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It has been 10 years since the paralegal profession became regulated in Ontario. In that time, the number of licensed paralegals has almost quadrupled*, and continues to grow.
To mark this important milestone, the Gazette interviewed two trailblazing Ontario paralegals, Law Society Benchers Cathy Corsetti and Michelle Haigh, to get their thoughts looking back on a decade of regulation and on the future of the profession.
To build on this conversation, we recently reached out to more paralegals, specifically four who were part of the very first group to become licensed by the Law Society.
Here is what they had to say (their responses have been slightly edited for clarity and length.)
What was the paralegal profession like prior to regulation in Ontario?
Dawn Burke (Municipal Prosecutor, City of Greater Sudbury; Sudbury, ON):?Before regulation, there was a wide range in terms of the quality of paralegal representation. Anyone could essentially hang out their shingle and call themselves a paralegal.
Absent specific inquiries and honest responses, a client would have a difficult time ascertaining whether a potential representative was competent, or simply talked a good game. I am not saying that there were no competent, reputable paralegals out there at the time. However, there were also many who were not and therefore, members of the public, as well as the reputation of the profession at that time, suffered greatly as a result.
Stephen Parker (President, Ontario Paralegal Association; Brampton, ON): It was a little bit of a “wild west,” with some sharp practice conducted by a few individuals both inside and outside the courtroom. “Agents,” as we were referred to, were tolerated in most provincial offences courts which is where the majority worked.
Quite a few appeared in the criminal courts; some of them were very successful and were acknowledged by the Bench as being more than competent. Others, not so much.
The small claims courts also saw a lot of agents appearing. Again, some were accepted as being knowledgeable and competent. There was a lot of work also being done in the family law field, mostly to do with form filling. This came to an abrupt end with regulation.
What have been some of the biggest challenges over the past decade?
Mohammed Jacquesson (private practice; Ajax, ON): Some of the biggest challenges have been, and continue to be, the public’s understanding of what a paralegal is. The level of awareness of paralegals has increased over time, but there still remains a slight hesitation in retaining a paralegal.
Gary Parker (private practice; Brampton, ON): Discrimination has been a challenge — from members of the bar—to police officers and security at courthouses and from the Bench. It has improved considerably over the years, but there are still some ways to go.
What would you like to see improved or changed in the next 10 years?
Mohammed Jacquesson: I would like to see more public awareness of the paralegal profession and the benefits we provide. I would like to see more law firms use paralegals where we represent clients within our scope of practice, instead of using paralegals as just legal clerks or assistants.
Gary Parker: I’d like paralegals to be recognized as officers of the court. I’d like to see areas of practice open up, such as family law. I’d like to see court staff treat paralegals with better respect; it’s still a problem in many courts. I’d like to see a specialist certification and I’d like to see better training for litigation paralegals.
Dawn Burke: I would like to see continued improvement in the paralegal education program curriculum. It is through quality education and practical experience that the quality of paralegal representation will continue to be elevated. It is my belief that an expansion of the scope of paralegal practice is beneficial to the public, contingent upon appropriate education and demonstrated competency. It is also my view that scope expansion would be beneficial to the paralegal profession.
What is your advice for new and aspiring paralegals?
Mohammed Jacquesson: The demands of this field can be at times overwhelming, but consistency and competency will result in a rewarding experience.
Gary Parker: Never be afraid to ask questions and never stop reading!
Dawn Burke: One, never stop learning. Two, if you are getting into this profession because you think it is an easy way to accumulate a fortune, you should reconsider and perhaps find another profession. And three, when you are ready to practice, find your edge. Find something about yourself in your practice that makes you unique, and run with it!
Stephen Parker: Don’t be a jack of all trades, and end up being master of none. Find an area of practice that sparks your interest and become the best in that field. Look, listen and learn. Never stop learning.
*2,283 paralegals (2008 Law Society Annual Report); 8,722 (as of December 31, 2017)