Saturday, September 25, 2010

West Virginia Paralegal Certification Act

It's an age old debate, should paralegals be certified or should they remain not certified. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected a rule making them responsible for the certification of paralegals within the state. Ohio paralegals do, however, have the option of applying to become certified with the Ohio State Bar Association and be recognized as Ohio State Certified Paralegals. Our neighbors to the southeast, West Virginia, would like to add their names to the hat of states that allow paralegals to become certified.

West Virginia H.B. 3302 states it purpose as " define terms; to establish minimum qualifications; to set forth responsibilities of the lawyer and the certified legal assistant; and to provide rule-making authority to the Supreme Court of Appeals in conjunction with the West Virginia State Bar."

The minimum qualifications include an option of the following:

"(1) Successfully completing the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) examinations by the National Association of Legal Assistants (we'll have NFPA's response in a moment);
(2)Graduating from an ABA approved program of study for legal assistants;
(3)Graduating from a course of study for legal assistants which is institutionally accredited by not ABA approved, and requires not less than 60 semester hours of classroom study;
(4) Graduating from a course of study for legal assistants, other than those set forth in (2) and (3) above, plus not less than 6 months of in-house training as a legal assistant."

The bill also allows paralegals with significant life experience to be grandfathered in as certified legal assistants under the new legislation as long as their request to be grandfathered in is made within 24 months of the enaction of the article.

However, at this time, it is unclear if this will be a voluntary or required certification to be a paralegal in the state of West Virginia. In Florida, where there is an existing rule that defines a certified paralegal in the state and requires similar amounts of testing, school and experience to become a certified Florida Paralegal. (Florida Paralegal Association Supreme Court Order 06-1622).

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) has released a statement regarding the certification of West Virginia paralegals. The NFPA supports regulation as long as it is done correctly, ie: the right amount of experience, along with education and some sort of testing to become certified. Also in the statement, the NFPA says their members have adopted a position that they endorse regulation "as long as paralegals would be able to do more under the regulatory plan than they were previously doing." The NFPA, according to the statement, prefers mandatory licensure but they recognize that voluntary is a little more palatable to the individual states.

Upon searching the world wide web, it was difficult to find cons to the registration or licensing of paralegals whether it be mandatory or voluntary. One of the cons that came up in another blog about this topic is the potential cost, not only to become registered, but to be unregistered in a state full of registered paralegals.

In Ohio, as in other states that allow voluntary certification, you must not only pay to take the test, but you must pay in order to keep up your certification. For the unemployed paralegal, this can be difficult if not impossible to accomplish. Similarly, as we've seen in a lot of cases during this recession, a lot of firms refuse to pay for paralegal memberships and sometimes even CLEs, so the acquiring and maintenance of certification would be hard on those paralegals as well.

Another issue that has come up is the companies hesitation to hire the certified/licensed paralegals because they would require higher salaries and would have to be billed at a higher rate, than their colleagues who are not certified.

So, the debate rages on, should paralegals be certified or not certified? Based most of the published evidence, certification is becoming more of a welcome thing as law office economics are evolving to a point where you must do it faster and cheaper.