The Legal Assistants Division of the State Bar of Texas Long Range Planning Task Force held its first public forum titled Forging Ahead: The Future of the Paralegal Profession on Thursday, June 11, 1998. The Public Forum was held in Corpus Christi, Texas during the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting with approximately 50 persons attending. The issue for the public forum was: Should the paralegal profession be formally defined? If so, why? How should the process of defining who is a paralegal be accomplished?

As previously reported by the Task Force in the TPJ, over 90% of the legal assistants who responded to the Task Force survey last year indicated that they felt the paralegal profession should be defined/limited. Some of the commonly mentioned problems were:

Who should be able to use the title or name legal assistant/paralegal

Recognition of the status of paralegals as professionals

Public perception of the legal assistant profession

How legal assistants are utilized by attorneys

After a comprehensive fact-finding endeavor and report to the Division Board of Directors, the Long Range Planning Task Force facilitated focus group discussions with Texas paralegal association leaders during the Texas Alliance of Paralegal Association (TAPA) meeting on May 1, 1998.

Participants were given definitions and reference materials, and were asked their opinion(s) as to how to best accomplish the task of defining the profession.

Association leaders were divided into five focus groups and spent hours debating questions such as...

WHY do we need to define our profession?

WHAT form should the definition takeif regulation is necessary, what type is most preferable and why?

WHAT should be the definition of a legal assistant?

WHO should be responsible for accomplishing this task?

WHEN should this be accomplished? Suggested timeline?

The Focus Group Session held at the Texas Alliance of Paralegal Associations meeting was an initial exercise and helped in preparation for the first Public Forum.

The first Public Forum was planned to take place during the Annual Meeting and was publicized to all who attendedlawyers, legal assistants and administrators.

Long Range Planning Task Force Chair, Debra Crosby, served as moderator with the following distinguished panelists:

Mike Wise, Chair of the State Bar Standing Committee on Legal Assistants (also a former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants and a Representative to the Texas Legislature),

Jim Branton, a former State Bar of Texas President, currently running for judge of the Court of Appeals (San Antonio);

Stonewall VanWie, an instructor at the Del Mar College Paralegal Program since 1973, Wendi Rogers, President of the Legal Assistants Division,

and Michele Boerder, a paralegal with Hughes & Luce, formerly a law firm paralegal coordinator and law firm administrator, former Chair of the Legal Assistants Division and current member of the Task Force.

Ms. Crosby presented the history of the Legal Assistants Division, the Task Force and the outcome of the May forum held for Texas paralegal association leaders. The proceedings were then opened to testimony and public comment. The following provided testimony and were asked questions by members of the panel:

Joan Gillespie, President of the South Dakota Legal Assistants Association explained how South Dakotas Supreme Court promulgated a Court Rule, codified by their Legislature, that set forth the qualifications required for unlicensed persons employed by a licensed attorney who are represented to the public or clients as possessing training or education which qualifies them to assist in the handling of legal matters or document preparation for the client.

Minimum Qualifications under the South Dakota Rules are:

(1) Successful completion of the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) examination of the National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc.; or

(2) Graduation from an ABA approved program of study for legal assistants; or

(3) Graduation from a course of study for legal assistants which is institutionally accredited but not ABA approved, and which requires not less than the equivalent of sixty semester hours of classroom study; or

(4) Graduation from a course of study for legal assistants, other than those set forth in (2) and (3) above, plus not less than six months of in-house training as a legal assistant; or

(5) A baccalaureate degree in any field, plus not less than six months in-house training as a legal assistant; or

(6) A minimum of three years of law-related experience under the supervision of a lawyer, including at least six months of in-house training as a legal assistant; or

(7) Two years of in-house training as a legal assistant.

Provided, further, that any legal assistant hereunder shall have a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma (GED).

Pam Horn (Austin) gave a presentation advocating licensure for legal assistants. Licensure of legal assistants would provide definition and standards for the profession... Ms. Horn made comparison to the 1993 Physician Assistant Licensing Act, noting that P.A.s practice under the supervision of a physician.

Stonewall VanWie responded to Ms. Horn that a physicians assistant under a licensed status would be like a legal assistant giving legal advice. Mr. VanWie commented further, ...the problem of protection of the consumer can easily be handled with a disciplinary rule out of the Bar. But if youre talking about an expanded rule or offering services directly to the public... a two tier system of licensing or certification... [should be] required... I have a problem, however with imposing that same requirement on someone whos chosen by an attorney to work in his office and to perform services under his responsibility...

Don Crawford, an attorney and instructor at the paralegal program at Victoria College proposed flexibility and three tiers based upon the level of work paralegals perform:

1) registered legal assistant (not bill for their time)

2) certified legal assistants

3) licensed legal assistants (analogous to physicians assistants in rendering some independent legal services)

This public forum is the first of several that the Long Range Planning Task Force envisions holding across Texas in an effort to collect as much public comment and information as possible.

Packets containing information concerning how a local paralegal association or interested persons in a given locale can participate in holding a public forum were distributed in Corpus Christi and are available by contacting Michele Boerder at Hughes & Luce, L.L.P., 1717 Main St., Suite 2800, Dallas, Texas 75201, 214-939-5746 or boerdem@hughesluce.com.

Comments to the Task Force may be directed to the Chair, Debra Crosby, Wells, Pinckney & McHugh, 800 One Alamo Center, 106 S. St. Marys, San Antonio, Texas 78205-3603.

Loretta Nesbitt is a graduate of Louisiana State University and received her paralegal certificate from the National Center for Paralegal Training in Atlanta, GA. Ms. Nesbitt is a board certified in Civil Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She has 14 years experience as a litigation paralegal and has worked in both law firm and corporate environments. Ms. Nesbitt is a past president of the Dallas Area Paralegal Association and currently serves on the Legal Assistants Division Long Range Planning Task Force.

Michele Boerder is a litigation paralegal at Hughes & Luce, (Dallas) with 18 years of experience. Michele received her paralegal certificate from El Centro College in 1979 and is Board CertifiedCivil Trial Law, by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization; she also received her CLA designation in 1985. Michele is a past Chair of the BoardLegal Assistants Division, State Bar of Texas, and past President of the Dallas Area Paralegal Association; she currently serves on the State Bar Legal Assistant Committee, the PACE Standards Committee, and the Legal Assistants Division Long Range Planning Task Force.

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