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.
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.
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 performed 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 a 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 administrative 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.
The numbers I have cited indicate that most paralegals are employed by law firms ranging widely in size. The same breakdown of paralegal employment illustrates the inherent flexibility of the profession as a whole. Few careers offer the chance to work for so many different entities-from the private sector to the government to social and community service organizations-all within the same framework that makes up the vast legal field. This flexibility brings more choices with it; different types of paralegals can do
different things, based upon their education, training, work experience, and career goals.
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 exponentially 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 preliminary 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.