A paralegal is a special assistant to a lawyer. A paralegal is not a member of the bar, nor an officer of the court. In general, a paralegal must work under a lawyer who must sign or authorize the work that the paralegal does.
In the United States, there are five specific client actions that only a properly licensed lawyer can perform.
- Engage an attorney-client relationship
- Provide legal advice
- Sign legal papers on behalf of another
- Appear in court on behalf of a client
- Set and collect fees for legal service
This restricts the paralegal to the area of legal research, document preparation, and development of legal documentation. Paralegals may work strictly in an attorney’s office or go to court with the attorney to assist the lawyer with documents the paralegal has prepared. Paralegals are used over a wide range of legal specializations.
Some of these areas include:
- Preparation of exhibits for court
- Day-to-day actions of case management
- Researching applicable court cases
- Writing legal documents to be filed with the court
Typical Paralegal Day On the Job
A major part of the paralegal’s day is devoted to preparing for court including trial, opening and closing arguments and keeping track of court dates. Paralegals keep track of the progress of their cases and write legal summaries pertaining to their cases. When their attorney’s cases need to be filed with the court, the paralegal usually prepares the court documents including motions and pleadings.
Beyond preparing for court cases, paralegals also assist lawyers in other ways.
- Draft contracts for divorce, mortgages or separation agreements
- Prepare tax returns for clients
- Assist setting up estate trusts and with estate planning
- Coordinate and organize the duties of other law office employees
Some paralegals specialize by having an additional background for their legal work. These paralegals may be nurses, contractors, or family counselors. This type of paralegal assists in very specialized legal practices such as malpractice cases or worker’s compensation.
In some states, paralegals are able to set up on offices on their own to prepare legal documents for the public such as divorce papers or landlord agreements. This saves those on limited budgets the costs of an attorney for simple legal actions.
A paralegal may train on the job or attend a specialized school for the position. These schools usually offer a two-year degree or a certificate of completion. There is no national test for a paralegal to complete to be able to practice. However, there are two organizations that do certify the knowledge of the paralegal. These are the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). The tests given by these organizations are non-accredited, yet are respected in the industry. Some states have begun the process of requiring paralegals to be licensed for the protection of the clients.
Clearly, if you are interested in the legal profession, but don’t want to deal with the stress of completing a law degree and taking the bar exam, working as a paralegal is a good choice. No two days of the paralegal are exactly the same, and these specialists continue to be in demand.