Qualifications and Responsibilities of a Paralegal
by Douglas May
Whether you're fresh out of school, or contemplating a career change, the paralegal field is rich with opportunity.
As stated in the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA.org) website: Paralegals and legal assistants are individuals who assist lawyers in the delivery of legal services. Legal assistants are not allowed to give legal advice to consumers of legal services. Legal advice may only be given by a lawyer. The American Bar Association's definition of the nature of work that legal assistants and paralegals do is as follows: 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. The work of a paralegal is never done. Although paralegals cannot offer legal advice to clients like attorneys, they are considered the cornerstone of the law practice.
During the late 1960s, law firms and individual practitioners were seeking ways to improve the efficient and cost effective delivery of legal services. Thus, the legal assistant concept was born. The increasing volume of work due to growing public awareness of legal affairs contributed to the development of the legal assistant. The terms legal assistant and paralegal are now almost always used interchangeably, similar to the terms 'attorney' and 'lawyer.' The practice of law is regulated in all 50 states, and in all states, it is illicit for legal assistants/paralegals to practice law without a license.
As stated before, legal assistants/paralegals cannot give legal advice, and they also cannot represent a client in court, set a fee, or accept a case; functions which are usually considered the practice of law. They work in conjunction with lawyers and the legal assistant's work product begins to meld with the attorney's work product. However, the legal assistant's non-lawyer role must always be clear. According to the NALA publication, an attorney can delegate certain functions to a paralegal, including but not limited to the following:
Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client, so long as the client is aware of the status and function of the legal assistant, and the legal assistant works under the supervision of the attorney.
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 legal assistant status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice.
Professionally, a paralegal's time for substantive legal work (as opposed to clerical or administrative work) is billed to clients much the same way as an attorney's time, but at a lower hourly rate.
The NALA article goes on to state that a legal assistant should meet certain minimum qualifications. The following standards may be used to determine an individual's qualifications as a legal assistant:
Successful completion of the Certified Legal Assistant certifying (CLA) examination of the National Association of Legal Assistants;
Graduation from an ABA approved program of study for legal assistants;
Graduation from a course of study for legal assistants which is institutionally accredited but not ABA approved, and which requires not less than the equivalent of 60 semester hours of classroom study;
Graduation from a course of study for legal assistants, other than those set forth in (2) and (3) above, plus not less than six months of in-house training as a legal assistant.
A baccalaureate degree in any field, plus not less than six months in-house training as a legal assistant;
A minimum of three years of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney, including at least six months of in-house training as a legal assistant; or
Two years of in-house training as a legal assistant.
There are many paralegal programs throughout the US and online from which to choose. These paralegal programs usually offer many different formats and lengths. Many kinds of public and private institutions offer paralegal education, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, business colleges and proprietary institutions. These institutions draw many different people from many different backgrounds. The NALA cites these four different and varying paralegal programs:
Associate Degree Programs. These programs are offered by two-year community colleges, some four-year colleges and universities, and some business schools. Upon successful completion of 60-70 semester units, a student earns an associate degree. The curriculum usually consists of approximately 1/2 paralegal courses and a 1/2 courses in general education and related areas. In selecting a program, prospective student should consider whether they might continue their education to earn a four-year degree at another college and, if so, should investigate the transferability of courses in the programs they are considering.
Bachelor Degree Programs. Paralegal education is also offered by four-year colleges and universities which have a paralegal studies major, minor, or concentration within a major. These programs are usually about 120 - 130 semester units, including 30-60 semester units in paralegal and related courses. Upon successful completion of the program, the student is awarded a baccalaureate degree.
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Certificate Programs. Various kinds of educational institutions offer paralegal certificate programs ranging from 18-60 semester units. Longer programs usually include both general education and paralegal courses, similar to associate degree programs. Certificate programs are usually designed for students who already hold an associate or baccalaureate degree.
Master's Degree Programs. A few colleges and universities that offer undergraduate paralegal degree programs are now offering an advanced degree in paralegal studies. Other universities offer advanced degree programs and law-related areas such as legal administration and legal studies.
Whatever program you decide upon, you'll want to go to a school or institution that has ABA approval. Legal assistant/paralegal careers are on the rise, and having the certification or degree can open many doors for you. Private law firms are the greatest employers of paralegals, but many other organizations are increasingly using paralegals in a variety of ways. These organizations include corporate legal departments, insurance companies, real estate and title insurance firms, and banks. A paralegal career can offer you a bright future and you can use the education in many different capacities.