Career Advice

Are Paralegals Taking Lawyers’ Jobs? Assessing the Paralegal Profession in Canada Through the Lens of Perception and Reality

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Credit: Flickr/Ken Lund

Mary Symber had worked for a top Bay Street law firm in Toronto for 20 years before relocating to her hometown, Victoria, British Columbia last winter to live close to her aging, ailing mother. While at the law firm, Ms. Symber’s career journey started from the lowest rung of the hierarchy and metamorphosed from one job title to another - from Receptionist to Legal Assistant to Paralegal and finally Senior Paralegal. Upon her arrival in Victoria, she secured a job interview with Drew LLP, a boutique law firm in the city. Using a conversational style that simulates a real life interview for the role of a paralegal, this article summarizes the development of the paralegal profession in Canada, the day-to-day activities of paralegals, their education and work experience, salary expectations, challenges, and prospects. Please note that the character and the law firm featured in the dialogue are fictional.

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Credit: Nick Youngson

 

Drew LLP: In few sentences, can you summarize your experience working in a paralegal role?

Ms. Symber: My experience as a paralegal extends to virtually every paralegal’s scope of practice. These typically fall into the following six areas:

(1) Criminal Practice: Defence of summary conviction offenses and provincial offenses as agents.

(2) Civil Practice: Representing parties in small claims court as agents.

(3) Administrative Hearings: Appearance as agents before administrative tribunals such as the Landlord and Tenant Board, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the Human Rights Tribunal, and the Immigration and Refugee Board and a host of others, unless the rules of the tribunals specifically restrict the right of appearance to lawyers.

(4) Legal research and writing.

(5) Commercial practice: Preparation and filing of corporate documents, corporate search etc.

(6) Real Estate practice: Provision of services as land title analyst, conveyancers to a real estate law firm or government land title departments.

Given this broad range of experience, I can say I am the most fortunate individual on earth. I have had the opportunity of working in virtually every facet of the paralegal roles. I have watched the paralegal profession grown from an unrecognized trade to a recognized trade and now a regulated trade in the most populous province in Canada.

 

Drew LLP: What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant?

Ms. Symber: Technically speaking there is no difference. Trying to differentiate the two is like asking for the difference between a lawyer and a senior counsel. Historically, the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” were used interchangeably, but in recent times there has been a gradual shift in their classification. Within the legal circle, “legal assistant” is now being used to refer to legal support staff performing routine administrative, secretarial or clerical duties for law firms and corporate legal departments while paralegals (most especially, the experienced ones) perform substantive legal tasks, either independently or under the supervision of a lawyer. That said, with the exception of Ontario where paralegals are regulated and licensed to independently provide legal services, the classification criteria for paralegals and legal assistants vary from law firm to law firm.

 

Drew LLP: Just recently, it was announced that paralegals will be allowed to carry out limited practice in family law in Ontario, can you shed some lights on this?

Ms. Symber: Yes, as you know Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada that regulates and licenses paralegals to carry out independent legal services in non-complex areas such as traffic ticket, documents review and drafting, and small claim court appearances. In fall 2017, the Office of the Attorney General in Ontario and the Law Society will develop an action plan that will define the level of involvement of paralegals in family law practice. Until the action plan has been released, there is just so much to talk about the scope of the practice.

 

Drew LLP: Given the complaints that by allowing paralegals to carry out independent practices, paralegals are taking lawyers' jobs, do you think it is a good idea to allow paralegals to practice family law?

Ms. Symber: Allowing paralegals to undertake a limited legal practice does not amount to a usurpation of lawyers’ job. Unless we look at it using a system approach we will miss the objective the protagonists of the idea were trying to accomplish, which is creating more options for access to justice. Needless to say, there are so many legal tasks that the requirement of law license may be unnecessary provided those who undertake them are given adequate legal training or work under the supervision of a lawyer. If you take a look at the statistical record for litigation in Ontario (which I believe is representative of what occur in other jurisdictions), about 60% of litigants in family law matters are unrepresented because they cannot afford the services of a lawyer. Whereas most of the matters border on non-complex issues that experienced paralegals could handle at affordable fees. As long as the regulator (LSUC) set clear parameters for qualifying those paralegals that will be licensed to undertake these services, there will be no problem.

 

Drew LLP: If given a second chance would you rather be a lawyer?

Ms. Symber: If there is reincarnation and I have the opportunity of reincarnating 10 times, I will always be a paralegal. I love the legal environment and I will always cherish every opportunity to work there; however, my preference for the paralegal profession is strictly based on my personality type. I possess excellent organizational and multi-tasking skillsets and I think these will be more of an advantage for me in a paralegal role than a lawyer role.

 

Drew LLP: Tell us about your educational background?

Ms. Symber: I have a bachelor degree in Classic Art and a Diploma Certificate in Paralegal Training.

 

Drew LLP: Is this the typical educational route for anyone wishing to become a paralegal?

Ms. Symber: The path to becoming a paralegal depends on the individual. You can become a paralegal through on-the-job training at a fast-paced law firm or a post-secondary education in the legal field, or both. However, in this age and time, if you really want to be marketable, then you should strive to have both the on-the-job training and educational training in the legal field.

 

Drew LLP: At the time you enrolled for your Paralegal Diploma, paralegals were not regulated and licensed in Ontario, meaning the law society at the time did not accredit paralegal curriculum in the schools, so how did you determine which institution was right for you?

Ms. Symber: Because I had been working as a paralegal at the time, the decision came fairly easy for me. I already knew the whole gamut of the tasks of a paralegal. Therefore, I carefully reviewed the curricula of these schools then I settled for the one that offered courses on emerging areas in the legal field where I needed to upskill. These emerging areas include e-discovery and document review software as well as other legal software that can be used to enhance lawyers’ efficiency and improve clients’ satisfaction.

 

Drew LLP: What is your salary expectation?

Ms. Symber: Generally, the compensations for paralegals depend on their level of education, level of skill, years of experience and level of responsibility. Using the 2017 Robert Half Salary Guide For The Legal Profession, the annual salary for paralegals with 20 years experience in the legal field in Victoria will vary between $101,000 and $115,000. However, I am open to negotiation.  

 

Drew LLP: Do you have any questions?

Ms. Symber: What is the ratio of lawyer to paralegal/legal assistant in your firm?

Drew LLP: We have seven paralegals and 13 legal assistants working for 30 lawyers. Some paralegals and legal assistants work for a single lawyer while some of them work for two lawyers. In your case, you will be working with our Managing Partner who is currently on vacation but will be back in six weeks time… Any other question?

Ms. Symber: None

Drew LLP: Thank you for coming. Either way, you will hear back from us within the next one week.