What is a Paralegal ?

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.”

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The National Federation of Paralegal Associations expands on exactly what that “substantive legal work” involves, defining it as the “recognition, evaluation, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.”

That definition applies to a broad array of specialties and industries, encompassing the entire legal profession and expanding into areas like healthcare, business, immigration, intellectual property, real estate, personal finance, and a lot more.

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Scope of Practice.

Within all of these industry verticals, though, the work paralegals do is similar in depth and substance, and equally fundamental to ensuring the organizations they work for operate effectively within the applicable legal framework. With so many areas of law and just as many industry-specific niches to specialize in, there is a position to fit almost every interest.

Some paralegals spend their nine-to-five in solitude, closely reviewing the legal language in contract documents or parsing out details from case law… Others are on the go for twelve hours straight, meeting dozens of clients to help with naturalization paperwork or evaluating potential personal injury cases… Still others may vault between assisting a litigator in a tense courtroom drama, before running back to the office to prepare exhibits for another partner working an entirely different case.

If there is a style of work or area of law that you prefer, chances are there is a paralegal job that fits that niche.

Whether working with clients face-to-face or presenting legal precedents to partners behind closed doors, paralegals are expected to be good communicators, strong writers, and adept at conflict resolution and negotiation.

At the end of the day, state regulations define a paralegal’s scope of practice. In nearly all states, paralegals must work under the direct supervision of an attorney and are bound by law to uphold standards of ethics and confidentiality.

While most paralegals work in law firms, government agencies, non-profits and corporations, some work on a freelance basis and contract out services to lawyers and businesses in need of legal support services.

What paralegals can’t do, in any state, is offer opinions or legal advice, represent clients in court, accept new clients into the practice or set legal fees. These are things that fall strictly within the purview of a licensed attorney.

Paralegals are becoming recognized for their ability to develop a similar degree of expertise, and offer a similar set of services, as fully-fledged lawyers, but at a fraction of the cost …

  • Document preparation, including drafting agreements, contracts, and briefs.
  • Representing parties in administrative law hearings.
  • Providing legal information to a general audience.
  • Explaining procedural issues of law.

These kinds of legal services do not revolve around practicing law outright and the degree of formal education required to become a lawyer is really more expensive and takes more time than it is worth to provide these more basic services.

The precedent that is starting to emerge is that lawyers are there to practice law… and paralegals are there to provide general legal services and do just about everything else that lawyers are traditionally known for. It all comes down to economics; it simply doesn’t make sense for a layer to charge hundreds of dollars an hour for services a paralegal is fully qualified to perform.

With their more task-focused education and training, paralegals can develop a similar level of expertise in almost any legal specialty and offer a degree of skill and competence that sometimes exceeds what a lawyer could offer. And since paralegals don’t have massive tuition bills from law school to pay off, they can do it for considerably less money.

Paralegals are not attorneys and have not been admitted to a state or federal bar. This means they are prohibited from engaging in the practice of law, which, according to the ABA, consists of these key points:

  • Acting as an advocate for a party in a representative capacity in connection with a judicial proceeding.
  • Accepting financial consideration in return for preparing a paper, document, or instrument establishing legal rights.
  • Accepting financial consideration for representing a party in any attempt to seek redress for a wrong or establishment of a right.
  • Making a vocation of enforcing rights, securing settlements, or making claims or demands except as in service as an employee or contractor.

Gabrielle Crisp

is a Certified Legal Professional (CLP) who works for a small firm in Springfield, Missouri where she specializes in family law. Gabrielle holds the honor of being named 2017 Paralegal of the Year for the Springfield area. Read More...

Dana Medley-Vogel

holds a BS in Medical Technology from Missouri State University and a BS in Paralegal Studies from William Woods University. Dana has been working in the legal field for a decade, primarily in the areas of family law, employment law, civil litigation and personal injury litigation.

Angela M

is a master’s-prepared educator turned paralegal with an associate’s degree in Paralegal Studies and 11 years experience in litigation. She has more recently gone on to work in a corporate legal department as a contract administrator in business development.

What does a Paralegal do?

Forty years ago, when the paralegal profession was in its infancy, lawyers were not yet certain of the best way to use them, so they would 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 providing legal representation and saves clients money.

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 the job description are similar no matter the field of practice.

According to the National Association of Legal Assistant’s 2016 Utilization & Compensation Survey Report, paralegals are more often being included in more sophisticated work that involves using independent judgment during client interactions and when performing case management and administrative duties.

Paralegals spend the majority of their time engaged in …

  • Case management, involving coordinating all aspects of a case and ensuring appropriate steps are taken in a timely fashion
  • Calculating legal deadlines and filing documents as required
  • Legal research, fact gathering and information retrieval both via traditional systems such as libraries and computer-based research
  • Interviewing clients and maintaining contact with them, under the attorney’s supervision
  • Drafting and analyzing legal documents including pleadings, discovery requests and responses
  • Drafting and signing legal correspondence that is informative in nature but that does not include legal opinion or advice
  • Preparing for and assisting during trial
  • Representing clients before a state or federal administrative agency if permitted by law
  • Locating and interviewing witnesses
  • Summarizing documents and proceedings including depositions, interrogatories and testimony
  • Attending legal proceedings 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 enjoy higher wages than legal secretaries, many offices reserve their paralegals’ time for more specialized 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.

Paralegals Are Detail-Oriented

When a court filing needs to be proofed and double-checked, or an oral argument fact-checked, it is most often a paralegal that lawyers will turn to in order to make sure the job is done right.

Tiny mistakes lead to life-altering consequences in legal matters, and paralegals are charged with preventing those mistakes.

Paralegals Are Researchers and Investigators

No stone is left unturned, whether they are researching precedent in LexisNexis or combing through depositions looking for inconsistencies.

Critical thinking skills and legal knowledge set paralegals apart from other law office staff. This allows them to understand and follow leads, grasping the thread of a case in the same way that a lawyer would do and pulling to find out where it unravels.

Paralegals Are Communicators

Paralegals are conduits for information. They get more face time with clients than anyone else in the office, explaining the process and asking critical questions.

Paralegals are also a point of contact for law firms, interacting directly with opposing counsel, courts and law clerks, support staff within the firm, cooperating attorneys, contractors and potential clients.

Paralegals must become excellent writers, fully conversant in legal language and able to translate legalese into plain English.

Paralegals Are Organizers

They put exceptional organizational skills to use building and maintaining case files and documents, and increasingly, they are expected to be the office expert in high tech data storage and collection systems.

Paralegals ensure that firms adhere to court calendars and hunt down and eliminate schedule conflicts before they turn into case-killers. They coordinate times and attendance for depositions and they provide lawyers with a second set of eyes and hands in all court proceedings.

Paralegals Are Specialists

Most paralegals specialize in certain aspects of the law or types of cases:

  • Estate planning and probate
  • Family Law
  • Immigration
  • Intellectual Property
  • Real Estate

…as well as many other types of law.

Even outside of law firms, paralegals working in corporations or as consultants often have a certain aspect of the law or type of task they specialize in. Within their own area of expertise, a paralegal can become as valuable a resource as a skilled lawyer.

Paralegals Are Independent Freelance Contractors

Some paralegals hang out their own shingle and call the shots in their own firms outside the corporate rat race.

In some industries, paralegal-owned businesses are the norm. Nurse paralegals, for instance, often operate as consultants and expert witnesses under their own auspices. And the amount of legal training paralegals receive makes them good candidates to open and operate legal services firms.

Paralegals Are Versatile

A paralegal can walk into work in the morning to deal with preparing exhibits for a major wrongful death case and end up being dragged into providing a final polish on a motion for summary judgment that has to be filed by day’s end.

Many paralegals at law firms or in corporations serve a number of different bosses. They may support several lawyers or serve as a resource for a number of different departments. Switching tracks in a heartbeat without missing a step is all in a day’s work.

Paralegals Are Part of the Business Team In Corporate America

From insurance companies to media conglomerates to multinational manufacturing firms, legal expertise has become a vital component of important business decisions. Paralegals may be the go-to resource for up-to-date information on everything from corporate entity structure to tax law and strategy to public policy.

Paralegals Are Leaders

One task that often gets delegated down from attorneys to paralegals is the responsibility for coordinating and supervising the firm’s support staff. Paralegals can take on leadership roles both in law firms and private businesses, supervising other paralegals, secretaries, or staff.

Paralegals make excellent law office managers since they understand the legal aspects of the work the firm specializes in doing. They are ideally situated to make the hard calls about resource allocation and staffing and they speak the language required to coordinate lawyers and support staff.

Paralegal careers evolve with the practice of law, but every current trend points to them continuing to become even more important both in law firms and corporations. Their status as the right-hand of practicing attorneys has been cemented in the legal field and their value to business is being proven daily.

Learn from the Professionals.

Any paralegal will tell you that working in the field means making a career-long commitment to learning. And some of the best advice you’re ever going to get will come from the paralegals that came before you. We sat down for some one-on-one conversations with some of the best in the business to get their take on everything from navigating law office culture to understanding how attorneys think.

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Angela has worked as a paralegal for 11 years, and she’s learned a lot along the way. Over the course of nearly a decade in litigation, Angela has found that organization and the ability to multitask are crucial. Angela explained to us how paralegals are always learning something new throughout their careers, and that a no-nonsense, take-no-guff attitude has served her well over the years when working with high-powered attorneys. Read More…
Rose Turzak never met a challenge she couldn’t overcome. She got her start in the years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed, during a time when few thought she was college bound because of her dyslexia. She soon proved any doubters wrong by graduating and quickly earning a reputation throughout the Ohio court system as a hard-working paralegal with a knack for investigating. But she didn’t stop there. Turzak went on to work her way through law school and became a lawyer in criminal and family law (licensed in both Ohio and Pennsylvania). Rose’s story offers a lesson in determination and stands as a fine example of how a paralegal education may be the perfect jumping-off point to becoming an attorney. Read More…
Do you have the persistence and assertiveness to be responsive to the needs of not just one boss, but perhaps several big-ego attorneys working cases for multiple clients that could be worth millions? Read More…
You’ve landed a good job in a law firm and put your time in. You’ve managed to earn yourself a reputation as being a hard worker, well-organized and detail-oriented. You’re formulating queries like nobody’s business, answering telephone calls with authority, and tackling legal research with ease. On a couple of occasions you may have even caught something an attorney missed or dug a little deeper to find a little-known precedent, and that extra eye for detail and willingness to go just a little further ended up being critical to the case the team was working on. Read More…
Gabrielle Crisp stumbled upon the legal field by accident three years ago and fell in love with the fast-paced environment she found in the law firm that hired her. Gabrielle supports a small, one-man firm, so she’s used to taking on more responsibility than might be customary in a larger firm with several paralegals on the payroll. Even though she has only worked in the field for a short time, she was honored with the 2017 Paralegal of the Year award from the Springfield Area Legal Support Professionals Group. Read More…
Dana Medley-Vogel had a dynamic career that involved working in healthcare and later as a teacher, but was drawn to the legal field ten years ago. She holds a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and currently works as a legal assistant for a law firm in Jefferson City, Missouri. Dana sat down to talk to us about her experience working in family law, employment law, and personal injury law and how she transitioned to the career she always wanted. Read More…
Have you ever had to maintain your cool while a stranger screams unintelligible words at you? Welcome to the life of a paralegal. Read More…

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