Send in the paralegals

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Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger.

And what about the paralegals? Who are they? What can they do?

The word “para” is a Greek word meaning “beside,” or “alongside.” In many jurisdictions, this means they work alongside the lawyers assisting them in developing and propounding their cases.

But in the Canadian province of Ontario where I practiced for more than four decades, they actually can open their own private practice handling many legal matters generally handled by lawyers—to a certain extent. In other words, they are more than just “para.”

A dog’s tale

Actually, my first experience with a paralegal—or at least a paraprofessional—was when I was a grade school kid in Montreal. I got bitten above the knee by a neighborhood dog known as Spotty. (I have no clue how the canine got that name, as he was a chocolate brown Labrador that was actually quite spotless.)

My Uncle David suggested that we see a lawyer as I was damaged and “definitely” entitled to hefty compensation. Uncle David knew just the lawyer who could get it all done. We set up an appointment and my father, Uncle David and I visited the lawyer. My good uncle addressed the lawyer, describing the dog as Godzilla on steroids. In referring to my injury, he amplified it a bit, making it just short of gangrenous.

The session was not too long, concluding after I dropped my trousers and Uncle David pointed to the Band-Aid on my leg. The meeting ended after the lawyer emitted a non-reassuring “oh, my” and told my dad his fees were $25 per hour. I presume a contingency fee arrangement was not an option.

Given that this was about my dad’s weekly salary as a tailor, he decided to forego the lawyer route. He noted he did not want to deal with lawyers again. He also opted to avoid discussions of the law with Uncle David, notwithstanding his recent display of paralegal prowess.

He did, however, decide to take the matter up with another paralegal. Sort of. He ran it by our next-door neighbor Mr. Greenblatt, an elementary school teacher. I don’t know what he knew about the law but given that he was the most formally educated person nearby, consulting him made sense. I will add that he was actually a physical education teacher. But to my dad a teacher was a teacher, and he respectfully tipped his hat to him.

And I recall, unlike that lawyer, Mr. Greenblatt reacted more sympathetically after seeing my Band-Aid, emitting a reassuring “Hmmm.” He offered to send a letter to Spotty’s owner, Monsieur Ducharme. I will add that Mr. Greenblatt was the only nearby neighbor we knew of who owned a typewriter.

A few days later, we got a response from the Monsieur Ducharme. He actually arrived unannounced at our house, agitated, clamoring that Spotty was a gentle dog and that I was making this incident up. He insisted on seeing my damaged leg. By then, the healing process had kicked in, and the Band-Aid was off. Monsieur Ducharme’s physical revealed only a faint scar. This resulted in him transmitting a non-reassuring reaction, namely a loud, “ah-ha!”

My mother went next door to call in reinforcements, namely Mr. Greenblatt. Some multiparty discussion ensued and the matter somehow dissipated. Maybe this outcome was influenced somewhat by the fact that I, under the vigorous interrogation from Monsieur Ducharme at the doorway, confessed to touching Spotty’s tail while he was enjoying himself munching on a snack, In any event Mr. Greenblatt’s mediation talents exceeded his paralegal skills.

Paralegals of Ontario

My first experience with paralegals during my practice was in the Toronto small claims court, right after getting called to the Bar. While waiting for my case to be called I noticed a gentleman who represented a number of clients on the docket that day.

I asked someone whether this guy was a popular lawyer, and I was told that he was a former lawyer who got disbarred for fraudulent activity and who became a paralegal after getting out of jail. I found out that there were actually a number of practitioners of similar ilk.

I wondered whether jails were a springboard to becoming a paralegal. In our jurisdiction lawyers come to court dressed in black robes. I had some difficulty visualizing lawyers clad in orange jumpsuits.

In those days paralegals were not required to be licensed by the Law Society of Ontario. This requirement came about approximately 15 years ago. Paralegals are actually refereed to as licensees, as lawyers are. They must take a specially designed course and pass the requisite exams to earn their license. And once a licensee, what can they do?

They can open a practice independent of a lawyer. Their window allowance includes a variety of legal areas formerly generally the turf of the lawyers, such as landlord and tenant issues; small claims court trials; and defense of minor criminal misdemeanor type offenses such as traffic violations, shoplifting, etc.

They also handle accident claims, up to a point, counting on resolving the claim at the insurance-adjuster level before the need to escalate the case to issuing a formal court claim. I have noticed that some of their shingles are a bit laconic and blunt: “George Whilby—Accidents.” To me this suggests that if you’re looking for an accident, retain George Whilby.

Do any lawyers feel that their livelihood is threatened by the paralegals? Actually, yes. For example, paralegals are permitted to handle small claims court cases where the quantum limit is a max of $35,000. Hardly small change. These types of claims used to be limited to lawyers.

Many lawyers oppose further expansion of the paralegal tentacles. They claim the public will not be properly protected. I don’t know how the lawyers will react if and when paralegals encroach further on their domain. After all we are civil. I doubt our noble colleagues will go Luddite. I don’t see a mob of lawyers armed with torches and pitchforks gathering in front of George Whilby’s office.

Paralegals also have been seeking the right to expand their current practice allowance, to enable them to handle significant family court matters. The matter is under discussion about how far to go and how to implement further changes. It makes sense.

After all, most people simply cannot afford hundreds of dollars per hour for lawyers. Many end up representing themselves in Family Court, making a mess of things and resulting in significant delays. At least with some decent legal advice and representation, warring spouses will be able to come to court and cross examination of the opposing spouse won’t sound like, “Henry, you know you’re a lying louse.”

How do I feel about paralegals expanding their opportunities to practice? I say give it a chance. I vote a reassuring thumbs-up. At least they are more skilled than my Uncle David.

Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on X, formerly known as Twitter.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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