What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal (interchangeably called a legal assistant), is a person who helps an attorney draft legal documents, conduct research, prepare for court hearings, and manage other administrative tasks in a legal office setting. Some paralegals enroll in a two-year, ABA-approved program, while others start as a law firm receptionist and work their way up to becoming one through experience. The more of either, or both, the better.
For example, I enrolled in a paralegal program at my community college while working as a receptionist at a firm and moved through the ranks as I gained experience and confidence. My school had a great program that linked law firms and internships, which was a great way to build a portfolio, network, and get a solid list of references.
After accumulating experience and education, paralegals can increase their salary and credibility by taking exams for certification. NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) offers the Certified Paralegal exam as well as Advanced in specified areas of the law. California is the only state (that I know of) that offers a state-specific paralegal certification exam through CAPA (California Alliance of Paralegal Associations). Stay on the lookout for a more expansive list of these types of certifications in future blog posts.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals work under the direct supervision of an attorney and are prohibited from practicing law on behalf of the public, although in some areas they’ve been granted the ability to perform limited tasks (more on that later). The best analogy I can think of is this: a paralegal is to an attorney what a nurse is to a doctor. They work closely with the clients, know their files like the back of their hand, and collaborate with the attorney to determine the best course of action.
Paralegal-specific tasks include keeping billable time for yourself and attorney(s), keeping up with court dockets, drafting and submitting legal docs and filings, checking for conflicts-of-interest, and researching relevant law and cases. The majority of the work is billed to the client for that matter, so keeping track of your time is essential. Regardless of your hourly/salary, the supervising attorney will (usually) charge the client a fixed hourly rate for your work. It’s beneficial for both clients and attorneys because paralegals save clients money and save attorneys time.
Depending on the position and firm operations, paralegals are expected to take care of administrative and time-consuming tasks, in addition to legal ones, so that the attorney can focus on practicing law. Things like call screening, responding to vendors and clients, scheduling appointments, even cleaning and organizing files and the office space are all considered “other duties as assigned.” Although most of these tasks are nonbillable, they’re essential to operating a productive and efficient office. Some paralegals tackle these tasks throughout the day, while others reserve a chunk of time to knock these items out. Whatever your style, it’s paramount that a paralegal can wear both hats.
One thing paralegals cannot do under any circumstance is engage in the practice of law. Paralegals are prohibited from practicing law, including forming client/attorney relationships, setting a fee, or rendering a legal opinion. Not sure what counts as practicing law? Click here for the ABA Model Guidelines about utilizing paralegals. I’ll be covering this in-depth in future posts, so be sure to follow on Facebook and Instagram for updates!
This is BY NO MEANS a limited list of duties and responsibilities assigned to a paralegal. If you can think of more examples or have any questions, leave a comment! I hope that by providing a brief overview of what this career entails, you can decide whether it’s right for you, or, if you’ve been in the game for a while, recognize any ways your job has changed since you started.
Fortune favors the bold!