History of Paralegals & the Associations They Support
Professional Associations The first step in providing information to a reader is typically definition of terms used. Read any statute or regulation and "definitions" is one of the first few entries. It is organized in that manner to be sure that the writer and the reader have an understanding of exactly what is meant when certain terms are used. Unfortunately, in the history of Florida Paralegals, what defines a paralegal is currently at the center of the discussion and confusion. For the moment, the definition will be skipped and revisited below. In fact, there used to not be a "paralegal". Lawyers, attorneys, counselors at law, esquires, barristers have been with us since practically the beginning of time, but not so much for paralegals. Assistants have likely always been in the background but the term "paralegal" did not evolve until much, much later. From the 1920s and before, an assistant to an attorney was called a secretary. Because (s)he had knowledge of the courts and pleadings and the (Latin/legal) terminology, the term "legal secretary" was used to set the assistant apart from other administrative assistants who did not have those specialized skills a lawyer found particularly helpful. Established in 1929 and incorporated as the National Association of Legal Secretaries in 1949, and later renamed NALS, was possibly the earliest professional association for legal support staff. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT NALS.
Before long, legal assistants formed local professional associations for a variety of reasons that are still the basis for successful organizations today: networking, promoting continued legal education, establishing and promoting standards of professionalism. Most of them were associations of legal assistants. By the early 1970s, the question of certification was raised and NALS introduced a certification for legal assistants and secretaries. National Association of Legal Assistants, NALA, was formed in 1975 and it shared offices with NALS until the early 1980s. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT NALA. In 1974, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations was formed by eight founding associations from the east, south, midwest and west. Later, it also formed a certification examination for members. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT NFPA.
In Florida, the first association was founded in 1976 as the Florida Legal Assistants, Inc. and Central Florida Paralegal Association was formed in 1983 -- as Orlando Legal Assistants. In 1995-1996, OLA became Central Florida Paralegal Association and the first association in Florida to use the term "paralegal". Florida Legal Assistants, Inc. became Paralegal Association of Florida, PAF, in 2000. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT PAF.
Terminology: Legal Assistant vs Paralegal In 1984, NALA adopted the term "paralegal" within its definition of "Legal Assistant" by stating that: Legal assistants, also known as paralegals, are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training, and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney. Specifically, according to NALA's website, both definitions recognize the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" as identical terms.
In 1986, the American Bar Association adopted the following definition:
A legal assistant is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency, or other entity, in a capacity or function which involves the performance, under the ultimate direction and supervision of an attorney, of specifically-delegated substantive legal work, which work, for the most part, requires a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts that, absent such assistant, the attorney would perform the task.
In 1997, the American Bar Association amended this definition. The 1997 version is:
A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.
Ultimately, in 2001, NALA adopted the most recent ABA version of the definition. In summary, NALA advises that all definitions describe a professional group working under the direct supervision of an attorney, and acknowledge that the terms "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are used synonymously. They intentionally exclude persons who do not work under attorney supervision even though they may perform law related work. This direct supervision is required whether the legal assistant is utilized in the course of full time employment or is being utilized on a contractual basis by an attorney or firm. In both instances, the work product of the legal assistant becomes merged into the final product of the supervising attorney.
In Florida, effective March 1, 2008, the Florida Bar Association defined a paralegal as "is a person with education, training, or work experience, who works under the direction of a member of the Florida Bar and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a member of the Florida Bar is responsible." Fla Bar Rule 20-2.1(a). Curiously, the Florida Bar Association and Rule 20 are silent on the term "legal assistant".
CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUTHOW OTHER STATES DEFINE PARALEGAL Paralegal Regulation The subject of governmental regulation of the paralegal industry goes back in the State of Florida to the mid-1990s. There were some instances of individuals holding themselves out as paralegals and providing legal services directly to the public. It was a combination of $99 divorce, improper wills, and some who outright took money from the public without rendering any services whatsoever. As a result of their lack of legal knowledge and experience, their "representation" caused some significant harm and a need for some sort of more diligent oversight was recognized. The Florida Bar was approached at that time but they did not feel it was necessary to regulate the paralegal industry because the unlicensed practice of law (UPL) was already against the law, §454.23, Fla. Stat. However, paralegals within the State felt that those individuals who were causing harm to the public by holding themselves out as having legal expertise -- and calling themselves paralegals without any requisite education or experience -- should be distanced from the many ethical, responsible paralegals whose work in firms, government agencies, in-house legal teams is invaluable to their employers. Because of the Florida Bar's apparent lack of interest, in 1996 the Florida Alliance of Paralegal Associations came together to lobby the legislature to formally define the term of 'paralegal', provide guidelines or regulations for minimum standards for education and/or experience, provide for some sort of formal recognition of the profession, and to help protect the public against those individuals who hold themselves out as paralegals without the requisite educational or legal background. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT FAPA.
Although FAPA's attempts at passing some form of legislation have been unsuccessful to date, its efforts have certainly been recognized around the state and it continued to build momentum for the official recognition of paralegals in the State of Florida. FAPA became incorporated in 2004 and in the 2005 and 2006 legislative sessions, bills supported by FAPA were filed by Representative Juan Zapata and Senator Nancy Argenziano in support of paralegal regulation. Finally, the Florida Bar took notice and, after forming a committee to research and conduct hearings around the state, Rule 20 was drafted and finally became effective in April, 2008. CLICK HERE TO READ RULE 20.