Paralegals generally do background work for lawyers. To help prepare cases for trial, paralegals investigate the facts of cases to make sure that all relevant information is uncovered. Paralegals may conduct legal research to identify the appropriate laws, judicial decisions, legal articles, and other materials that may be relevant to clients' cases. After organizing and analyzing all the information, paralegals may prepare written reports that attorneys use to decide how cases should be handled.
Should attorneys decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help prepare the legal arguments, draft pleadings to be filed with the court, obtain affidavits, and assist the attorneys during trials. Paralegals also keep files of all documents and correspondence important to cases.
Besides litigation, paralegals may also work in areas such as bankruptcy, corporate, criminal, employee benefits, patent and copyright, and real estate law. They help draft documents such as contracts, mortgages, separation agreements, and trust instruments. They may help prepare tax returns and plan estates. Some paralegals coordinate the activities of the other law office employees and keep the financial records for the office.
Paralegals who work for corporations help attorneys with such matters as employee contracts, shareholder agreements, stock option plans, and employee benefit plans. They may help prepare and file annual financial reports and help secure loans for the corporation. Paralegals may also review government regulations to make sure that the corporation operates within the law.
The duties of paralegals who work in government vary depending on the type of agency that employs them. Generally, paralegals in government analyze legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for attorneys, collect and analyze evidence for agency hearings, and prepare informative or explanatory material on the law, agency regulations, and agency policy for general use by the agency and the public.
Paralegals employed in community legal service projects help the poor, the aged and other persons in need of legal aid. They file forms, conduct research, and prepare documents. When authorized by law, they may represent clients at administrative hearings.
Some paralegals, usually those in small and medium-sized law firms, have varied duties. One day the paralegal may do research on judicial decisions on improper police arrests and the next day may help prepare a mortgage contract. This requires a general knowledge of many areas of the law.
Some paralegals who work for large law firms, government agencies, and corporations specialize in one area of the law. Some specialties are real estate, estate planning, family law, labor law, litigation, and corporate law. Even within specialties, functions often are broken down further so that paralegals may deal with one narrow area within the specialty. For example, paralegals who specialize in labor law may deal exclusively with employee benefits.
A growing number of paralegals are using computers in their work. Computer software packages are increasingly used to search legal literature stored in the computer and identify legal texts relevant to a specific subject. In litigation that involves many supporting documents, paralegals may use computers to organize and index the material. Paralegals may also use computer software packages to perform tax computations and explore the consequences of possible tax strategies for clients.
Paralegals employed by corporations and government work a standard forty-hour week. Although most paralegals work year-round, some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year then released when work diminishes. Paralegals who work for law firms sometimes work very long hours when they are under pressure to meet deadlines. Some law firms reward such loyalty with bonuses and additional time off.
Paralegals handle many routine assignments, particularly when they are inexperienced. Some find that these assignments offer little challenge and become frustrated with their duties. However, paralegals usually assume more responsible and varied tasks as they gain experience. Furthermore, as new laws and judicial interpretations emerge, paralegals are exposed to many new legal problems that make their work more interesting and challenging.
In summary, the duties of a paralegal are as follows:
- Takes direct responsibility from the attorney for a variety of functions, such as drafting motions, interrogatories to the opposing side, complaints, and correspondence.
- Regularly deals directly with clients and opposing counsel.
- At the discretion of the attorney, is autonomous in some areas and has authority when dealing with opposing counsel.
- Does legal research.
- Prepares flow charts in complex cases.
- Prepares cases for trial, e.g., trial binders and evaluation of evidence.
In short, paralegals are used in ways that junior clerks or law clerks in very large firms were used fifty years ago. Such firms now hire more paralegals, or legal assistants, and fewer attorneys just out of law school. The paralegal's job has become more involved with research at the discretion of the attorney.
State and local governments and publicly funded legal service projects employ paralegals as well. Banks, real estate development companies, and insurance companies also employ small numbers of paralegals. There are several ways to enter the paralegal profession, but employers generally require formal paralegal training. Several types of training programs are acceptable; however, some employers prefer to train their paralegals on the job, promoting experienced legal secretaries or hiring persons with college education but no legal experience. Other entrants have experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such as a background in tax preparation for tax and estate practice or nursing or health administration for personal injury practice.
Most paralegal programs are completed in two years, although some take as long as four years and award a bachelor's degree upon completion. Other programs take only a few months to complete but require a bachelor's degree for admission.
Programs typically include a combination of general courses, on subjects such as the law and legal research techniques, and courses that cover specialized areas of the law, such as real estate, estate planning and probate, litigation, family law, contracts, and criminal law. Many employers prefer applicants with training in a specialized area of the law. Programs also increasingly include courses that introduce students to the legal applications of computers.
Many paralegal training programs include an internship in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a law office, corporate legal department, or government agency. Experience gained in internships is an asset when seeking a job after graduation. Depending on the program, graduates may receive a certificate, an associate degree, or, in some cases, a bachelor's degree.
The quality of paralegal training programs varies; the better programs generally emphasize job placement. Prospective students should examine the experiences of recent graduates of programs in which they are considering enrolling.
Paralegals need not be certified, but the National Association of Legal Assistants has established standards for voluntary certification that require various combinations of education and experience. Paralegals who meet these standards are eligible to take a two-day examination given each year at several regional testing centers by the Certifying Board of Legal Assistants of the National Association of Legal Assistants. Those who pass this examination are designated Certified Legal Assistants (CLAs). This designation is a sign of competence in the field and may enhance employment and advancement opportunities.
Paralegals must be able to handle legal problems logically and effectively communicate, both orally and in writing, their findings and opinions to their supervising attorney. They must understand legal terminology and have good research and investigative skills. Familiarity with the operation and applications of computers in legal research and litigation support is increasingly important. Paralegals must always stay abreast of new developments in the law that affects their area of practice.
Because paralegals often deal with the public, they must be courteous and uphold the high ethical standards of the legal profession. A few states have established ethical guidelines that paralegals in the state must follow.
Experienced paralegals usually are given progressively more responsible duties and less supervision. In large law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies, experienced paralegals may supervise other paralegals and clerical staff and delegate work assigned by the attorneys. Advancement opportunities include promotion to managerial and other law-related positions within the firm or corporate legal department. However, some paralegals find it easier to move to another law firm when seeking increased responsibility or advancement.