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Why Would the S.C. Bar Stifle Competency Improvement?

Man and woman with book According to the Carolina Paralegal News, South Carolina paralegals won't be seeing voluntary certification and registration any time soon.

The South Carolina House of Delegates has tabled a proposal for paralegals to start a voluntary certification program for paralegals.  The delegates referred a proposed Certified Paralegal Program back to the Paralegal Task Force which had billed it as an effort to improve the competencies of Palmetto State paralegals.

A five-month study by a 12-member task force explored the possibility of setting up the state's first paralegal registration system.

Michael J. Howell, a delegate, said he supported the concept but said the proposal needed to include a code of ethics and a method for enforcing it.

"…..in order to provide high-quality legal services, you need professionals," Howell said.  "You've got to have some sort of code of ethics in this thing, like Florida does."  The proposal would require certified paralegals to take seven hours of Bar-approved continuing legal education each year, far more than California paralegals who are required to take 4 units of substantive CLE and 4 units of ethics every two years.

The proposal called for eligibility standards based on work experience and education accomplishments.  Violation of the program's rules would mean loss of certification.

The fees would include a $50 application fee and a $20 annual renewal fee from each certified paralegal, issue certificates and maintain a paralegal registry on its website.

It was interesting to read the reaction to the rejection in this article.  One person claimed that next "we're going to have certified secretaries and then certified runners and then certified mail people".  Another feared the program would "burden" Palmetto State practitioners as those firms might not find it economically feasible to shell out "big" bucks.  (Good lord, $50.00 per person per year? Cut down on the Starbucks and give us education.) Another attorney felt that with with 5 - 7 paralegals the fees were too high for the worst economic conditions.

Four paralegal organizations had said in position papers that paralegals expected to pay their fees themselves.  Apparently, the delegates didn't read that part.

Seven states, including North Carolina have voluntary certification programs similar to So. Carolina. Two states have voluntary registration.

To have certification in the legal field without requiring ethics would not have constituted a certification exam that ensured the paralegal was aware of one of the most important components of required learning.  I'll give the delegates that.  Too many mistakes are made through assumptions of what's right and ignorance of what's wrong. If the paralegals in South Carolina try again – and I hope they do – I encourage them to include the ethics portion of the exam.  That said, rather than rejecting the proposal, the delegates could have requested a rewrite and resubmission.

Voluntary certification ensures law firms and clients of delivery of higher quality legal services.  Since many paralegals can call themselves a paralegal without any training whatsoever, an employer takes a huge malpractice risk hiring paralegals who are not well trained or trained at all.  A test is no guarantee the paralegal is an excellent employee but it does set a baseline of core competencies the paralegal is expected to know, something this field needs desperately.  

The majority of paralegals are not legal secretaries who are moved into a paralegal position as was the case 30-40 years ago. It's not your mother's paralegal field.  Things have moved so quickly in a short  span of this profession that to encourage no barriers to entry to field no longer makes sense.

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