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Expanding the Role of Paralegals

published February 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
Published By
( 61 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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The paralegal profession is evolving rapidly. The way attorneys perceive paralegals has changed for the better. And the way attorneys use paralegals has changed for the better as well. Gone are the days when a paralegal was hired to be a glorified secretary with some legal research skills. Today's paralegals are actively involved in many facets of the law office operation, no matter what the specialty.
Expanding the Role of Paralegals

Recent employment studies relating to the paralegal profession offer some interesting statistics. According to one survey, about 60 percent of this nation's paralegals work in private-practice law firms, small, mid-size, and large; 10 percent work for the government, at either the local, state, or federal level; another 10 percent work in corporations, banks, insurance companies, and financial institutions; and the remaining 20 percent work for legal aid groups, political lobbies, trade unions, special interest groups, private businesses, and in their own paralegal practices that offer limited legal advice and services to the general public.

Independent Paralegals

The reference to paralegals with their own practices may light your eyes with thoughts of private enterprise and "being your own boss." However, be aware that self-employment for paralegals is a very limited option. In most states, any activity by a paralegal must be per formed under the systematic supervision and control of an attorney; self-directed activity is termed "unauthorized practice of law," which is subject to prosecution.

A few states do permit certain autonomy to paralegals. In these states, paralegals may perform routine legal services for clients-pre paring documents, conducting inventories for estates, filling out forms, notarizing papers, and making filings with courts or adminis trative bodies-so long as they do not give legal advice. In some states, independent paralegals may offer their services to attorneys. In these cases, the paralegals operate their own businesses but do indeed perform their work under supervision. Independent paralegals tend to be highly experienced and to have developed expertise in narrow, specialized aspects of the field.

Still one more arena of autonomy open to some paralegals in some areas is as "enrolled agents." The designation "enrolled agent" is not an entry-level title. The seasoned paralegal must undergo specialized training and generally some certification process as well. An enrolled agent may actually represent clients in administrative hearings before certain agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or a worker's compensation board.

While most paralegals know a little bit about a great many legal topics, e.g., civil litigation, contracts, business and corporate law, wills, trusts and estates, etc., some know a great deal about one specific area of the law. These paralegal specialists differ from their counterparts by virtue of their extensive knowledge and experience pertaining to a certain legal subject.

In some progressive firms, paralegal specialists have been given a great deal of autonomy to handle client relations and case management. These paralegals spend much of their time meeting with new clients, explaining various legal procedures to them, and tracking the progress of each case from start to settlement. More recently, qualified paralegals have taken on a new role: They serve as the clients' "go-between" with the attorneys, updating both parties as the case progresses.

In other instances, veteran paralegals have played a significant role in preparing cases for trial. The scope of their use has grown exponen tially as their knowledge of the law and courtroom procedures has increased.

Paralegals today help attorneys do nearly everything except actually try the case in court. By assisting with legal research, drafting prelim inary briefs, recording witness statements, cataloging evidence, pre paring interrogatories and tracking their return, and helping with witness lists, discovery motions, and appeals, today's paralegals take on more responsibility for the success of their attorneys' court cases than ever before.

Instead of doing simple research and making telephone calls, paralegals in many firms are cross-trained to take a case from its initial inception stages all the way through to the end. Here, the attorneys merely monitor the progress of the case, stepping in to offer guidance, file appropriate motions, appear in court, or meet with the clients or opposing counsel to settle the case.

Still other paralegals are becoming quite skilled as negotiators. Since much of the work surrounding business law, contracts, real estate, and insurance-related cases involves the typical back-and-forth haggling over dollar figures, paralegals are entering this stimulating, action-packed arena with more confidence than ever before.

Many of these tough negotiators started small, settling relatively low-dollar cases under the guidance of an attorney. As their experience and confidence grew, they began to get more involved with high-level, big-money negotiations, working closely with an attorney battling the other side.

In some offices, the senior paralegal will take control of a case as it is reaching the settlement stage. This person will contact the adjuster, opposing counsel, or other similar party, submitting demand packages and beginning to make offers and counter-offers as necessary. Obviously, many years of training and experience are prerequisite to a paralegal's attaining this level of responsibility.

Some paralegals spend time preparing clients for litigation; some get involved in negotiations; some go to government offices to pick up documents or to courthouses to file papers; and some even answer calendar calls for their attorneys. But the great majority of paralegals spend the bulk of their time handling paper-work-research, writing, indexing, and proofreading.

The nature of the practice determines the nature of the research. In general, paralegals do factual research and write up factual memo randa, then turn over the fruits of their labor to attorneys for interpretation.

Research takes many forms. At the discovery phase of litigation, paralegals may play an important role, checking up on laws to find what is discoverable. They search laws and precedents to learn what types of documents it is permissible to request from the opposing side. Paralegals who have been granted the necessary autonomy may then contact attorneys for the opposing party and request document production. They may have to justify their requests with details of the laws that they have searched. When the documents come in, paralegals may join with attorneys in checking the submitted docu ments for completeness. They may categorize and index the documents. They may even read, analyze, and summarize some of the less complex documents. Another task of the paralegal is to set up the documents and their information on a database in a modern, automated office. In fact, paralegals remain active in the discovery phase right up to interpretation of the documents. Then attorneys take over and relate the facts to laws and precedents.

Legal research can be fascinating. It may involve consulting indexes that send you to books and journals. It can lead you to secondary authorities that define terms and give you an overall picture of the legal issues involved. The secondary authorities offer commentaries, restatements of laws, and the very latest legal philosophical thought.

The secondary authorities in turn can steer you towards the proper primary authorities: constitutions, statutes, judicial cases, rules of court, and administrative decisions and regulations. Finally, you must "shepardize", that is, follow the subsequent history of the laws and cases to be certain that decisions have not been overturned, that the law which you uncovered is still "good law."

There is a vast array of resources from which you may draw your legal research. At the earliest stages of your career, you will begin using only a few. As your skills and expertise mature, you will probably expand the number of tools you use. The nature of the practice also will determine the nature of the research. In some types of mat ters-personal injury, medical malpractice, or product liability, for instance-you might find yourself consulting medical journals, popular magazines, or newspaper clipping files as well as the more traditional legal sources.

Much of orthodox legal research involves following up on cross-references. Thus, as you read a case report you find that footnotes refer you to constitutional verities, to various laws and rulings, and to other cases. Law review articles and legal newspapers and journals may also send you to many other sources by way of footnotes. You will need a firm grasp of the "Uniform System of Citation" in order to follow the footnotes to their sources and to zero in on the appropriate pages.

The same "Uniform System of Citation," also known as the "Blue Book," will serve as your guide in writing citations when you are called upon to draft preliminary briefs. And the Blue Book will be your standard when you proofread completed manuscripts or documents for accuracy of citations and proper form. The Blue Book is a worthwhile sourcebook for you to purchase for your own reference and for private study at home. You can buy this inexpensive book in any law school bookstore.

The citation form in the Blue Book will not help you when you consult print indexes, computer indexes, or Shepard's Citations. Each index has its own system, and Shepard's has a detailed codification method all its own. The front pages of print indexes or citators and the first few screens of their computer counterparts give detailed in structions for their use. Shepard's/McGraw-Hill publishes an entire booklet entitled How To Use SHEPARD'S CITATIONS. Learning to use any of these is not a do-it-yourself project, but once you have received instruction and have gotten some practice, you can become a pro.

The indexes and citators are only finding tools. You must follow through by going to the sources to check for yourself whether or not the specific laws are relevant and whether the facts of the cases cited are "on point" or peripherally related to the facts of the case you are researching. Case reporters include a syllabus-which is a brief description of the facts, issues, and resolution of the case and carry the full decision. As a non-lawyer you will not be making the final determination, but you can be extremely useful to your attorneys by eliminating irrelevant rulings and decisions, in highlighting the most likely precedents, and in listing and possibly summarizing the cases to which they should direct their attention.

You will probably find it useful to do your research at both print sources and major computer sources, either WESTLAW or LEXIS.

The computer sources are often quicker to use and, in some cases, more up-to-date than print sources. The print sources may be more complete and almost certainly go back further in time, giving better background and history. Some sources include constitutions, statutes, administrative materials, rules of court, digests, case reports of various jurisdictions, law reviews and law journals, legal newspapers, case report updates, restatements, and looseleaf services. This somewhat daunting list need not be overwhelming. You will learn to use these sources one at a time in their relation to specific research. As you look over the list of what you will eventually need to learn how to use, you can readily recognize that a paralegal is indeed a professional and that the position of paralegal is a career position and not just a job.

Other vital paperwork/research in which many paralegals are in volved is cite checking. Cite checking is especially important on appel late briefs. The cite checker goes through the brief, to the indexes, and even the laws and casebooks themselves, to be certain that each case is accurately cited. Deciding whether or not the case cited actu ally is relevant and proves a point is the domain of the attorneys.

However, determining that the source is accurately described, that the citation is in approved style and form, and that all numbers are accurate (watch for transpositions of digits) is often the assignment of the paralegal. The paralegal must be certain that the brief is ready for presentation and must alert the attorney to any potential problems in the body of the brief or in the cases cited.

And finally there is shepardizing. Some very large law firms reserve shepardizing for their young associates because it is so impor tant. Other equally large law firms turn this crucial task over to paralegals. Shepardizing is the last step before trial. It involves con sulting Shepard's Citations to identify all references to the statute, con-stitutional point, or landmark case that your attorney is citing as authority. The purpose of the shepardizing search is to be certain that the precedent has not been overturned, and that it is still a good and valid law. Notation in a Shepard's Citator indicates at a glance if there is any question. The letter "o" appears before a reference if the precedent was overruled in any way. The person doing the shepardizing can refer directly to those cases preceded by an "o." A quick glance at the syllabus should indicate whether the entire ruling was upturned or whether the precedent did not hold because of a matter of fact. Then a comparison of the facts of the current case and the case cited by Shepard's can guide your attorney as he or she goes off to court. Just think of how embarrassing it would be for your attorney to cite a law or precedent that no longer is valid!


Paralegals probably do not do as much writing as research, but writ ing still is a good part of the workload. The organization in each office is different, but paralegals may be called upon to analyze and summarize documents in discovery, to digest depositions, to write factual memoranda, and to do some preliminary drafting of documents or briefs. Good command of the rules of written English and a clear writing style will see you through. Again, this is not work you will do on your first day. A senior paralegal or the attorney charged with your orientation and training will instruct you as to what is expected of you with each writing task.


A final dimension to the paperwork handled by a paralegal is the editing and proofreading. It goes without saying that the paralegal must edit and proofread his or her own work. He or she may also be called upon to edit attorneys' work and to proofread the work of the secretarial staff. Much of the editing and proofreading are done in the office. Occasionally, a paralegal may be sent directly to the printers to check out minutes of an important executive board meeting or a prospectus or other offering hot off the press. This type of assignment tends to be highly pressurized and to involve an all-nighter. The detail-minded paralegal who is willing to tackle such an assignment is well compensated for the extra effort.

The chief requirement of proofreading is attention to detail. The proofreader must give special attention first of all to the general sense of the material. Gaps in meaning generally occur when a line of text was inadvertently skipped in transcribing. If the material doesn't make logical sense, if it doesn't "hang together," read it again going back to the draft as needed. Everything that the writer intended must appear in the final copy. Beyond the overall meaning, proofreading and editing must give consideration to grammar and proper English usage. Agreement of tense and number are important, as are parallel constructions and use of the best word to convey the precise meaning.

The remainder of the proofreading task is more mechanical. It includes checking for misspellings; word repetition; word omission; transpositions of words, letters, or numbers; and accuracy of names, addresses, and all numbers.

Proofreading directly from the computer screen allows for instant correction of errors, but some paralegals find that they spare them selves eyestrain by proofreading the printed copy and then returning to make the corrections on the computer.

Here are some considerations for you to consider as you proofread:
  1. Scan the text for correctness of style and format, and for eye-appeal.
  2. Double-check the spelling of names; verify initials and ad dresses; ascertain accuracy of numbers.
  3. Check the continuity of numbered pages and of the numbered and lettered paragraphs or lists.
  4. Pay attention to prepositions that can vastly alter meaning.
  5. Do not rely solely on a computer spell checker. The spell checker can only spot gross errors; it does not distinguish between "pair," "pare," and "pear"; it does not know whether you meant to use the past tense or a plural.

If another person is available, it is often worthwhile to proofread together, especially if the letter or document is an important or technical one. If you proofread with a partner, hand the typewritten or printed page to him or her and read aloud from the original. Spell out names, addresses, and unusual words and pronounce endings very distinctly. Read numbers slowly.

When you proofread for your own benefit, you can mark up the page in any manner that is comprehensible to you. When you proofread for others in the office, you must follow some universal conventions but you can append clarifying notes and expand in plain English. Further more, you are available for consultation with your fellow workers in the office. However, when you edit or proofread material that is to be sent to typesetters or material that has come from the typesetter and is to be returned for correction, you must carefully follow rules for marking up proof. Following proofreaders' stylesheets is important when you are working on the printer's premises as well. Under time pressure it is most efficient to follow conventions.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit www.LawCrossing.com.

published February 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 61 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.