Focus On

Reflections on how we see each other and how the public sees us | Ian Wilkinson

Monday, April 29, 2019 @ 11:43 AM | By Ian Wilkinson


Ian Wilkinson %>
Ian Wilkinson
This article is in response to Sam Goldstein’s article Difference between lawyers, paralegals wherein he says “I am pointing out there is a difference between a bachelor’s degree and community college diploma and no amount of specialized training can make up for that difference.”

To my paralegal colleagues, I say it’s true. There is something to be said about the depth of knowledge that comes from more substantial education. For professionals, the real value of education is not just related to substantive knowledge but learning to think critically using a set of cognitive methodologies to aggregate and collate all the relevant information and being able to present cogent arguments that obtain effective results. Like a Stradivarius, the effect gets better over time.
 
Now to my lawyer colleagues, I say yes, your education distinguishes you and rightly so, but that only goes so far. “Educational inflation” means university education itself is far less rigorous than it once was and waving an LL.B. or a university degree around as the epitome of worldly knowledge is a misapprehension of what the public wants and needs. Cloistered in the ivory towers of academia and practice for so long, myself included, it’s easy to get out of sync with that. Talk all you want about depth of knowledge, but you know there are a lot of cases where that depth is simply unnecessary. The music cliché for this is “Sometimes less ... is more.”

In the new Internet information age, the public is more informed and demanding of both effectiveness and efficiency, as well they should be. The bar claims that the client has to be protected from seemingly every conceivable thing that could go wrong on a file. Right or not, the public commonly sees this as the main thing that makes legal services unaffordable. But what does the public actually need? Sometimes, they just need filing standard paperwork that, as Sam says, “even a trained monkey could do.” Sometimes, it’s simple litigation. Sometimes, it’s more complex and they need a representative that is skilled in a specific type of matter. Most times, they know the difference.

Paralegals provide an “on the ground,” grassroots kind of practice, offering more tailored solutions with a time signature and often predetermined cost with which the general public can better accommodate. About 50 per cent of paralegals in public paralegal college come from other career backgrounds. That’s part of why the public sees paralegals as being more in tune. No surprise when paralegals spend more time with the clients on the case. In terms of competence, there are many paralegals that stand out as second to none in the areas of law that they practise. They are the example that, with specialized education and experience, paralegals can provide highly effective and efficient, stand-apart services in even some of the more complex areas of law. Our “street-cred” with the public is good.

With specialized training and expanded scope of practice, paralegals can make a real and practical contribution to the public need, and the public wants us to do just that. Whether the example is family law, criminal summary convictions, small claims appeals, immigration or, yes Sam, business and corporate services, we can help. Further, it would be a misapprehension to perceive of us as competition; we should be playing different instruments.

The fact is that the very existence of paralegals came about because of the vacuum left by the inability and/or unwillingness of lawyers to provide those services in a cost-effective manner. Nature abhors a vacuum. We are a new profession, but dedicated, focused and energetic. We need to clarify our roles so we can effectively fill that void. We could use your backup with that, not your reticence.

Originally, I was opposed to regulation of paralegals because of what I saw as the lack of transparency and the obvious intention to reduce scope of practice for paralegals under the ruse of protecting the public. I looked at regulation with some cynicism then and still do, but that’s another song. Reality is, we are in it together now, so it is our collective problem. We need to get past any pretensions and work harmonically to make access to justice not just a scoffed-at cliché.

The election of new benchers can be viewed as an opportunity to re-evaluate existing paradigms and attitudes toward that end. Failure of the system to provide for the public need is obvious and with only five paralegal benchers, the lawyers’ real commitment to access to justice will be instrumental to the success of the paralegal profession.

Failure would fuel an ongoing public relations disaster because it would be seen simply as a cacophony of old thinking and the protection of existing turf. On the other hand, success could and should be a PR coup. Paralegals could be held out as a bold and innovative solution that shows the lawyers and the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) are willing to do what is necessary to put the interest of the public first and make access to justice a reality. And yes, to use Sam’s metaphor, paralegals play that card. As well we should because, in this discussion, it’s the trump card.

Congratulations to the newly elected benchers whoever they are. You have a lot to deal with, not the least of which is changing our perception of each other as professionals and public’s perception of the LSO. The former will come with mutual understanding and respect. If you want to change the latter, change the facts on the ground for the average person.

That, at least, is a tune we can all sing.

Ian G. Wilkinson B.A., LL.B. is a candidate in the 2019 LSO bencher election and provides litigation paralegal services throughout southwestern Ontario. You can e-mail him at iangwilkinson@legalcentre.ca or visit Legal Eagle Paralegal Solutions.

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