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PROFILE

Profile: Shelley Widoff, Founder, Paralegal Resource Center, Boston Pioneering paralegal says the bar is lowering for paralegals [by Regan Morris] Fiercely independent and proud of the paralegal profession, Shelley Widoff is worried that it’s too easy to become a paralegal these days and that the reputation of the profession is eroding as a result. Glorified Legal Secretary. That’s what people

“But there are far too many educational op-

started at Northeastern and eventually

called paralegals back in the 1970s as the

tions now where all you need is two years of

moved to Boston University, where Ms.

profession was just beginning to grow. When

college,” she said. “If you have the money,

Widoff stayed for 20 years and eventually

Ms. Widoff became a paralegal in the early

you can buy a certificate.”

designed a Bachelor of Science degree in Paralegal Studies.

1970s, you needed a four-year college degree plus additional paralegal training-in the

While paralegals today might have a difficult

classroom and on the job. Ms. Widoff worked

time freelancing after just three or four years

She resigned from the university two years

hard for the title paralegal and cringed at

of experience in a law firm, Ms. Widoff was

ago, and the Paralegal Studies program

being called a “glorified legal secretary.” She

successful in building her own practice and

no longer exists the way she designed it.

still does.

then placing others. After just over three

Now the program is part of the continuing

years of experience in a traditional firm, she

education department and is not a Bachelor’s

While paralegals have gained recognition in

started the Paralegal Resource Center in

degree course.

the public eye as professionals, Ms. Widoff

1976. Demand quickly grew.

fears the proliferation of short-term para-

“The American Bar Association only suggests

legal certification programs will destroy the

“I started it out as a freelance paralegal,

in their educational requirements that you

reputation she and others in the profession

where I would perform freelance paralegal

need a two year degree. So I feel it’s the Bar

helped to build.

services by the hour for law firm clients,”

itself that has lowered the bar for entrance

she said. “And as I developed the research

into the field,” she said. “So it’s up to the

As the founder of the Paralegal Resource

and document-retrieval aspects of the busi-

paralegals themselves or the educational

Center in Boston, one of the country’s first

ness, lawyers came to me seeking full-time

institutions themselves to do that.”

paralegal placement agencies, Ms. Widoff

paralegals. And that’s when the business just

places paralegals in temporary and per-

evolved into a placement service as well as

These days, the most sought after paralegals

manent positions at law firms and busi-

a recruiting agency. Because I knew the busi-

are the most educated and the most special-

nesses. She also provides information on

ness, knew what they were looking for, and

ized, she said, and that “you’re apt to be

the profession to would-be paralegals, and

could interview and assess the candidates

more in demand if you have some niche you

she started a paralegal education program

and send the best ones to them.”

can sell.” It’s easy to find clients, she said.

at both Northeastern University and Boston University.

But it can be a challenge finding the best Around the same time that Ms. Widoff started

paralegals to keep the clients happy. Despite

her company, she realized she wanted to

her stringent belief that paralegals should

“I’m one of your hardcore paralegals,” Ms.

teach other paralegals. The only people

have a four-year degree (in any subject, not

Widoff said. “I go way back-I’m one of the

teaching paralegals at that time, she said,

just paralegal studies), when it comes to

originals. I call myself a pioneer in the field.”

were attorneys. She believed that paralegals

business, she will place recruits without a

should teach paralegal students, but feared

degree. She generally has between 50 and

Ms. Widoff started her paralegal training in

colleges would not let her teach because she

100 paralegals in her candidate resource

1972 after graduating from Skidmore Col-

did not have the credibility of an attorney.

pool.

was particularly attractive to women at a

“So I decided to start my own program, and

“You cannot graduate a paralegal program

time when many fields were male dominated,

the unique concept of it was the lawyer/para-

and then start freelancing. You definitely

she said.

legal teaching team,” she said. The program

have to have a few years under your belt,”

lege. It was a new career opportunity that

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PROFILE

she said, adding that there was increasing demand for freelancers. “Years back, law firms didn’t use temps at all for paralegals or lawyers, now they certainly do. Back then, they thought there were issues of confidentiality, this and that, but as it became, I believe, an economic necessity, those kinds of issues went out the window.” Ms. Widoff said running her own business came naturally and that although it was not something she always dreamed of doing, once she started, it was hard to imagine working for someone else again. “I think I always wanted to be independent, not have a boss, do my own thing. I think I perform much better in that way than as an employee,” she said. “You know when something just feels right and you can feel better when you just enjoy what you’re doing and the environment that you’re doing it in?” Ms. Widoff urged young paralegals to maintain the professional image of the field and pursue higher education. “What I’ve always tried to do in all my years was professionalize the position. Because when I first started, even though you needed a four-year degree, we had to fight to hold that niche not to be a legal secretary,” she said. “I would say, ‘I’m a paralegal,’ and people would say, ‘Oh, what is that, a glorified legal secretary?’ And my first 10 years, you had to fight that attitude, that impression.”

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Profile: Shelley Widoff, Founder, Paralegal Resource Center