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What is a Paralegal?

Paralegals are legal assistants providing support tasks and legal services for lawyers working in private law firms and the public sector at the state and federal levels. Paralegals are not licensed as attorneys but instead organize law documents, draft legal briefs, research, and communicate with clients for meetings, depositions, hearings, and trials.

Corporate legal departments, governmental agencies, and law firms hire legal assistants to perform various duties. Often, the job entails various phases of the case, like reviewing internal legal material, conducting research, maintaining reference files, or organizing evidence.

The US Department of Labor reports that over 285,000 paralegals worked in the United States in 2018, where approximately three-fourths of legal assistants held jobs at private law firms. The Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed the median annual wage for professional paralegals at approximately $53,000 (May 2018 figures).

However, the median annual wage for a paralegal working for the federal government providing legal services was nearly $70,000 in 2020, compared to those working at the state government level earning just over $48,000. Nearly all paralegals worked full-time, averaging 40 hours a week.

A Demanding Legal Occupation

A paralegal’s working life can be overwhelming with the demands of maintaining their interval role of performing administrative tasks and meeting deadlines. However, the lawyer remains responsible for all legal work they designate to a certified legal assistant or paralegal and supervise the work.

The typical work duties performed by a paralegal include:

  • Ongoing case management
  • Calculating deadlines to file documents and motions
  • Communicating with clients
  • Conferencing with clients
  • Drafting correspondence between attorneys and clients
  • Drafting legal documents and pleadings, including discovery and responses
  • Fact-checking
  • Organizing evidence
  • Performing legal and case law research
  • Preparing cases using computerized support and automation systems
  • Summarizing and analyzing legal reports and documents

Often, the paralegal is responsible for administrative and clerical tasks, especially when working in small offices. While paralegals might perform similar duties as legal secretaries, they earn substantially higher wages.

While paralegal duties are extensive, they do not have the legal authority to provide independent legal opinions or conduct legal proceedings without supervision by their employer (an attorney).

Some paralegals and legal assistants specialize in a specific field, like conducting legal research, case review, or litigation. Lawyers often employ paralegals to perform specialty tasks that help maximize the attorney’s output. Some paralegal services include:

  • Case management, development, and planning,
  • Attending legal functions including will executions, depositions, real estate closings, administrative hearings, court hearings, and litigated trials,
  • Research the legal system including gathering facts and information using traditional retrieval systems like computer-based research programs and libraries,
  • Represent clients before federal or state administrative agencies when allowed by law,
  • Maintain contact and interview clients under the lawyer’s supervision,
  • Draft and sign the attorney’s legal correspondence, not including legal advice or legal opinion,
  • Prepare pleadings and briefs,
  • Draft discovery documents,
  • Prepare the case to go to trial and assess the attorney during litigation,
  • Draft and analyze the attorney’s legal reports and documents,
  • Draft trusts, deeds, and wills,
  • Locate eyewitnesses and conduct interviews,
  • Summarize proceedings and documents.

Many paralegals gain experience in the legal system involving substantive and procedural law.

Paralegal Careers & Law Firms

Not every paralegal works with trial attorneys. Many corporate paralegals work on financial reports, shareholder agreements, and employee contracts.

Corporate law requires paralegal professionals to stay current with federal and state regulations and provide the attorneys with the most updated information, especially when working for attorneys that practice law involving insurance companies and banks.

Some paralegals specialize in intellectual property, criminal law, estate planning, and immigration. Many legal assistants work for the federal or state government and others in the insurance or finance industries.

Working as a paralegal is not the same as a law clerk. Typically, law clerks have acquired a law degree, whereas litigation paralegals typically receive certification or licensing through paralegal education.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the different fields of law practice employing paralegals include:

  • Bankruptcy law
  • Civil rights law
  • Corporate (business) law
  • Criminal law
  • Employment (Labor) law
  • Entertainment law
  • Environment law
  • Estate planning and probate
  • Family law
  • Health law
  • Immigration law
  • Intellectual property law
  • International law
  • Legal transcriptionist
  • Litigation
  • Maritime (Admiralty) law
  • Military law
  • Nurse paralegal
  • Personal injury law
  • Real estate law
  • Tax law

Paralegals and the American Bar Association

In 1967, the ABA endorsed using paralegals and established the first paralegal committee in 1968. By 1975, the American Bar Association approved numerous paralegal certification programs that followed rigorous standards.

In 1991, the ABA-approved the Models Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistant Services. The Association guidelines restrict paralegals from establishing an attorney-client relationship or setting chargeable fees.

The ABA defines a paralegal or legal assistant as:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

The paralegal is not authorized to provide legal opinions and advice. Many attorneys hire paralegals to perform substantive legal work outside the scope of a legal secretary because their time can be billed separately and payable by the client at a lower rate than attorney fees.

While a paralegal earns far less than an attorney, they perform many similar tasks (supervised by the attorney) that the lawyer would otherwise do.

According to the ABA, paralegals and legal assistants are not subject to traditional rules of professional conduct like attorneys as declared by government agencies, legislatures, and courts.

Instead, experience paralegals that are members of local or national paralegal associations follow different ethical codes according to the Association, including:

Some attorneys, especially those working in personal injury and wrongful death practice areas, accept cases on contingency fee agreements. However, anyone working as a paralegal cannot be paid by contingent, based on the outcome of a specific case.

Additionally, attorneys cannot split their legal fees with an experienced paralegal nor pay them for legal business referrals. Paralegals cannot work in the legal profession for a law firm while a partner or shareholder.

Providing Legal Advice and Organizing Legal Documents

A paralegal does not have the legal authority to provide advice and opinions about the client’s legal matters. However, as a legal professional, a paralegal must perform an array of skills and could specialize in a specific field of law.

Experienced paralegals perform legal tasks requiring different skill sets involving organizing law documents, drafting motions, and communicating with clients. Some of the paralegal’s work on legal issues might involve:

  • A passion for the law
  • Ability to multitasking work under pressure to ensure deadlines are met
  • Conduct legal research with an eye for detail
  • Analytical skills
  • Good computer skills with advanced knowledge of databases, spreadsheets, word processing, presentation software, online experience, and litigation support
  • Intellectual curiosity with the dedication to skilled development and continuing education
  • Optimal communication skills
  • Optimal organizational skills
  • Participating in pro bono work
  • Research competency
  • Teamwork
  • Working effectively under pressure

Legal assistants participating in voluntary formal education can earn a substantial paralegal salary working in the legal field. Although no official qualifications are required for a paralegal job, carefully considering what to study before obtaining a paralegal certificate could be significantly beneficial.

Possible paralegal studies to assist lawyers might include:

  • Good grades in high school and college,
  • Completed studies and relevant law areas,
  • Past legal experience in the field of law you wish to pursue,

Many law firms require a paralegal position applicant to have a good grade point average. Other aspiring paralegals choose to work in law to assist attorneys and because their performance builds legal experience while gaining experience in a legal environment.

Become a Paralegal Working in a Law Office

There are no legal requirements, like obtaining a bachelor’s degree, to become licensed or certified in a paralegal profession. Often, law offices will set the standards for paralegal positions when they hire applicants with or without a formal education.

Some aspiring paralegals will complete a one-year professional certification program and attain an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some law offices require the individual to participate in a paralegal program to ensure professional consistency and uniformity.

Most paralegals are required to be certified before working in a law office to gain experience. Some certifications are attained through paralegal programs at two-year community colleges, junior colleges, universities, four-year colleges, and proprietary/business school programs.

Many of these classes offer a variety of topics, including:

  • Ethics
  • Law-related computer skills
  • Legal investigating and interviewing
  • Legal services delivery
  • Legal writing and researching
  • Procedural and substantive law
  • The American legal system
  • Working in a law office environment
  • The paralegal profession

Typically, the certification programs provide an aspiring litigation paralegal an experiential learning process, including clinical, internship, or practicum experience through various legal studies.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics information reveals that most law offices prefer legal candidates who have minimal experience working in law and prefer those who specialize in practice areas that the employers provide.

However, an internship can offer a level of field experience unattainable in the paralegal program. Working in the law offices as an intern helps build a resume to maximize their paralegal career and provides valuable experience in many specialized law areas, including environmental, real estate, and personal injury law.

Usually, paralegal jobs to assist attorneys are available in many corporate and private law offices through internships with firms desiring to retain their experience paralegals once they become certified.

Become a Paralegal To Eventually Become an Attorney

Obtaining a program that provides certification or licensing for a paralegal is not the same as attending college for a law degree, nor is it a substitute. However, the experience gained by being a paralegal helps the next logical step to becoming a practicing attorney much more manageable.

The legal profession is growing faster than all other occupations on average. Any potential law degree candidate with a paralegal background must first obtain an undergraduate degree before being accepted into an accredited law college.

Years of experience as a paralegal and an undergraduate degree could make passing the LSAT (law school admission test) much more straightforward when enrolling in a law school for a Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

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