After nearly two decades of effort, Indiana has joined a growing list of states that are offering paralegals a certification that enables them to distinguish themselves in a field that has few mandatory requirements.
The voluntary Indiana paralegal registration program was launched July 1 by the Indiana State Bar Association and culminates an effort that began in the late 1990s.
Advocates say the registry will improve the paralegal profession by establishing minimum standards of knowledge and training. Even now, anyone, regardless of education or professional experience, can call themselves a paralegal, but individuals who get the Indiana Registered Paralegal status will set themselves apart.
“I think it’s going to show people we are very serious about our profession and very passionate about it,” said Lori Wagner, paralegal at Burt Blee Dixon Sutton & Bloom LLP in Fort Wayne.
On the road to getting approved and adopted by the state bar, the registry encountered setbacks. Members of the bench and bar as well as some paralegals did not see a need for such a program and worried it would create more bureaucracy. They saw the possibility that the initiative would exclude individuals who were hired as legal secretaries, but have since learned the law on the job and now do the work of a paralegal.
Edna Wallace, one of the first paralegals in Indiana to work toward creation of the registry, acknowledges that many secretaries and administrative assistants working as paralegals did not receive formal instruction, but rather have been taught about the law by their attorney-employers.
The goal of the program is not to put anyone out of a job, Wallace said. Instead, the registry is meant to distinguish those who have gone a step above to become qualified, she said.
The registry will be a list of individuals who have met the requirements for education and experience and regularly receive additional education.
Evansville attorney David Jones joined the registry movement in 2006. The Jones Wallace LLC attorney sees the registry as a way for the legal community to raise the bar for those doing legal work. Clients are charged for the work paralegals do, he said, so these professionals should have educational standards.
To qualify for IRP status, individuals must be employed as a paralegal and be an affiliate member of the ISBA. In addition, the person must have some type of formal paralegal education and, in some instances, work experience.
Registered paralegals will be required to complete a minimum of six hours of continuing legal education each year, with one hour devoted to ethics.
Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Edward Najam, who was instrumental in getting the registration program adopted, praised the strong instructional component.
“I think it’s elevated the profession with its emphasis on education,” Najam said. “I think it’s good for attorneys and good for their clients.”
The paralegal certification program started by the North Carolina State Bar Association in 2005 likewise has a strong education requirement. To qualify, paralegals in the Tar Heel State must have either a degree in paralegal studies or a certificate from a paralegal studies program, along with a degree in any discipline. Also, the paralegals have to pass a certification exam and must complete six hours of CLE annually.
Alice Mine, director of CLE, Specialization and Paralegal Certification at the NCSBA, described the program as a win-win. It is financially self-supporting, she said, and the attorneys are happy knowing the paralegals with certification have a certain level of education.
Like Indiana’s registry, participation in North Carolina’s certification program is voluntary. However, according to Mine, it is becoming a defacto requirement for getting a job as a paralegal. Law firms, especially those in metropolitan areas, are not even considering hiring paralegals who have not been certified, she said.
In Indiana, the work for a program started in the late 1990s when a group of paralegals began gathering informally to research, study and sketch out an Indiana paralegal registration program. By 2002, the effort broadened to include more people and was focused on getting a proposed program instituted.
The registration was proposed as a new rule to be added to the Indiana bar’s rules for admission and discipline. Promoted mostly by paralegals, Rule 2.2 was submitted to the Indiana Supreme Court Rules Committee.
While the Supreme Court was taking public comment, supporters went to the ISBA House of Delegates in 2006 for an endorsement, but the measure failed.
Jones said from his perspective, the proposal was killed in the back room by attorneys. The attitude was the legal assistants who had worked for law firms and solo practitioners for many years were good enough.
Without the endorsement from the state bar, the Supreme Court declined to adopt the proposed rule.
“It was disappointing, but we felt strongly enough about the program that we would do whatever it took” Wagner said.
The paralegals felt they had a disconnect within the legal community, Wagner explained. They realized they had to convince judges and attorneys that the registry would be beneficial to the practice of law.
The push for the registry started again three years ago when Najam became chair of the ISBA Affiliate Membership Committee. This time, the proposal was to add a new Rule 9 to the Rules of Professional Conduct which the state bar would administer.
Najam saw the key to gaining support was educating the legal community.
The first step was making a presentation to the ISBA Board of Governors in December 2013. Najam did not ask for the board’s approval. He just talked about the registry and highlighted a state survey from July 2013 in which 83 percent of Indiana paralegals said they would register.
Next, the judge and his team approached various ISBA committees, including the Legal Ethics Committee, the General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section, and PLEADS. They took the feedback from those groups and tweaked the proposal to incorporate the suggestions. The proposal also got the support of the Indiana Commission for Continuing Legal Education.
Finally, Najam returned to the Board of Governors with a resolution. That body endorsed the proposal and at the October 2014 ISBA annual meeting, the House of Delegates approved it without debate.
Once again, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to adopt the proposed rule, but Chief Justice Loretta Rush opened a door. In a letter, she said the court saw nothing which prevented the ISBA from creating and administering a paralegal registration program.
With that, Najam went back to the Board of Governors in March 2015 and got the go-ahead to start the registry.
Najam applauded those who kept pushing. He credited the success in getting the registry implemented to “the hard work of a small group of very dedicated and highly professional paralegals who wanted to elevate their profession and, in particular, emphasize education.”•