Many people outside the legal profession are not entirely sure what exactly a paralegal does. One common question that arises is whether or not a paralegal performs the same job as a legal assistant, and for all intents and purposes the answer is yes, they do. Becoming a paralegal in most states does not require certification, but many states have paralegal associations and other industry organizations that have established guidelines for employers to follow when hiring a paralegal in order to determine the qualifications of candidates.
Most paralegals who come into the profession do so with at least a certificate of completion from a paralegal studies course, and many more even have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. But with the legal profession becoming increasingly difficult to break into because of higher qualification standards and stiffer competition, there is a growing trend of paralegals earning law degrees in order to set themselves apart from the competition.
Regardless of how many degrees they have or how much experience, paralegals are only allowed to work within certain parameters of the legal profession unless they are called to perform tasks outside those parameters under the direct supervision of a licensed, practicing attorney.
The limitations are in place because even paralegals who have a law degree typically do not have a license to practice law. As such, if they were to perform certain tasks like providing legal counsel or some other type of work that requires a law license, they could be charged with a crime.
This can be difficult to determine and even more difficult to prove because there is so much interpretive gray area about what constitutes “providing legal counsel.” The definition also is different depending on the state in question. The bottom line is that paralegals are an essential element of the legal process and attorneys place a tremendous amount of trust in them to operate within the legal parameters of their profession.