The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as:
A person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations expands this definition, adding that substantive legal work employs such skills as: recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts. Paralegals should also be good communicators, strong writers, and possess solid interpersonal skills such as conflict resolution and negotiation.
State regulations define a paralegal’s scope of practice. In nearly all states, paralegals must work under the direct supervision of an attorney. Paralegals must uphold standards of ethics and confidentiality. They may not offer legal opinions or legal advice, represent clients in court, accept new clients into the practice or set legal fees.
Practically speaking, paralegals have many duties within law offices, governmental agencies, corporations and other places in need of legal assistance. These duties will vary depending on the size of the office, the range of services offered by the office and the number of other legal support staff employed within the office. Paralegals working as generalists will likely have greater variation within their duties whereas specialists will have a narrower focus but greater depth in their job responsibilities. While most paralegals are employed by law firms, government agencies and corporations, some paralegals work as freelancers who contract out their professional skills to lawyers in need of legal support services.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Forty years ago, when the paralegal profession was in its infancy, lawyers were not yet certain how to best utilize paralegals and paralegals often doubled as legal secretaries. Today, paralegals play an integral role in the delivery of legal services. While they still may perform administrative tasks, many paralegals assume much of a lawyer’s workload, employing an advanced understanding of the legal system. This frees the lawyer to focus on more detailed work and saves clients money, as paralegal services are not as costly as that of lawyers.
The day-to-day work of a paralegal can vary tremendously depending on the place of employment and the paralegal’s specialty. Litigation paralegals will have considerable work related to trials, while in-house legal staff for corporations can spend much of their time drafting board resolutions and filing documentation related to business needs. However, some elements of paralegals’ job descriptions are similar no matter the field of practice. According to the National Association of Legal Assistant’s 2010 Utilization and Compensation Survey, paralegals spend the majority of their time at work engaged in the following activities:
- Case management: Coordinating all aspects of a case and ensuring appropriate steps are taken in a timely fashion.
- Drafting correspondence.
- Calendaring deadlines: Calculating legal deadlines and filing documents as required.
- Using automation system and computerized support to prepare cases.
- Drafting pleadings, document responses and discoveries.
- Contacting and conferencing with clients.
- Analyzing and summarizing documents.
- Fact checking.
- Performing legal research.
- Attending to office matters
Paralegals may be employed by lawyers to perform in many different capacities, including:
- Case planning, development, and management;
- Legal research, fact gathering and information retrieval both via traditional systems such as libraries and computer-based research;
- Interview clients and maintain contact with them, under the attorney’s supervision
- Draft and analyze legal documents including pleadings, discovery requests and responses;
- Draft and sign legal correspondence that is informative in nature but that does not include legal opinion or advice;
- Prepare for and assist at trial;
- Represent clients before a state or federal administrative agency if permitted by law;
- Locate and interview witnesses;
- Summarize documents and proceedings including depositions, interrogatories and testimony;
- Attend legal functions including executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings and trials with the attorney.
Paralegals may also perform clerical and administrative duties as needed, especially in a small office. However, as paralegals typically earn higher wages than legal secretaries, many offices reserve their paralegal’s time for higher level tasks. Often, the time a paralegal spends performing substantive legal work can be billed to the client in the same manner as an attorney’s time.