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The Paralegal Profession: Defined by What It Is Not

published February 19, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

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The Paralegal Profession: Defined by What It Is Not


Of the jobs that have been created in the last part of the 20th century, most have highly defined parameters. Many are technical, and most have arisen from new technologies. The paralegal profession, however, is fundamentally different. It has arisen from an older profession, and its boundaries are defined more generally. What a paralegal does is often defined by what a paralegal must not do: sign pleadings, represent a client in court, or give "legal advice." Within ethical boundaries, you may do what a lawyer requests you to do. In fact, please anticipate what a lawyer will tell you to do, so that it can be finished when the lawyer asks for it. By defining the paralegal profession by what it is not, we can see the infinite variety and scope of the field. In essence, the paralegal profession


Did you know that just a few short years ago, the term "paralegal" did not even exist? The evolution of the paralegal profession is marked by speed.

From the late 1960s through the 1990s, legal work has exploded in terms of size, dimension and complexity. Think of the changes in American culture that have taken place since 1970: politics, law making, social change, case law, technology, philosophy, faxes, cellular phones and computers. The whole fabric of American culture has led to a tremendous growth in legal activity, and through it all the paralegal profession experienced a heightened and accelerated evolution. Paralegal utilization has now spread rapidly up and down the traditional legal profession and into all kinds of nontraditional or "alternative" settings. We won't go into all of the factors that caused the tremendous growth of legal activity of the last 30 years, but it is necessary for the trained paralegal to understand the world that he or she is entering and have the right tools to get there, stay there and grow there.

The paralegal was "invented" or "created" in the 1970s, and a short 20 years later, the concept of trained paraprofessionals performing all kinds of legal work in a wide variety of legal settings has emerged. In the 1990s, there are paralegals in-law firms doing the work that we normally associate with law firms: Bankruptcy (Creditor and Debtor), Corporate, Real Estate, Litigation, Workers' Comp, Insurance Defense, Medical Malpractice, Intellectual Properties, Entertainment Law and Personal Injury.

In addition, there are paralegals working in departments of companies with vendors and contractors and franchisees, paralegals in Human Resource Departments, and paralegals employed by in-house corporate counsel for virtually any corporate entity that exists. To get a picture of where paralegals could find themselves, ask yourself, where are the lawyers? Where is the legal activity? The answer is, in American business, corporate, legal, private and public activity.

In short, a paralegal is a nonlawyer who by virtue of training and experience provides legal support functions in law firms, governments and other settings, subject to restrictions on the unauthorized practice of law. Many different labels identify individuals who lack membership in the bar but nevertheless carry out important legal functions. Paralegals usually undertake for attorneys such tasks as gathering and analyzing legal facts, performing legal research, drafting documents and preparing witnesses and evidence for trial. However, what an individual paralegal actually does can vary widely. It depends on the employer, the kind of work involved, and the structure and philosophy of the organization.

If it is helping set up corporations, do the work. If a lawyer needs help organizing and computerizing data for a 50,000-document case, do the work. If a sole practitioner needs help with a growing caseload of domestic cases, roll up your sleeves and do the work. If a lawyer has run an ad in the Yellow Pages that is bringing in 20 bankruptcy cases a week, is hired, learn fast and do the work. If a company needs help structuring settlements for insurance companies and law firms, get hired and do the work.

The evolution of the paralegal profession has experienced a tremendous horizontal growth pattern. Like a vigorous vine, the paralegal profession has grown from the law firm into corporations, government offices, state and local agencies, court systems, foundations, government contractors, manufacturing settings and high-tech companies.

The combined title-Paralegal Administrator, Paralegal Contract Supervisor, Paralegal Manager, Investigator Paralegal, Human Resource Paralegal-will continue to grow in number as backgrounds, skills and particular pasts are married with the paralegal education and the paralegal experience. One reason for the rapid evolution in the paralegal profession is the way it takes almost any kind of past background, couples it with skills, experience and goals and then emerges in some spot where formerly it had not been. (Then two to three more spring up in the first pioneer's place!)

The reasons for this growth all go back to that definition of what a paralegal is not. The unavoidable implication in the definition-the Rosetta Stone of paralegal growth and development-Do the work. Do not be a lawyer, but get trained and develop the skills that will enable you to do legal work.

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.

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