Regulation Versus Evaluation
A lawyer must meet certain educational requirements and pass a test demonstrating knowledge of the law before obtaining a license to practice law. A lawyer maintains this license by complying with the ethical standards of the profession. Many states also require lawyers to meet continuing education requirements as a condition of continued licensure. In all states, lawyers are self-regulated; the determination of whether a person meets the requirements to practice law in the state is made by other lawyers under the supervision of the state supreme court.
Do not be fooled by the seeming lack of control over the paralegal profession. Supervising lawyers exercise very strict control over their paralegals and usually have very exacting standards for hiring new paralegals. Just because the profession does not require a legal education does not mean there are jobs available for paralegals without this qualification. The better your legal education is, the better your chances of getting a job.
The paralegal profession is not regulated in the same way. Paralegals are not required to meet any specific educational requirements. They do not have to pass a licensing examination — although some proposals have been made to change this. A paralegal cannot be prevented from acting as a paralegal because of unethical behavior. There are no continuing legal education requirements imposed on paralegals. In fact, as you will see later, the only regulation of paralegals is indirect because paralegals work under the supervision of lawyers. They are subject to regulation by the lawyers who employ them.
The lack of regulation might seem beneficial to the paralegal profession. In reality, the absence of regulatory authority is two-edged sword. Without regulation, there is no way to ensure that all paralegals meet minimum competency levels. An unethical paralegal cannot be barred from practicing as a paralegal, except when the legal community refuses to employ that paralegal. And unless their employers demand it, paralegals are not required to expand and deepen their knowledge of the law. Nevertheless, the most successful paralegals are those who are well educated and well trained.