What is a Paralegal & What Does a Paralegal Do?

What is a paralegal, you ask? That’s a loaded question. Paralegals wear different hats when it comes to working in law offices, government agencies, and private corporations. Their duties will vary depending on the type of office that they’re working at, their certification, and the staff employed.

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General paralegals would be asked to do more work compared to those with specialization in certain fields. Most of them are commonly employed by law firms or individual attorneys, but there are those who opt to freelance and work under contracts with various lawyers that need a support staff.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), a paralegal is, and I quote:

“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.”

This definition is expanded by the National Federation of Paralegal Association, with the addition that substantive legal work need skills such as communication, analysis, organization, evaluation, and recognition. Paralegals are also expected to be good in communicating, have strong written communication skills, and have great interpersonal skills that can mediate between conflicts and settle negotiations.

State regulations have various definitions of the scope of practice of a paralegal. Almost all states, including California, require paralegals to work under the supervision of an attorney. As with other professions, paralegals have standards for confidentiality and ethics. They are prohibited from providing legal opinions or advice, represent clients in a court of law, and accept new clients to represent, or set legal fees for said clients.

What Do Paralegals Do?

During the 1970s, being a paralegal was still unheard of by most people. Lawyers had no clue how to use them to their advantages and they were mostly identified as the same as legal secretaries. Nowadays, paralegals play a vital role in law offices. They may perform administrative tasks, but they still carry most of a lawyer’s workload, requiring them to have a more advanced knowledge of how the legal system works. By doing so, paralegals allow lawyers to have more time to focus on a case.

In terms what does a paralegal do and their daily workload, depends on where they’re employed and if they have any specialties up their sleeves. Litigation paralegals’ work are more closely related to trials, and in-house legal staff of private corporations work on drafting contracts and filing various documents.

Paralegal Duties & Responsibilities

According to the 2010 Utilization and Compensation Survey conducted by the National Association of Legal Assistants, all paralegals have similar tasks such as:

  • Managing and coordinating various elements of cases and making sure that the proper steps are taken to solve said cases
  • Writing correspondence for their law firm or company
  • Maintaining a calendar and keeping deadlines in check
  • Using a systematic approach in the preparation of cases
  • Drafting new discoveries in cases, pleading, documents, or contracts
  • Keeping in touch with the clients
  • Analyzing and providing a summary of documents
  • Checking of facts
  • Conducting legal research
  • Attending to matters within the office
  • Attending to office matters

Additionally, some lawyers may ask their paralegals to perform the following tasks:

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  • Planning cases, developments, how it should be managed, etc.
  • Researching for any leads, gathering facts, and retrieving information
  • Interviewing clients and keeping contact with them, as per an attorney’s request
  • Drafting and analyzing documents that include responses and pleadings
  • Drafting and signing informative legal correspondence that are not considered to be legal opinion or advice
  • Preparing for and assisting during a trial
  • If allowed by law, representing clients in state or federal administrative agencies
  • Locating and interviewing witnesses
  • Summarizing documents such as depositions, testimonies, and interrogatories
  • Attending legal events such as real estate closings, depositions, court and administrative hearings, execution of wills, and trials with a lawyer

In small offices, paralegals usually do clerical and administrative duties on top of the duties listed above. However, since paralegals have higher salaries compared to legal secretaries, law offices reserve them for more important tasks usually. A client also gets billed for the time spent by a paralegal on a case.

Instead of handling cases from start to finish, paralegals that are under big corporations are tasked to work on assigned phases of a case. They may be asked by lawyers to conduct research on similar cases that might help break the case or they may be asked to interview clients and their witnesses in order to analyze any potential statements that can be used.

Due to the integration of technology in most offices, paralegals are asked to be up to date when it comes to the latest computer software that can be used with the preparations of documents and presentations. They are also asked to learn how to use database management softwares.

Paralegal Specialties & Job Description

Are there any sub specialties that can help me earn more?

Like with lawyers, paralegals can have specializations in various legal fields, each with its own set of paralegal job description when hired, such as:

  • family law
  • real estate
  • intellectual property
  • corporate law
  • environmental law
  • criminal law
  • bankruptcy
  • immigration
  • and etc.

Additionally, paralegals that have years of experience under their belts, might be tasked to supervise the whole team when it comes to big cases.

If you ask lawyers what kind of specialization pays the most, a majority of them would say that corporate law and intellectual property has the highest salaries. For paralegals, the answer is almost exactly the same. Despite having high salaries, expect these two fields to be the most demanding and time consuming out of all specialties.

Paralegals are also expected to double-check all documents that are filed on behalf of the client, as a simple typographical error can cost a firm or a client millions of dollars. This type of demand is one of the reasons why paralegals in these fields are paid more and have more responsibilities to deal with.

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There are paralegals that opt to freelance instead and they usually have higher salaries compared to those that work for corporate. They have the freedom to choose the cases that they want to work on and can pick them out based on the potential payout. Paralegals employed under firms or companies don’t have the same freedom and they must take care of cases as they are given. Freelance paralegals can also let clients bid for their services and negotiate better prices.