Companion bills in the Florida Legislature would pave the way to make Florida the first state in the country to require licenses for paralegals.
The bills require the Florida Supreme Court to develop a licensing and continuing education scheme and make it a felony for unlicensed people to identify themselves as paralegals.
The bills, sponsored by state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and state Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, were filed March 9 and have been assigned to the judiciary committees. They were written by the Florida Alliance of Paralegal Associations, a consortium of paralegal organizations that first started talking to The Florida Bar about enacting some kind of mandatory licensing in 1996.
The group wants to prevent legal secretaries and others from using the title of paralegal to market themselves and to formally define what a paralegal is.
“We’re a group of professionals that want to protect the integrity of the profession and feel legislation is the way to do that,” said Mark Workman, a Miami-based Gunster paralegal who is past president of the Florida Alliance of Paralegal Associations and the South Florida Paralegal Association. “There are people out there that say to the public that they have those professional designations they don’t have, and they dupe the public. We feel if we have the legislation in place, we’ll have a means to avoid that and assist in defining who can and can’t be a paralegal.”
The group has hired a lobbyist, David Ramba of the Ramba Group in Tallahassee, who presented the bills to Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady and the Office of the State Courts Administrator for comment. He has not received any response.
But not everyone is a fan of the idea, including Florida Bar president Mayanne Downs.
Some lawyers question why paralegal regulation is necessary. Currently, lawyers regulate the paralegals who work for them. If paralegals are licensed, they could conceivably work directly with clients and bypass lawyers.
Some lawyers say paralegals are motivated to pursue licensing for financial reasons, while some paralegals say lawyers are motivated to oppose it by the same thing.
‘GOOD AND BAD’
“They are trying to raise the bar for paralegals,” said David Rothman, a Miami lawyer and member of The Bar’s board of governors. “Their intentions are noble. What has happened up till now is paralegals have operated under the auspices of lawyers. If they become independently regulated, they can act as paralegals with clients. There are lawyers that are concerned that some work that needs to be done by a lawyer will be done by a paralegal, and there may be gray areas, and that may work to the disadvantage of a client.
“We’re watching this closely,” he added, noting he is undecided on the law. “It has good and bad points.”
Others say this is not the time to be adding new regulations in Tallahassee. Gov. Rick Scott, for one, has said he wants to deregulate more than 30 industries and professionals including yacht brokers, geologists and manicurists. “To put this extra layer of bureaucracy, I don’t see where that is coming from,” Miami solo attorney Lisa Lehner said. “In this day and age, we’re trying to cut down on bureaucracy. Lawyers should be supervising their own staff and not put on an extra layer of red tape. What’s next, are we going to be regulating our secretaries? Where does it end?”
The Bar board of governors has not taken a position on the legislation, which will be discussed at its Friday meeting.
Workman previously accused The Florida Bar of trying to protect its own voluntary paralegal certification program.
State certification, which requires certification through one of the national paralegal associations and work experience or a bachelor’s degree, costs $150 to renew annually. Nearly 5,500 paralegals have been certified since the program began in 2008.
“It’s a cash cow for them,” Workman said. “None of the money is going to programs that assist paralegals or paralegal eduction. It’s going back to the general fund of The Florida Bar.”
But the paralegal associations don’t feel voluntary certification is enough, Workman said, and want to be regulated through the Florida Supreme Court.
“We have a very successful paralegal registration program within The Florida Bar and have had a high number of participants,” Downs said. “We don’t believe that this is the climate for additional regulation, nor do we feel this is a necessary regulation. We understand legislation is often the starting place for talking points, and we welcome an opportunity to be a part of that discussion.”
She questioned the cost and goal of new regulations.
“It should be done thoughtfully, not because a few people want it. My sense is this is geared to a few people, not a large segment,” Downs said.
Realizing it might have a tough road, the Florida Alliance of Paralegal Professionals scaled back the scope of its bill shortly before it was filed to create “more of an enabling legislation,” Workman said.
House Bill 1149 and Senate Bill 1612 would create a committee to promulgate rules, but the basic premise is anyone calling themselves a paralegal would have to pass a test and become licensed.
Many other states have started voluntary programs. However, several state bar associations — including Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana and New Jersey — have been blocked from moving to mandatory programs by their state supreme courts.
Edna Wallace, regulation chair for the Indiana Paralegal Association, said a coalition of attorneys and paralegals has pushed for a mandatory program for nearly 13 years. When the Indiana Supreme Court decided in 2008 to wait and see what other states did first, “we were heartbroken,” she said.
“We are jealous of the other states,” Wallace said. “Even a dog catcher has a license. You go get a haircut, and the stylist has a license. We want to be recognized as professionals. We’re just asking for some qualifications and guidelines so that when people hire a paralegal they know what they’re getting.”
Diana Wallace, vice president of the Indiana Paralegal Association, said her organization and others around the country are anxiously and hopefully following the Florida legislation