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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter April 21, 2017

From Apprentice to Paralegal: The Rise of the Paralegal Profession in America

  • Robert E. Mongue EMAIL logo


In 1980, the South Carolina Supreme Court noted, “Paralegals are routinely employed by licensed attorneys to assist in the preparation of legal documents such as deeds and mortgages.” According to the court, the activities of a paralegal were of a preparatory nature, such as legal research, investigation, or the composition of legal documents. This assessment of paralegal utilization in 1980 might well have been surprising to many readers of the court’s decision. As the delegation of legal work to non-lawyers evolved, so has the paralegal profession. The goal of this paper is to trace the transition of paralegals from a somewhat glorified – albeit very specialized – secretarial role to a professional position, emphasizing the period just before and after the creation of the ABA definition of the legal/assistant paralegal position. Legal professionals, rather than historians, provide most of historiography that is available. Historians appear to have focused on particular lawyers, especially those who became political leaders, and the efforts of persons other than white males to enter the profession with little mention of the personnel that supported those lawyers. Discussion of the historical development of paralegals and the paralegal profession has been limited to introductory chapters of practice manuals written by lawyers and paralegal educators for paralegals. The utilization of legal assistants from the 1970s to the present is well-documented, however, in contemporary writings by lawyers, law office managers, and social scientists. This paper is concerned with the development of the paralegal profession and the paralegal role in American law offices. This study examines writings from the twentieth century lawyers, paralegals, law office managers, paralegal educators, and social scientists to track the paralegal profession in five respects: (1) Definition of the nature of the role of the persons considered part of the occupation; (2) Establishment of educational requirements and forums; (3) Organization of professional associations; (4) Self-regulation; and, (5) Development of enforceable codes of professional conduct. In addition to the contemporary writings, the study uses information obtained through communications with paralegals, paralegal educators, and paralegal association directors who practiced during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Received: 2016-12-14
Accepted: 2017-3-23
Published Online: 2017-4-21
Published in Print: 2017-8-28

©2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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