ORIGIN OF THE MODERN PARALEGAL: ROLE OF PARALEGALS IN NIGERIAN LAW FIRMS AND ETHICS OF THE PROFESSION

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Hammed Yakub Abiola

 

 

 

 

Yakub Abiola Hammed

  1. INTRODUCTION

The Paralegal profession without doubt has grown to become part and parcel of the legal industry and its importance to the legal industry cannot be overemphasized. Modern Paralegals now feature significantly (albeit behind the scenes) in the delivery of legal services.

Paralegals support lawyers by providing clerical and research services including document preparation and review; legal or procedural research, investigations, and fact checking for counsel towards trial preparation.

They also assist lawyers to file and serve court processes, follow up on court’s internal activities and processes as it affects filed cases, organize court processes and exhibits for the purpose of filing at the court’s registry. There is no gainsaying that all these subsidiary tasks performed by paralegals combine to make life a lot easier for legal practitioners in practicing their profession.

Whereas paralegals perform some elevated legal tasks for legal practitioners in other climes like the USA, England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, Japan, and South Africa; in sub-Saharan Africa including Nigeria, they perform much less sophisticated and reduced tasks in assisting lawyers. This is not unconnected to the fact that the legal profession is already saturated and there is little or no room for paralegals to fully optimize their potentials. There also appears to be a low appreciation of the usefulness of paralegals and how their skillset can be effectively deployed within the law firm.

There are a number of varying definitions for who a paralegal is from different schools of thought and organizations/associations including the American Bar Association. However, core to these definitions is the fact that paralegals basically are persons qualified by education, training, or work experience to perform delegated or subsidiary tasks of a legal practitioner.

In this article, we shall delve into the origin of the modern day paralegal and get readers acquainted with its concept.

  1. ORIGIN OF THE MODERN PARALEGAL

The origin of the modern day paralegal is traceable to the United States of America during 1960s after World War II when the cost of getting legal services was very high and, as a result, was unaffordable for the low- and middle-income class of the society, limiting access to justice. At that time, it was only those who were affluent that could afford the high cost of legal services. People at the lower echelon of the society found it difficult to have access to justice through legal representation. As a response to this imbalance, the American Federal Government established the Legal Service Corporation to provide funding for legal services to indigents pursuing justice, low cost legal clinics also started cropping up and prepaid legal service plans were formulated.

The American organized bar on their part decided to rethink the traditional model of rendering legal services as well as its management to make justice easily accessible to all and sundry. The plan they came up with to keep the cost down without sacrificing quality were “increased automation” of legal services delivery, “better management” and the “use of legal assistants or paralegals” by attorneys to achieve the following:

  • reduce workload on attorneys when providing legal services;
  • bring down the high fee for providing legal services;
  • and consequently, make access to justice easy and seamless for low- and middle-class citizens.

By the late 1960s and early 70s, the use of legal assistants or paralegals by attorneys nationally in America had risen significantly. In 1967, the American Bar Association (ABA) deemed it necessary to endorse the concept of a paralegal profession and established its first committee on legal assistants in 1968 which later became a standing committee of the ABA. The name of the committee was however changed to Standing Committee on Paralegals in 2003 in recognition of the growing preference for the title “paralegal” among law firms and lawyers.

By the year 1974, the ABA adopted guidelines for the paralegal education curriculum and began approving paralegal programs under those guidelines in 1975.

During the mid-70s, professional paralegal associations started cropping up in America. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) which was the first paralegal association was formed in 1974, followed by the formation of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) in 1975. The National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS) which had been in existence before the 70s also joined the fray by expanding its scope to accommodate all paralegal professionals and adopted a new nomenclature in 1999 as NALS…the association for legal professionals.” The name was however, updated to the National Association for Legal Support Professionals recently in year 2021.

In 1975, the Federal Government of the United States of America recognized the existence of paralegals as a profession and created a new job classification for it within its workforce. States, Counties and cities wasted no time in doing the same subsequently. By 1978, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics forecasted that the Paralegal career would be one of the fastest growing careers through the millennium years.

Currently, there are about 664 colleges or universities offering paralegal or legal assistant degree programs in the United States, with about 360 schools offering certificate programs in paralegal or legal assistant studies. Below are voluntary paralegal educational programs to certify paralegal professionals in America:

  • Certified Legal Assistant program run by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), covering various aspects of paralegal services.
  • Paralegal Advanced Competency Examination (PACE) administered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA).

Like the legal practitioners, the modern paralegals also have specialties in different areas of the law e.g. Corporate Law Paralegal, Litigation Paralegal, Personal Injury Paralegal, Criminal Law Paralegal, Banking and Finance Law Paralegal, Intellectual Property Law Paralegal, Family Law Paralegal, Real State Paralegal, Immigration Law Paralegal etc.

  1. THE UNITED KINGDOM PERSPECTIVE OF MODERN PARALEGAL

In the United Kingdom (U.K), which largely provides the template for Nigeria’s legal system, the concept of the modern paralegal as observed within that jurisdiction is not particularly different from that of the United States as paralegals basically perform tasks that otherwise would have been done by a lawyer.  However, unlike in the U.S, it took a longer time to get the paralegal profession standardized in the U.K as it was not until 1987 – twenty one years after the endorsement of the profession by ABA in 1967, that the Paralegal Association (now National Association of Licensed Paralegals) got established. It then started setting standards for and generally overseeing the profession in the U.K in 1988. The Institute of Paralegals (IoP) is also another professional body that oversees the affairs of paralegals in the U.K.

Currently, there are accredited training centres and schools in the U.K engaged in the training of persons willing to become certified and qualified paralegals as the profession continues to grow both domestically and globally.

  1. PARALEGALS IN NIGERIAN LAW FIRMS

It is important to state that unlike other jurisdictions like the U.S, England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, Japan, and South Africa where the paralegal profession is firmly standardized, the profession is yet to be generally seen as a standardized profession in Nigeria even though Section 17(3) Part IV of the Legal Aid Act, 2011 made provisions for the licensing of paralegal service providers by the Legal Aid Council (LAC).

In Nigeria, the LAC classifies paralegals into two categories in terms of the scope of work they do – paralegals who are attached to lawyers and perform delegated solicitor’s duties and community paralegals who perform first aid legal services for communities. We shall be focusing on the first category who work within the law firm environment in Nigeria.

  • Typical Categories of Paralegals in a Nigerian Law Firm    

Whereas some law firms in Nigeria specifically and exclusively retain a paralegal professional with the title “Paralegal”, many others do not, as the term is not a common terminology adopted to describe staff that function in this role in a typical Nigerian law firm. It is also not unexpected to find a Litigation Paralegal (which is the most common paralegal in Nigeria) in smaller Nigerian law firms functioning as both a litigation officer and a legal secretary since they are collectively referred to as support staff.

Enumerated below are paralegals typically found in a Nigerian law firm.

      1. Litigation Officers
        They carry out the filing and service of court processes or any other official documents. This category of paralegals follow up on the court’s internal activities and processes with respect to filed cases and report accordingly to the counsel in charge. They also conduct legal or procedural research to assist lawyers in order to ensure compliance with relevant court rules and effectively prepare for court trials. They also assist lawyers in the courtroom by managing documents, coordinating witnesses, and taking notes. Their presence in court is invaluable in ensuring that counsel have all necessary resources at their fingertips, allowing counsel to focus on presenting their cases effectively.
      2. Legal Secretaries
        They assist lawyers by attending to the secretarial, technical, administrative and clerical work of the firm. Legal Secretaries also ensure court processes or any other document produced by the Firm conforms to best standards and complies with relevant rules of Court. It is necessary to stress that the legal secretaries considered paralegals in this context are the ones who have a marching knowledge of the law with paralegals.
      3. Legal Interns/Externs
        These are law students who are yet to become lawyers but have a theoretical knowledge of the law and are seeking practical legal knowledge in a Nigerian law firm.
      4. Law Librarians
        Systematically organize the Firm’s law books in the library, monitor the movement of law books in and out of the library, keep accurate record of the Firm’s law books in the library and within the entire office if virtual/disaggregated libraries are adopted. Offers general information about legal resources to members of staff who need to conduct legal research and sees to the general running of the firm’s library.
      5. Legal Record Officers
        Administer and manage the records system of the Law Firm, ensuring that all records are systematically kept to ensure safety, accuracy, easy retrieval and reference. He/she is also responsible for the Firm’s document control & management. Acts as archivist and keeps custody of sensitive and confidential data including legal and medical records as well as health information.

      Paralegals are also found within the court system and they include the following: Legal or Judicial Assistants, Court Registrars, Court Clerks, Bailiffs/Sheriffs etc.

          1. ETHICS TO BE MAINTAINED BY PARALEGALS ADAPTED FROM THE LEGALAID COUNCIL’S PARALEGAL BOOKLET

      Following the Paralegal Summit held on 8th – 9th October 2019 at Petrus Hotel, Abuja, the Legal Aid Council adopted a set of ethics for Paralegals in Nigeria on 18th January 2020. Although these ethics are tailored more towards Community Paralegals, nonetheless, they are relevant to Paralegals attached to law firms in Nigeria as well. The ethics have been carefully adapted, as stated below:

          • “Impersonation: –Paralegals must remember that they are not lawyers and as such cannot practice law. Impersonation is a criminal offence, any paralegal found wanting will be treated according to the law.

      Proviso: to ensure compliance with his/her duty to avoid impersonation, a paralegal must disclose his status as he comes in contact with a client.

          • (Employer’s)Clients First: The greatest duty of paralegals is to (their employer) the individuals and communities with whom they work for. They must treat (their employer’s) clients with respect, courtesy, solidarity and promptness. The aim of paralegal’s work is to help (legal practitioners) people achieve concrete practical solutions to justice problems and must be creative and perseverant in pursuit of this aim. They must avoid exposing (employer’s) clients to further violations via actions or inactions.
          • Confidentiality:Paralegals should not divulge information about the (employer’s) clients or discuss (employer’s) clients’ issues with a third party unless (employer’s) client’s approval is obtained…
          • Non-Discrimination:Paralegals should always treat (employer’s) clients with respect and courtesy regardless of age, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.
          • Impartiality:Paralegals should be objective, unbiased and impartial. They shall:
          1. Not allow culture, emotion or religion weigh heavily in the decisions they make and advice they give.
          2. Avoid conflict of interest and refer cases of personal interest to others to ensure fairness and justice.
          • Financial Accountability: –If and when Paralegals receive (monies from their employer) Centre support or allowances, it should be prudently expended for (the work meant for) transportation, cell phone credits, meetings and shall be properly accounted for.
          • Legal Frameworks:the Paralegals shall respect and follow the law in carrying out their work.
          • Teamwork:Paralegals have a responsibility to support other paralegals in their collective mission, communicate clearly and respectfully and to build each other’s capacities as well as maintain an atmosphere of teamwork.” 
          1. ETHICS AND PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY OF PARALEGALS AS ADOPTED BY  THE PARALEGAL ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA

      These Ethics and Professional Responsibilities of Paralegals of NALA – The Paralegal Association of the United States of America is a set of globally relevant ethics, and it is strongly advised that it should be observed by paralegals around the world. They are as follows:   

      Canon 1 – A paralegal must not: (a) engage in, encourage, or contribute to any act which could constitute the unauthorized practice of law; (b) establish attorney-client relationships, set fees, give legal opinions or advice, or represent a client before a court or agency unless so authorized by that court or agency; and (c) engage in conduct or take any action which would assist or involve the attorney in a violation of professional ethics or give the appearance of professional impropriety.

      Canon 2 – A paralegal must not perform any of the duties that attorneys only may perform or take any actions that attorneys may not take.

      Canon 3 – A paralegal may perform any task which is properly delegated and supervised by an attorney, as long as the attorney is ultimately responsible to the client, maintains a direct relationship with the client, and assumes professional responsibility for the work product.

      Canon 4 – A paralegal must use discretion and professional judgment commensurate with knowledge and experience but must not render independent legal judgment in place of an attorney. The services of an attorney are essential in the public interest whenever such legal judgment is required.

      Canon 5 – A paralegal must disclose his or her status as a paralegal at the outset of any professional relationship with a client, attorney, a court or administrative agency or personnel thereof, or a member of the general public. A paralegal must act prudently in determining the extent to which a client may be assisted without the presence of an attorney.

      Canon 6 – A paralegal must strive to maintain integrity and a high degree of competency through education and training with respect to professional responsibility, local rules and practice, and through continuing education in substantive areas of law to better assist the legal profession in fulfilling its duty to provide legal service.

      Canon 7 – A paralegal must protect the confidences of a client and must not violate any rule or statute now in effect or hereafter enacted controlling the doctrine of privileged communications between a client and an attorney.

      Canon 8 – A paralegal must disclose to his or her employer or prospective employer any pre-existing client or personal relationship that may conflict with the interests of the employer or prospective employer and/or their clients.

      Canon 9 – A paralegal must do all other things incidental, necessary, or expedient for the attainment of the ethics and responsibilities as defined by statute or rule of court.

      Canon 10 – A paralegal’s conduct is guided by bar associations’ codes of professional responsibility and rules of professional conduct.”

          1. EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTES AND SCHOOLS OFFERING PARALEGAL STUDIES IN NIGERIA

      Under-listed are some institutes and schools offering diploma and certificate programs in Paralegal Studies in Nigeria.

          • Pan African Institute of Paralegal Studies, Abuja
          • Institute of Paralegal Services, Lagos
          • Ambassador College of Management and Technology (AMBATECH), Port Harcourt, Rivers State and Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom State.
          1. CONCLUSION

      The Paralegal profession, just like the paramedics in the medical sector, has come to stay in the legal industry and will continue to evolve just as the legal profession evolves.

      The world, including Nigeria, continues to grow geometrically in population creating an elastic pool of those who will be needing legal services in one form or the other. While the legal profession is strategically positioned to provide these services, the necessity and importance of paralegal professionals in assisting legal practitioners to provide these legal services to the expected teeming population cannot be overstated.

       

       

      ___________________________________________________

      For further information on this article and area of law,
      please contact Yakub Hammed Abiola at:
      S. P. A. Ajibade & Co., Lagos by
      Telephone (+234 1 472 9890), Fax (+234 1 4605092)
      Mobile (+234 705 828 2258, +234 816 403 4208)
      Email: yhammed@spaajibade.com
      www.spaajibade.com</a

      Footnote

        1. Yakub Hammed Abiola, Legal Secretary, Practice Management, S. P. A. Ajibade & Co., Lagos State, Nigeria.
        2. Wikipedia (2023) ‘Paralegal’ available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paralegal#By_country accessed on 2nd November 2023.
        3. College of Southern Nevada (2023) Law 263, Chapter 2: Regulations of Paralegals and Ethics Guidelines for Paralegals’ available at https://cel.sfsu.edu/sites/default/files/documents/paralegal-history-profession.pdf accessed on 2nd November 2023.
        4. ibid.
        5. ibid.
        6. ibid.
        7. National Federation of Paralegal Associations (2023) ‘NFPA Overview’ available at https://www.paralegals.org/page/about accessed on 14th November 2023.
        8. NALA The Paralegal Association (2023) ‘About NALA’ available at https://nala.org/about-nala/ accessed on 14th November 2023.
        9. National Association for Legal Support Professionals (2021) ‘NALS History’ available at https://www.nals.org/page/nalshistory accessed on 15th November 2023.
        10. ibid at note 3.
        11. Audrey Stoffle (2023) ‘Paralegal School Information for 2023’ available at https://www.paralegal411.org/ accessed on 15th November 2023.
        12. ibid at note 3.
        13. Paralegal411 (2023) ‘Paralegal Careers’ available at https://www.paralegal411.org/careers/#types accessed on 15th November 2023.
        14. National Association of Licensed Paralegals (2022) ‘Brief history of NALP’ available at https://www.nationalparalegals.co.uk/about/ accessed on 15th November 2023.
        15. National Association of Licensed Paralegals (2022) ‘Training centres’ available at https://www.nationalparalegals.co.uk/training-centres/ and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen (2023) ‘Paralegal Practice CertHe’ available at https://www.rgu.ac.uk/study/courses/6285-certhe-paralegal-practice both accessed on 15th November 2023.
        16. Section 17(3) Part IV of the Legal Aid Act, 2011.
        17. Legal Aid Council (2020) ‘Paralegal Booklet’ available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/13x4HMmtIywstwefdTWpK5c84qhoWaWF9/view accessed on 14th November 2023.
        18. ibid.
        19. NALA – The Paralegal Association (2023) ‘NALA Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility’ available at https://nala.org/certification/nala-code-ethics-and-professional-responsibility/ accessed on 8th November 2023.

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