What is a Paralegal?
A "paralegal" is a person who: (1) contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency or other entity; (2) performs substantive legal work under the supervision of a licensed attorney who assumes professional responsibility for the final work product; and (3) meets one or more of the education, training or work experience qualifications set forth in Rule 20-115 NMRA of these rules. (Rule 20-102 NMRA.) (See the Rules Governing Paralegal Services, 20-101 through 20-115 NMRA.)
Organization and Purpose
The Paralegal Division of the State Bar of New Mexico was formally organized in August 1995 to serve the needs of legal assistants throughout the state, with the following specific goals:
- to encourage a high order of ethical and professional attainment;
- to further education among its members;
- to carry out programs within the State Bar;
- to establish good fellowship among Division members, the State Bar of New Mexico, and the members of the legal community.
History of the Paralegal Division
In 1989, a small group of paralegal/legal assistants collaborated to work toward creating a voluntary paralegal/legal assistants division of the State Bar of New Mexico to further the professional status of paralegals/legal assistants in the state. The initial proposal was presented to the Board of Bar Commissioners (“BBC”) in 1990 and subsequently presented to the New Mexico Supreme Court. Supreme Court Chief Justice Gene Franchini recommended that the New Mexico Alliance of Professional Paralegals, Inc. (“Alliance”) be formed as precursor to the Division. The Alliance existed for five years with a focus of obtaining support from paralegals/legal assistants and the legal community statewide.
Several events during that time period contributed to the advancement of the profession and added support to the Alliance’s efforts. In 1991, the United States Supreme Court opinion in Missouri v. Jenkins held that substantive work by legal assistants could be billed at market rates. In 1992, the American Bar Association’s definition of legal assistants was adopted into law in New Mexico, and in 1993, New Mexico Senate Bill 804 (“SB 804”), relating to the regulation of legal assistant services, was introduced in the legislative session.
Although SB 804 was tabled in committee, the State Bar subsequently appointed a series of ad hoc study groups to investigate regulation and the feasibility of a division of the State Bar for legal assistants. The Division feasibility ad hoc group gave a positive recommendation to the BBC in 1994. Arturo Jaramillo, the then President of the New Mexico State Bar, recommended that an independent committee be established to determine how legal assistant affiliation within the State Bar could be accomplished and directed that a statewide comprehensive survey of legal assistants be conducted. A symposium was held on June 25, 1994, to compile the results and the final committee’s work was presented to the BBC which voted unanimously to recommend the creation of a legal assistants division to the New Mexico Supreme Court. Michael Bustamante, an Albuquerque attorney and now a New Mexico Court of Appeals judge and the Alliance’s greatest advocate, made a final presentation to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The New Mexico Supreme Court, by order dated February 7, 1995, amended Rule 24-101(B) NMRA of the Rules Governing the New Mexico Bar, thus creating a division of the State Bar of New Mexico for legal assistants effective immediately. Its goal having been accomplished, the Alliance voted to dissolve and to devote the members’ energy to the Division; and on August 26, 1995, the Division’s organizational meeting was held and its first slate of officers and board members was elected.
The Division has continued to actively pursue its goals by conducting continuing legal education programs, providing pro bono opportunities for members and positively interacting with the State Bar and the legal community. It has also strived to keep abreast of trends in the paralegal profession. In furtherance of its goal of promoting professionalism, the Division submitted a proposal to the BBC in 2003 to change its name from the Legal Assistants Division to the Paralegal Division in recognition of the evolving distinction between the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal." The BBC ratified the Division’s proposal and the Division then petitioned the New Mexico Supreme Court to change the name of the Division and revise pertinent rules. The Supreme Court approved the Division’s name change in September of 2003, published the remaining revisions in November of 2003, and after a 30-day comment period, adopted the amendments and new rules with minor revisions requested by the Division on January 30, 2004. Highlights of the amended and newly adopted rules include: (1) a new definition recognizing the trend in the legal profession toward the use of the designation “paralegal” to identify highly-trained, highly-skilled legal support staff who engage in substantive legal work; (2) a definition of “substantive legal work”; (3) the establishment of minimum standards for calling oneself a “paralegal”; and (4) discouragement from using the title “paralegal” by those not qualified and by attorneys disbarred or suspended from the practice of law.