aware that both are college graduates and both have paralegal certifications. They’re literally paralegal dynamos who have passion for the paralegal profession. They could never be considered ‘second rate’ professionals.

Melissa Hinote CP penned The Compliment That Wasn’t at her blog, Paralegalese. Melissa is a paralegal (the only paralegal) in a small town in rural Alabama. Recently a well-meaning person tried to pay her a compliment: You are too smart for this job!

Actually, Melissa was too smart to interpret this as a compliment:

“You are too smart for this job”, however nicely intended, still comes across as slightly insulting when the person you are saying it to loves the career she has chosen and finds her daily work both challenging and interesting.’

Then, more recently, Lynne DeVenny NCCP who blogs as ExpertParalegal posted UK Paralegals Struggle to Overcome Perception as “Failed Lawyer” where she quoted an editorial written by Husnara Begum at Lawyer 2B regarding the view of the paralegal profession in the United Kingdom:

Paralegals have always been regarded as the poor relations of the UK legal family. But thankfully the negative labels that have long been associated with paralegalling are gradually being peeled away.

The article continued:

Isn’t it about time that paralegals were seen as professionals in their own right ant not simply as failed lawyers?

Lynne noted that Begum acknowledges she’s re-thinking her perception of paralegals as ‘not good enough to secure training contracts’, and that being a paralegal is a valuable and valid alternative to becoming a lawyer.

Husnara really needs to re-think this issue, as does anyone else who thinks considers ‘paralegal’ to be a to be a label that says ‘not quite good enough.’

This is how it is really is: paralegals are paralegals because they have chosen to be paralegals.

Paralegals love the law but do not want to practice law…in fact they do not want to practice medicine, nor do they want to be accountants or firefighters or policemen or…the list goes on and on.

They haven’t ‘settled’ for the job of paralegal, they have chosen a challenging profession that requires a great deal of skill, discipline and dedication. Are they ‘not smart enough’ to be lawyers? That’s not the issue. They have chosen to be paralegals.

Are nurses ‘not smart enough’ to be doctors?

Is a teacher who chooses to teach in elementary school ‘not smart enough’ to teach at the college level?

Is a lawyer who chooses to practice in a small firm ‘not smart enough’ to work at a large firm?

Is a lawyer who chooses not to practice law at all but, instead, to pursue a different course of work that utilizes his or her lawyer skills, ‘not smart enough’ to practice law?

‘Smart enough’ has nothing to do with it. It’s all about choices. Choosing to work as a paralegal is not an alternative to becoming a lawyer, any more than choosing to work as a nurse is an alternative to becoming a doctor. Instead, these are valid choices to work in valid professions.

As Melissa says so well, “…my job requires me to become proficient in areas where my attorney supervisor may not be so proficient. He should be an expert on the law, absolutely, but…it takes more to run a law office than legal expertise. While I work under his supervision…if he knew it all or could do it all, he would never have hired me.”

Lynne ended her post with this thought:

To see the words ‘stigma” and “failed” associated with the choice to work as a paralegal in any country is an unpleasant eye-opener for me, and means there is still a lot of work to be done to recognize the integral role that educated, intelligent and highly skilled paralegals play in the practice of law today.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if only lawyers worked in law offices? That idea makes me smile! It takes a team to run a law practice…and paralegals are an essential part of the legal team.

The general public may forever be in awe of lawyers (and doctors, too) and regard anyone who works with them as someone who couldn’t quite cut it as a lawyer. This just isn’t so. First of all, not everyone in this world wants to be a lawyer. Second, the law firm is a team of equals who do different work. Every single person working on the legal team is a crucial contributor to the firm’s success.

What can paralegals do about this perceived perception? Continue to pursue continuing legal education, continue to act as a professional, and, above all, continue to stress their dedication to the success of the legal profession.

The paralegal profession isn’t about failing; it’s about choosing…and doing a darned good job at what we do.