Canon 9 of the Code of Ethics of the Legal Assistants Division states as follows: A legal assistant shall maintain a high degree of competency to better assist the legal profession in fulfilling its duty to provide quality legal services to the public.
The most important reason you should keep your knowledge and skills current is because it is the professional thing to do. You wouldn’t think much of a nurse who didn’t know how to use the latest medical equipment, a doctor who didn’t know about the latest treatments, an accountant who didn’t keep up with the current tax laws, or any other professional who didn’t keep up in her field. Although legal assistants in Texas may one day be required to have a certain amount of CLE to continue to work as a legal assistant, it behooves us all to uphold a professional image for our profession. One of the most important aspects of our profession is our ethics, and it is only ethical to keep your knowledge and skills current in order to provide quality legal services.
Although CLE is not required to be a paralegal in Texas, Canon 9 certainly suggests that we should all keep up-to-date on our legal knowledge and skills. If you are certified, you are already required to have between ten and fifteen CLE hours per year to maintain your certification. Other than for certified paralegals, no national organization requires CLE for its members. Attorneys are required to complete fifteen hours per year, three hours of which must be on ethics. Two local organizations, the Houston Legal Assistants Association and the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants require eight and six hours of CLE respectively, to renew as a voting member.
If you don’t live in or near a metropolitan area, it may be difficult to attend CLE courses. However, it may be worth a couple of days away to attend a thorough one- or two-day course, even if you have to travel. If your firm won’t reimburse you for your hotel and meals, pick a course in a city where you have friends or relatives. Combine your CLE course with a family vacation to that city or part of the state.
If you still want to stay close to home, try attending CLE courses offered by your local bar associations. The State Bar also offers Last Chance Video CLE in many cities. If you are really industrious, you can organize your own seminar. It is even possible to host a seminar for low or no cost to the attendees.
In addition to attending seminars, everyone should also read the Bar Journal, advance sheets, and legal periodicals. You should review the rules, codes and statutes in your practice area on a regular basis.
In addition to keeping up with legal changes, legal assistants should also stay current on technology. There are the standard on-line research services of Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, which you have probably used for years,but these companies are constantly updating and expanding not only their information, but the ways it can be searched and the costs for research. A good paralegal knows the best and most efficient ways to find information, and the cost comparison of each method, or at least knows how to get this information quickly when required. Keeping up with the best ways to find information on the World Wide Web is also a constant challenge. Many legal periodicals now devote at least a small space in each issue to listings of helpful web sites. You might want to start a notebook with on-line search information. Even if your office doesn’t have Internet access yet, it is probably something that all law firms will soon have, just as every law office now has a fax machine.
New software is constantly coming out, including updated versions of programs you already use, such as a word processing program, to spreadsheets, schedulers, database programs, and litigation management programs. To be able to evaluate whether these programs and upgrades are useful, you must use them and/or find out about their features. Many software vendors are glad to come to your office for a demonstration and there are often articles on software in legal periodicals.
If you are thinking that all this is ridiculous and that you have been a paralegal so long you don’t need CLE or technology updates, think again. Although you may feel that your current job doesn’t require you to keep up, you could one day find yourself looking for another job. Your boss could leave or retire, your firm could downsize, or your family could move. In today’s job market, current skills and knowledge enable you to better compete with other applicants.
In addition to helping you get a new job (or advance in your current job), there is a professional responsibility to stay abreast of developments in your practice area. Not only will you be more valuable and useful to your attorney if you stay current, but you will be able to assist your attorney in making technology choices.
Ellen Lockwood, CLAS, is the Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Legal Assistants Division, a position she has held since 1997. She is Treasurer of LAD and a past president of the Alamo Area Professional Legal Assistants in San Antonio.