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A Win-Win Situation: Pro Bono Paralegal Clinics in the 21-First Century?

By Roy W. Falby II.

    Ever wonder what it would be like if there were legal clinics offered to undergraduate students, especially students majoring in Paralegal

Studies?  I have!  It is a reality that is not impossible, and it can only benefit our society – lawyers and paralegals alike -- in a positive way.

    My idea for a paralegal clinic equals a win-win situation for all those involved.  It promotes the paralegal profession and simultaneously provides a unique situation for practicing attorneys and law school students.  It would require them to become intimately familiar with the paralegal profession and enlighten them at an early stage in their career as to just how integral paralegals are toward the delivery of affordable legal services.  It is my sincere hope that this article will inspire other paralegal students to encourage their schools and colleges to create a similar program in their jurisdiction; it can only get better from here.

THE BEGINNING:

    As the Vice President of the Suffolk University Paralegal Association and a senior transfer student at Suffolk University in Boston majoring in Paralegal Studies, the question of clinics for paralegals began to consume me during the 2002 Fall Semester.  I became acutely aware of the numerous and plentiful opportunities for legal clinics being provided for Law School Students.  And so I asked myself,  “Isn’t it just as important and beneficial for paralegals to have the opportunity too participate in and promote the concept of affordable legal services for our fellow citizens? What can we do, as future paralegals, to assist in this capacity?”  The overwhelming surge of energy that began to percolate inside of me was a resounding, unequivocal “Yes!” Yes, we can open up our own legal services clinic via the University Paralegal Studies Program.  After all, if law students can do it, why not paralegal students?  However, as I further investigated this idea, I realized there are a lot of hoops and obstacles one must navigate through in order to sustain such a outstanding idea.

DISTINGUISHING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CLINICS AND INTERNSHIPS:

A clinic can take on several different types of legal projects from any number of sources in a community.  It can then delegate projects to paralegals who are interested or have the knowledge necessary to work on a given case.  The clinic also could be available for projects that involve complex and major litigation cases.  The clinic would allow flexibility for the paralegal students and teach them the importance of team work while working on a given project.  It would also give paralegal students who  are not sure what they want to specialize in an opportunity to test drive different legal specialties.  A clinic also has the potential to simulate a realistic law firm working environment, including the pressure and multi-tasking Of course, this would be controlled, because it is an educational experience as well.  The student can decide how much work and pressure he can handle.   Working in the clinic would also identify areas of strong skills and areas that need improvement.  At the very least, the clinic would be an excellent source for networking and a place for practicing paralegals and paralegal students to mingle and possibly create a mentor/mentee relationship.

An internship can only offer a hit or miss chance to work in a legal capacity and not much hope of getting the chance to work in either an area of law that interest the paralegal student or a chance to dabble in different areas of law to determine areas of interest.  Most internships do not offer the flexibility and or the opportunity to work with other students on several different tasks at once.  Usually, it is one task or the same skills being used repeatedly.

THE INVESTIGATION:

    The idea of paralegal clinics is not a novel idea, although according to my email inquiry to the NFPA list-serve regarding this idea in November 2002, paralegal clinics are not in abundance, either.  When I started my investigation, I initially shared this idea regarding paralegal clinics with a professor who teaches some of the paralegal courses at Suffolk University, Ms. Mary Flaherty, who is also a practicing attorney in Boston.  After sharing my thoughts, I asked Ms. Flaherty where I should begin investigating a possibility of a clinic for paralegals.  She suggested I start by finding out where the money would come from. Ideally, grant funding was going to become my next focus. 

SHOW ME THE MONEY:

    The first source I thought of was the Department of Education (DOE).  After researching their Web site and databases, I was convinced that funding from the DOE would be a long shot.  Not only is the national economy in a slump, but competition for a grant is stiff. 

    I tried another angle with my research by contacting various directors of law school clinics and asking if they would be interested in assisting me with information regarding clinics and where I could find funding for my idea of legal clinics for paralegals.  The directors were very polite and informative, and they did try very hard to find out for me where the money comes from to operate legal clinics, but to no avail.  However, the clinical directors suggested that I read the various legal newspapers that are published throughout the New England area because sometimes there are advertisements regarding grant funding for pro bono legal services. 

    Upon hearing the words “pro bono,” I had an epiphany.  I contacted the Boston Bar Association and spoke with a representative from the pro bono legal services committee.  The representative suggested that I write a proposal to them to seek partial funding.  I was also encouraged to make the same attempt with the Mass Bar Association and the American Bar Association’s Committee on Pro Bono and Legal Services.  This experience is relative to all of us paralegals who inherently understand the difficulties of doing research:  sometimes, our quarry eludes us, but all of the sudden, that one item illuminates the entire project, and the case or the article opens the door for further research and to establish the argument.  This is exactly what happened to me when I began conversing with the Bar Associations.  It was a floodgate of information, and now the issue of where I was going to find the money was no longer an obstacle.  I found that there is plenty of financial support,  , especially if there is a need in the community that has not presently been represented by a pre-existing legal clinic. For instance, The Association of Grant Makers in Boston specializes in researching grants for various ideas.

    Additionally, Interests On Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) has approximately $2.35 million in grant awards for non-profit organizations with law related programs, including those that provide civil legal services to low income residents.  (31 Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly 1085, January 27, 2003).  Private sponsors such as Legal Placement Services and Legal Support Services also are looking to get involved with local legal clinics by donating funds, material, equipment, and helping with placement of potential clients.

    My final discovery for financial assistance was Legal Services Corporation, and they would likewise be a potential source for funding part of the clinic as well.  Now my next step investigating the possibility of legal clinics for paralegals was to establish how the clinic would get it’s clients.

FINDING THE SACRIFICIAL LAMB:

    Shortly after my discovery of the various sources of potential financial assistance for a paralegal clinic, I became enlightened.  Several major corporate law firms in Boston contacted me  about my idea regarding paralegal clinics.  They said they would be willing to delegate some legal work if there was such a legal clinic in existence for paralegals.  I was very excited because, before the clinic existed, I had established a potential source of legal work for  it.  Yet I still needed to find a legitimate way for the clinic to legally receive clients and have the legal work properly delegated by an attorney who is licensed to practice law in the Commonwealth.

    Upon receiving these inquiries from the various corporate law firms, it became quite clear what my next task would be in order to research the possibility of a paralegal clinic to exist.  Knowing that paralegals are forbidden to practice law without a supervisory attorney delegating their work, where would I try to find attorneys who would be willing to supervise a bunch of paralegal students?  It would depend upon the financial structure of the clinic.  If an annual salary for an attorney is given, and that salary was decent enough for a recently law school graduate, then perhaps he or she could supervise the clinic.  This is attractive because a novice attorney is working alongside paralegal students, and it suggest the strong possibility of educating and impressing upon the novice attorney the importance of having paralegals assist in providing affordable legal services to the public . This, in turn, promotes the paralegal profession..  Another example for finding an attorney to supervise the clinic is someone with a license to practice law in the Commonwealth but who cannot sustain the long and arduous hours of a traditional legal environment.  I am thinking in particular of a single parent or the one spouse who is able to work part-time.  I know of at least a couple of parents that are practicing attorneys who would be willing to give something like this a try.  On the other hand, if there is no financial compensation, the attorney still benefits by promoting pro bono legal services and getting annual pro bono credit required by the Bar Association.  Of course, the University could delegate one of its professors – who is also a practicing attorney -- to act as the supervisory attorney for the paralegal clinic. These suggestions above could conceivably be a legitimate way for the clinic to not only establish a potential source of clients, but a way to properly delegate the legal work.  This would avoid  the appearance or actual acts of the unauthorized practice of law. The next issue in my search regarding the paralegal clinic:  “Why would a university or a college want to set up a paralegal clinic, and what are the benefits of such an idea?” 

CONTACTING THE PARALEGAL PROGRAM DIRECTOR:

    I turned my investigation back to the Suffolk University Paralegal Program Director..  Ms. Lynn Dahlborg, the Program Director, mentioned that, in the past years, the advisory board once entertained the thought of a paralegal clinic, but turned down the idea because enrollment was too low.  According to Ms. Dahlborg, the Advisory Board  would reconsider a paralegal clinic if they knew that the program could maintain a certain level of enrollment in order to justify its existence.  Ms. Dahlborg also said that several paralegal undergraduate programs within the Boston metro area will be phasing out their undergraduate paralegal programs, leaving Suffolk University as the only school offering an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree in Paralegal Studies.  As a result, the enrollment for the Suffolk Paralegal Studies Program has already increased by 20% as of Fall 2002 semester. More likely than not, it will continue to increase because of the lack of colleges offering paralegal programs in the Boston area.  Of course, this enrollment increase is contingent upon the fact that financial aid is available to new students.  In addition, I anticipate a positive rise in the enrollment for paralegal students because of the national economic situation, as well as increased unemployment rates.  Notwithstanding these reasons, the concept of a paralegal clinic being offered as part of the curriculum could result in a positive increase in the current enrollment and would attract more students to the program.

WHERE WILL THE CLIENTS COME FROM?

    The concern for unauthorized practice of law is again an issue because paralegals are not allowed to solicit clients on their own behalf.  Therefore, where and how will a clinic for paralegals be able to obtain clients?  The clinic could get clients from the Massachusetts Bar Association, Massachusetts Conveyancers Association, the Massachusetts Paralegal Association, the National Lawyers Guild, the New England Innocence Project, Volunteer Lawyers Project, the Women’s Bar Association, and from a number of large corporate law firms who may be looking to subcontract very large cases such as class-action lawsuits.  Of course, to avoid the UPL issues, the clinic’s director (who is a licensed attorney) would negotiate with these clients on the clinics’ behalf.

GETTING AROUND THE UPL:

    Various corporate law firms suggested that I should contact the local Bar association to confirm what they would consider legal work properly delegated to a paralegal and if that delegation would be considered the unauthorized practice of law.  As far as they were concerned, as long as there is at least one licensed practicing attorney receiving that delegation from a law firm (or other legally acceptable entities legally practicing law within the Commonwealth), they would not consider the clinic for paralegals participating in the unauthorized practice of law.  The attorney for the clinic would need to accept full responsibility and supervise the work being delegated to the paralegal students.  This experience confirmed that there is a need and a useful purpose for paralegal clinics .

LOCAL PARALEGAL ASSOCIATIONS CAN BENEFIT, TOO:

    There is another benefit from this idea.  The Massachusetts Paralegal Association would also benefit by participating in a paralegal clinic.  In fact, the local Bar Association highly recommended that the local paralegal association become intimately involved with such a clinic if it were to exist.  The local association could assign mentors to be available.  Alternatively, they could have senior paralegals visit the clinic, assist, and mentor the paralegal student during their clinical work experience.  The clinic is a unique way for the local paralegal associations to get involved with the local paralegal students and paralegal program directors.  Getting on the program advisory board, for example, is one way for the local association to become actively involved.  The potential for this positive relationship will truly give the entry level paralegal more confidence in their abilities to do the type of work which is required of them.  And I think this is the most important issue because every membership association must continue to search for that innovative touch that will sustain current members while simultaneously and positively attract new members.  In fact, paralegal clinics might just be the way in creating that new harmony.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS:

    There are still some outstanding issues to think about.  For instance, should a certain criterion be met before the student is eligible to work in the clinic?  If the student is only enrolled part-time or in a certificate program, should there be a criterion as to how much outside experience they need before working in the clinic?  Should the clinic be given as a three credit course?  Should it be a requirement before a student gets an internship?  Would the supervising attorney run background checks on potential students who may end up working in the clinic?  Does the clinic need malpractice insurance?  Will the clinic have to pay rent?  Since the paralegals cannot represent the clients in court, who will represent them if the need arises?  Should the clinic incorporate law students?  A lot of contingencies need to be dealt with before the clinic could start providing legal services to the public.

    The ultimate goal I envision once a paralegal student has been accepted into the clinic is that this clinical opportunity will give the student practical experience and exposure to the real live world of providing legal services.  In  addition, that the paralegal student learns to appreciate the importance of team work, and promoting a positive and professional image for the profession.  Most importantly, students would learn the importance of  affordable legal services for their fellow citizens. 

 SOME FINAL THOUGHTS:

    Having a clinical program for paralegals would positively and effectively promote the importance of paralegals around the world.  The emphasis from an endeavor like this could prove once and for all that the paralegal students’ contributions to affordable legal services are just as important as the law students contributions.

    By first participating in a clinical experience before attacking an internship, paralegal students would have a better chance of doing more within that internship than if they did not have the previous experience within a clinical capacity.  However, if they do not do an internship for whatever reason, the work at the clinic would be proof that the individual does have the requisite skill in order to begin their post-graduation job searchIn this new millennium, paralegal associations and undergraduate paralegal programs must become innovative in their approach of promoting the paralegal profession from as many aspects as possible.  I believe paralegal clinics are one such idea.

    A commitment to community investment in our local universities and an honest acknowledgement of the potential paralegals form those universities and colleges, I believe, is the genesis in establishing once and for all that:  The paralegal field is just as important as the practice of law and as such, attending a post-secondary paralegal education program should be just as distinguishable as attending law school and the overall education and well-roundedness of the paralegal student via working in legal clinics prior to their gradation is as just important too their overall success as it is for law School Students. Hopefully, the concept of paralegal clinics will continue to be used as a model for other paralegal studies programs yet to come.

    I believe there is a positive synergistic relationship that can be made between paralegal students, law students, the local, state, and national Bar Associations, the local, state, national Paralegal Associations, local law firms and attorneys and the paralegal program directors in creating paralegal clinics abroad.  Let's wait and see what the future holds!

    I would like to acknowledge and give warm thanks to a few of the many colleagues that assisted in the creation of this article, of which, this project would not have been possible for you to have read about.  I would like to say thank you to the following, although not exhaustive, colleagues:  Ms. Lori Thompson, the NFPA Pro Bono Coordinator, Ms. Nancy Roney‑BRAUSCH, especially, Christine Parizo for the grueling task of editing this document, thank you Christine, the Massachusetts Paralegal Association, Ms. Mary Flaherty, Co-Director of Suffolk University’s Paralegal Studies Program and Advisor of Suffolk University Paralegal Association, Ms. Lynn Dahlborg, Director of Suffolk University’s Paralegal Program, and for all of those colleagues not mentioned, you know who you are.  Thank you so much for your support and the persistence in making sure this article was written, for I could not have done it without all of you.

RWF II            Friday, February 14, 2003


Mr. Falby is currently employed at the Honorable John Joe Moakley Law Library located in Suffolk Law School in Boston Ma. He is an assistant to the Serials Bibliographic Control Librarian. Mr. Falby is an active advocate for Health Care and Disability issues and is currently a member of Health Care For All and the Cape Organization for the Rights of the Disabled (CORD) located in Cape Cod Ma. Mr. Falby suffers from Congenital Nerve Deafness in both Ears and consequently is Hard of Hearing in both Ears. He uses Behind The Ear (BTE) Hearings Aids to accommodate his disability. Mr. Falby was recently awarded 2002-2003 "Who’s Who Among Students In American Universities And Colleges." He is a Senior Paralegal Student at Suffolk University and will graduate from Suffolk University in May 2003, with a Bachelors Degree in Paralegal Studies. Mr. Falby currently holds: an Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies CUM LAUDE from Quincy College; an Associate’s in Liberal Arts Degree CUM LAUDE including a Certificate in Paralegal Studies CUM LAUDE from Cape Cod Community College; and an Associate’s Degree in Automotive Technology. Mr. Falby is the 2002-2003 Vice President of Suffolk University Paralegal Association (SUPA). After Graduation, Mr. Falby plans to work in Civil law with a special interest in Civil Litigation and Litigation Case Management Control with respects to Post-Conviction issues. Mr. Falby can be reached at: Westattex@hotmail.com