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.
- Online Master of Legal Studies (MLS) Degree
- Bachelor's in Legal Support and Services - Paralegal Concentration
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.
Providing Legal Services at a Rate People Can Afford
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.
The Limitations to What Paralegals Can Do
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.
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.
The Paralegal’s Role
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
- 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.