Paralegals: What are They?
Explaining what paralegals do and why they are so important
Paralegals are an essential part of the legal process. Law firms of all sizes employ paralegals, however most people outside the legal profession don’t know what the important function paralegals serve.
So, what exactly is a paralegal?
According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), “Paralegals are qualified by education, training or work experience…to perform specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Paralegals can work for law firms, corporations, governmental agencies, or other entities; however, they cannot give legal advice to a client. They cannot accept a case or represent anyone. Only an attorney can do that. Their time for substantive legal work (not clerical or administrative) is billed hourly, similar to an attorney, though at a lower rate.
What does a paralegal do?
Paralegals perform many essential tasks. According to NALA, “Working under the supervision of an attorney, the paralegal’s work product is merged with and becomes part of the attorney work product for a client.”
Paralegals perform many essential duties, including:
- Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client
- Locate and interview witnesses
- Conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research
- Conduct legal research
- Draft legal documents, correspondence, and pleadings
- Summarize depositions, interrogatories, and testimony
- Attend executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings, and trials with the attorney
- Author and sign correspondence provided the paralegal status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice.
One of the most important tasks of a paralegal is assisting attorneys in the preparation of a trial. According to Paralegal.edu, “A large part of this consists of conducting legal research and gathering relevant information to the case. This includes researching the facts of the case as well as identifying the appropriate laws, judicial decisions, and legal articles relevant to the case. The paralegal gathers and analyzes information, then prepares a written report that the attorney uses to determine how the case should be handled.”
Much of a paralegal’s day is spent drafting legal documents, including correspondence and pleadings, such as complaints, subpoenas, interrogatories, deposition notices, pretrial orders, and legal briefs with various parties.
Paralegals must often take on administrative tasks as well, either for the firm as a whole or a specific attorney. They might maintain the attorney’s calendar, organize files, and make phone calls to clients, attorneys, experts, or court personnel to schedule interviews or hearings.
What type of education is required for a paralegal?
There are actually a few different types of education programs to become a paralegal, although most have at least a 2-year Associate Degree.
Associate Degree – A 2-year Degree offered at community colleges, universities, and some business schools. It requires 60-70 semester units, with half devoted to paralegal-related course work and the other half including general education.
Bachelor’s Degree – This is a 4-year program, with paralegal as the declared major. It requires 120-130 semester units, with 30-60 units devoted to paralegal-related course work.
Certificate Programs – Various schools and institutions offer certificate programs. They are generally designed for people who already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. It requires 18-60 semester units.
Master’s Degree – A few select colleges and universities now offer advanced degrees in paralegal studies.
How is a paralegal different from a legal assistant?
You may have heard the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant”, but is there a difference? In some cases, the terms might be used interchangeably, with both performing similar duties. The main difference is that paralegals have passed the NALA certification exam, while legal assistants have not.
Now that you know more about paralegals, it should give you a greater appreciation for the role they fill in our legal process.
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