Last month I attended a continuing legal education course sponsored by the Association of Litigation Support Professionals. The seminar, entitled “Making the Most of Technology in Trial,” featured a panel of graphic designers, litigation support specialists, an attorney and a representative of the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel. Introducing myself, I discovered that nearly two-thirds of the attendees were in some form of litigation support.
That got me thinking: Could a paralegal’s perspective benefit a CLE?
South Carolina attorneys are required to complete 14 hours of approved CLE courses, two of which must be committed to legal ethics and professional responsibility. The CLE requirements were implemented in 1982 and are governed by the state Supreme Court’s Commission of Continuing Legal Education and Specialization, which is comprised of 12 members appointed by the high court and includes representatives from the judiciary and practicing attorneys from the four judicial regions.
While many states recommend legal education for legal assistants and paralegals, few and far between require the completion of credit hours. South Carolina does not require that paralegals meet any CLE quota.
By contrast, the Legal Assistants Division of the State Bar of Texas requires that paralegals obtain six hours of continuing legal education each year to maintain their voting rights and active membership within the organization. California, Indiana and Oklahoma also require their paralegals to obtain some CLE credit.
The practice of law is constantly evolving. Societal changes impact not only the laws that govern us, but the very process by which attorneys conduct business. Electronic discovery, encrypted metadata, iPhones and social networking are just a few examples of how the legal field has been touched by societal evolution. CLE courses keep attorneys and their support staff educated on the latest issues that affect their practices.
Ask any paralegal and chances are likely that his or her job responsibilities already include tracking and managing their attorneys’ CLE requirements. But just below the surface – right underneath their attorneys’ noses – lays a smorgasbord of knowledge that is quietly waiting to be unearthed.
It is the paralegal that is called upon to design PowerPoint presentations for hearings and arbitrations.
It is the paralegal who structures document databases or, in many firms, hard copy files containing hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence.
A tech-savvy paralegal splices video deposition transcripts and embeds them into trial presentation software.
It is the paralegal who often lays the first eyes on the documents that will become the backbone of a case.
Paralegals navigate the courthouses, getting to know not only the docketing clerk who will let them make an emergency copy, but also the technology (or lack thereof) available.
So why aren’t paralegals teaching CLEs?
Robert Dodson, a local Columbia attorney, has been in practice 12 years and specializes in civil litigation. He said that attorneys often discount their paralegals’ ideas and perspectives.
“Lawyers are bad at managing people. That stems from the fact that we don’t get any training or education [in that area],” Dodson said. “I would love to know what a paralegal’s perspective is when getting ready for a trial or hearing or interacting with clients and potential clients. Those are probably two of the most stressful parts of my paralegals’ jobs and hearing what they say on that would be interesting.”
Without sugarcoating the subject, paralegals aren’t teaching and participating in the instruction of CLEs for a host of reasons that, in reality, lack sufficient standing.
Either those coordinating CLE programs don’t think attorneys would respond to a paralegal’s perspective or paralegals themselves aren’t showcasing how tremendously valuable their skills, insights and roles within the legal arena really are. Perhaps it is a combination of both.
In April, I wrote to the S.C. Bar’s CLE Division requesting permission to develop a CLE program taught by paralegals on trial preparation and technology use at trial. My inquiry was bolstered by a letter of support from an attorney who had held the role of opposing counsel in a trial that I had attended.
“Ms. Valek demonstrates a strong understanding of trial preparation and the use of technology in the courtroom,” he wrote. “Most often, attorneys do delegate this responsibility to paralegals and consequently they are in the best position to provide education concerning these matters. I wholeheartedly recommend that you approve Ms. Valek’s proposed CLE seminar.”
Despite follow-up letters and telephone inquires – which inevitably led directly to voicemail – I have heard nothing from the CLE Division.
It goes without saying, then, that the paralegal’s perspective is undervalued by attorneys, CLE coordinators and in many cases, paralegals themselves.
I encourage all paralegals to showcase their talents, if not to a conference room, then to your fellow staff members. Create opportunities to educate your colleagues and bosses on those skills that you perform best.
Perhaps eventually the CLE seminar circuit will catch up to how amazing we really are.
Editor’s note: Lindsay Valek is a paralegal and writer based in Columbia, S.C.