Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What makes you different? A look at professional development, education, and credentials. (Part 2 of 2)

As RPA Education Chair, NALA Professional Development Committee (PDC) Chair, and a NALA Advanced Certified Paralegal® (ACP®), I think about education and credentials a lot.  A good philosophy for professional development is to do something that will help you personally and professionally, and that will help distinguish you from your peers.  Maybe this is leadership development, continuing education, a degree, or a certification.  Something I see in every aspect of my professional life is confusion about certificates versus certification (Part 1, posted earlier), and regulation versus registration (Part 2).  Part 1 is an important piece of this conversation, too. 

Why does a paralegal need any of it?  Something to remember is that no formal training or education is consistently required in Virginia or nationally. Many “real” paralegals don’t pursue any additional professional development. 

According to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR), regulation occurs when a government body, in Virginia the General Assembly, determines that a profession or occupation should be regulated in order to protect the public.  The General Assembly may direct a regulatory body or agency to develop regulations detailing entry requirements as well as standards of practice governing the profession or occupation.  Laws are enacted surrounding these professions, and can only be changed by the General Assembly.  Regulation requires specific licensing or certification in order to work in the profession.  Architects, body piercers, doctors, waste management facility operators, lawyers, real estate appraisers, cemetery companies, and polygraph operators, among many others, are regulated.  There is a need to protect the public- an architect who doesn’t follow building codes may design a building that collapses on the occupants, body piercers who decide not to clean their equipment endanger clients, polygraph operators mishandling equipment put subjects at risk of being incarcerated when they shouldn’t or not incarcerated when they should be!  The Virginia Department of Health Professions governs the health professions and its various practitioners.  The online application for Medicine and Surgery includes a $302 application fee.  Paralegals know that the Virginia State Bar is the mandatory professional organization that governs lawyers practicing in Virginia.  Mandatory dues for lawyers for 2015-2016 are $250 annually; voluntary section dues are in addition to that.  Required continuing education costs are in addition to these mandatory fees.  We know that paralegals must be supervised by an attorney, including free-lance paralegals.  Attorneys themselves are regulated; although Virginia has freelance and virtual paralegals, and paralegals who represent clients in areas where a lay person may do so.  Paralegals are already self-regulated; I cannot come up with any public need for outside regulation.

Registration is a voluntary process.  The best definition of professional registration is from the Babylon online dictionary: The process of compiling and maintaining a list of names of people who have met specified professional standards.  As a paralegal association in Virginia, RPA is a member of the Virginia Alliance of Paralegal Associations (VAPA), whose mission is to advance, foster, and promote the paralegal profession by providing a statewide voice for paralegals.  VAPA’s goals are to maintain a statewide communications network among the member associations and others in the legal community, and to monitor developments in the paralegal profession.   VAPA is preparing to introduce a voluntary registration program for Virginia paralegals- Virginia Registered Paralegal (VARP).  The website tab for VARP still under development as they have not announced full details yet, but my understanding is that by paying a small annual or biannual fee and meeting specific continuing legal education requirements on an ongoing basis, registrants may use the VARP designation. There may be prerequisites to applying for the registration, but there is no qualification exam.  The VARP program tells employers that holders met the continuing education requirements that VAPA required. 

With a goal of increasing the accessibility of legal services, several states are beginning to license or explore licensing in the legal field.  Washington state administered its first Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT) exam in May 2015, the first of several requirements to practice as an LLLT (showing proof of insurance and 3,000 hours of supervised experience are the other requirements).  Seven people passed the first exam; as of January, nine have completed all requirements and were practicing.  LLLT is governed by the Washington State Bar Association.  There are rules, an LLLT Board, and training to go along with this designation.  The Utah Supreme Court accepted a November 18, 2015 report from its Task Force to Examine Limited Legal Licensing.  Oregon, North Carolina, DC, Indiana, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Mexico, Mississippi, New York, California, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri and California all have considered or are considering options.  If you follow RPA on Facebook, you may have seen the notice posted when the ABA recently adopted Resolution 105 (February 2016), a resolution on the provision of legal services.  It outlines the amended ABA objectives for the delivery of legal services, reiterates the ABA policy prohibiting no lawyer ownership of law firms, and potentially opens the field for non-lawyer options such as the LLLT.  Last year we heard Tom Spahn mention this subject at an ethics CLE he did for RPA- this definitely remains a stay-tuned subject in Virginia. 

Why does any of this matter?
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably made decisions for yourself about what you want to do— or not do.  I encourage you to choose a path and follow it— differentiate yourself from other paralegals out there.  RPA is here to help, but only a hiring employer can tell you if they require a specific professional achievement.  Determine what you want, what makes you different, what makes you proud of yourself.  Then go for it. 

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