The legal industry is one of the most complex and strictly regulated industries in the nation. Hundreds of laws and regulations govern what is and is not acceptable behavior for lawyers and their agents. Within any particular law firm, there is a well-defined division of labor that helps to ensure that all work is completed in an acceptable manner. Vitally important to this process are paralegals.
While the definition of paralegal varies from state to state, the basic definition refers to any person who is certified as having the relevant expertise to perform certain legal tasks under the supervision of a lawyer. The American Bar Association defines a paralegal as: “A legal assistant or paralegal is 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 who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” There are certain duties that only a lawyer can perform. For example, only a lawyer may appear in court on behalf of a client, and only a lawyer may give actual legal advice. However, outside of those narrowly defined responsibilities, paralegals may engage in a broad range of supportive duties including performing legal research and preparing exhibits for court. It is important to note, however, that the supervising attorney is ultimately responsible for the paralegal’s work. By introducing this work into an official court proceeding, the lawyer becomes responsible for its truth.
So, how does one embark on a paralegal career? Again, the answer changes from state to state. One way is by obtaining a certificate from one of the two major regulatory associations. The National Association of Legal Assistants, for example, offers an exam that covers both legal ethics, procedure, and substantive knowledge of statutory law. People who successfully pass such an exam are free to seek employment as a paralegal. Another popular route is to complete a paralegal degree, usually a two-year program specifically designed to prepare students for careers as paralegals. In other states, it is sufficient to have a high school diploma, a certain number of years of experience in the legal industry, and a written statement from a lawyer vouching for the individual’s ability to perform the tasks necessary of a paralegal.
How does having a criminal record affect one’s chances of becoming a paralegal? The answer is: it depends. There is no unified statute that governs how a person’s criminal background might affect their chances of becoming a paralegal. In fact, there is not even a statute barring people with certain criminal backgrounds from becoming lawyers. Each situation is handled on a case-by-case basis. In general, the legal profession is more concerned with crimes of moral turpitude as opposed to petty offences. Examples of crimes of moral turpitude include assault, forgery, and theft. Examples of crimes not involving moral turpitude are driving without a license, trespassing, and loan sharking. Those applicants whose criminal record includes a crime of moral turpitude will find it much more difficult to become a paralegal than those whose record is clean or contains only crimes not involving moral turpitude.
If an applicant’s criminal record has been expunged, he or she is in an even better position. Expungement is the process through which a (usually first-time offender) gets the legal record of a criminal conviction sealed and removed from state or Federal database,” enabling that individual to conduct himself as if the conviction never happened. However, certain certification programs, paralegal degree programs, or employers may ask about prior convictions, even those that have been expunged. In this case, it is crucial that the applicant tell the complete truth. Dishonestly representing one’s past is seen as completely unacceptable and will almost certainly result in an applicant’s rejection, possibly across the entire industry.
If you have a criminal record, expunged or not, it is best to do your homework before initiating the process of becoming a paralegal. Contact the NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants), NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations) or the ABA (American Bar Association), describe your situation, and ask about the likelihood that any past criminal record would influence your chances of becoming certified. Check with some major employers in your area and ask whether or not their employment screening regulations would prevent you from being hired. In this instance, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.