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Wisconsin Waits on Licensure

State high court considers its support for proposal.

By Jon Matsumoto

 

Wisconsin has long been known for its quality cheese and dairy products. Now many members in Wisconsin’s paralegal community are hoping it also will be known as the first state in the union to adopt paralegal licensure.

On Oct. 27, 2004, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held a public hearing on the petition of paralegal licensure. The Court will make a decision on whether to sanction the proposal after considering the final report and the oral comments made by those at the hearing. A public discussion following the presentations at the hearing was originally planned, but was cancelled due to time constraints.

“If it becomes a reality, it would establish the profession as an [official] profession because it does set the criteria as to who may choose to use the title paralegal,” explained John Goudie, a Wisconsin paralegal and a member of the Paralegal Practice Task Force responsible for the proposal. “There is an educational criteria. Also, it will help support the public perception that there is a distinction between paralegals and legal assistants.” Goudie said the public often believes paralegals are an educated body of individuals that handles more substantive work than legal assistants. But in reality, there currently is no educational requirement as to who might call themselves a paralegal in Wisconsin. “It [the proposal] is title specific to paralegal,” Goudie said, adding it will focus on those calling themselves paralegals rather than legal assistants.

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court could render a decision is up in the air — it could be in “two days or two years,” said Goudie. John Decker, an attorney and vice chairman of the bar task force agreed with Goudie’s assessment, noting, “It’s very difficult to gauge when the court might make a decision. The court asked us some tough, probing questions at the hearing. The chief justice seemed appreciative of the hard work that was done, although she did so without indicating how the court might rule.” At press time, no decision had been made.

If this proposal is endorsed by the Court, a paralegal will be required to work under an attorney’s supervision. The educational requirement would be that a paralegal must attend and receive 18 semester credits of course work from a qualified paralegal studies program. Also, a paralegal would have to complete at least 10 hours of continuing paralegal education during each two-year reporting period. A three-year window would allow individuals currently providing paralegal services to apply for licensure, provided they meet established requirements. Paralegals would be held to ethical rules fashioned after standards regulating attorneys.

Having a governing body and ethical standards would help rein in renegade paralegals, Goudie explained.

“There are some paralegals who believe they can practice law independent of attorney supervision,” he said. “They provide legal services to the public directly and fail to do that properly. The ramifications can be huge.”

“We don’t foresee a huge number of people being reported per se [for ethical violations],” added Marie Koster, a trust and estate paralegal at Quarles & Brady in Wisconsin and a member of the Paralegal Practice Task Force. “Hopefully, it would get rid of a lot of these mom and pop shops popping up where people are offering services to the public saying they are not giving legal advice, but yet they are filling out divorce forms and everything else. It borders on unauthorized practice of law.”

The Office of Lawyer Regulation and Board of Bar Examiners are the two administrative agencies that oversee the licensing and regulation of attorneys in Wisconsin. Goudie said it would be consistent with the legal services system of Wisconsin for those two agencies also to oversee the administration of paralegals if the Court rules in favor of the proposal. Decker agreed. “I don’t envision the court creating some new regulatory body when it already has two such entities under its jurisdiction,” he said.

The Office of Lawyer Regulation did voice concern about the fiscal burden of taking on this additional responsibility. But both Goudie and Koster said they believe these costs will be offset by new revenue from such things as licensure fees for paralegals.

Goudie noted that Missouri, Indiana and New Mexico are among a handful of states currently formulating committees to work on paralegal regulatory plans. A domino effect could take place if the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules in favor of paralegal regulation.

“This would give [other states] the groundwork that they need [to follow suit],” Goudie said. “If it proves to be a viable concept in Wisconsin, other states will be more open to the concept, and it will be less problematic for paralegal groups to get their states to follow a similar path."

 

For updated information, please see the following article: “Wisconsin’s Attempt to Establish Mandatory Paralegal Regulation Fails,” July/August 2008.

 

 

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