By Linda White
Special to The Toronto Sun
After completing a university degree in criminology, Ann Stevenson dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But after several unsuccessful applications to law school, she opted to fulfill her love of the law as a paralegal.
Paul Dray, president of the Professional Paralegal Association of Ontario, believes the field would benefit if paralegals were accredited, licensed and disciplined by the Law Society of Upper Canada.
"My first goal was to get into law school, but it's very competitive," says the Mississauga resident. "I decided to look at other options."
Stevenson graduated last June from a two-year court and tribunal agent course at Toronto's Humber College, earning the Board of Governors' Achievement Award. While at Humber, she completed a co-op placement with the City of Brampton, and now works for the city's prosecutions department.
She spent her first three months working at city hall, dealing primarily with municipal bylaw infractions, and will work out of the Ontario Court of Justice for the next six months, preparing documents and dealing with issues like disclosure.
"I enjoy being in court and I enjoy research," says Stevenson, 27.
Her duties include presenting cases against those charged under the Highway Traffic Act. "You're dealing with the public. You have to be sensitive, but at the same time, rules are there for a reason," says Stevenson.
She compares the role of a paralegal to that of a prosecutor. "You have to know the law, be able to research the law and to present a case."
"Paralegals try to mediate matters ... They are known as advocates," says Bernie Aaron, co-ordinator of Ontario's first paralegal
studies program to be offered at Humber College this fall.
The emerging career is known by a variety of job titles, including paralegal, law clerk and legal assistant. It offers opportunities to work in a wide range of fields and requires a common skill set: a solid understanding of the legal system and strong analytical, research, problem-solving and communication skills.
"Paralegals try to mediate matters ...They are known as advocates," says Bernie Aron, co-ordinator of the province's only paralegal studies degree program, to be offered at Humber beginning in September.
The job description varies according to the employer. Paralegals in a law firm, for example, may interview clients, witnesses and other related parties, assemble documentary evidence, prepare trial briefs and arrange trials. Paralegals may provide advocacy services for clients appearing before specialized tribunals, such as the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal and the Immigration and Refugee Board, and before the Provincial Offenses Court and the Ontario Small Claims Court.
It's a field that's growing by leaps and bounds. In 1998, there were 30,000 paralegals working across Canada -- an increase of more than 80% within just one decade, Humber reports.
"There is a lot of opportunity for paralegals," Aron says. He also works part-time as a deputy court judge in small claims court in York Region.
Common job titles: commercial law clerk, corporate paralegal, family law paralegal, land titles examiner, law clerk, legal researcher, litigation legal assistant, notary public, title searcher, trademark agent.
Typical employers: federal, provincial and municipal governments, law firms, record search companies, self-employed business service firms.
Employment prospects: Employment for this occupation is expected to grow more rapidly than the average for all occupations through the year 2007.
Demand for paralegal services is affected by legislative rules governing paralegals' right to practise in various legal domains, as well as the overall economic environment.
Paralegals are having some success in taking over routine legal services from lawyers. There is also a trend in specialization among paralegal firms.
Average income (1995): $37,680.
Hourly wage estimate (1999): From $13.98 (starting) to $16.76 (average).
-- Ontario Job Futures
Formal training isn't currently required, but is a prerequisite for many paralegal positions. Humber's new degree program offers courses in tort and contract law, landlord and tenant law, immigration and refugee law, debtor and creditor rights, and employment and labour law. Students study evidence and advocacy, negotiation, mediation and arbitration, legal research, legal writing, professional ethics and business entrepreneurship.
While the paralegal profession isn't yet regulated, associations like the Professional Paralegal Association of Ontario are working towards that goal. Its president, Paul Dray, is manager of prosecution for the City of Brampton and does prosecution work for smaller municipalities through his own company, Paul Dray & Associates. He believes the profession would benefit if paralegals were accredited, licensed and disciplined by the Law Society of Upper Canada, the governing body of Ontario lawyers.
Under such a plan, which is currently before the courts, paralegals would be required to complete formal training and pass competency tests. Those already in practice could be grandfathered into the accreditation scheme, provided they pass proficiency exams.
"Everyone is trying to raise the bar," Dray says.
(Linda White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.)
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