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What is a Paralegal ?

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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.

Featured Interviews

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.
Read More...

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.
Read More...

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.

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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