Many paralegals, once they gain experience and establish a reputation for reliability and professional work, consider freelancing, which involves working as an independent contractor or with other paralegals as part of a group. Before examining ways in which you can follow this path, it is extremely important to understand what a paralegal can and cannot do. For that reason, a discussion of the ethical responsibilities of paralegals is essential before any other consideration.
Ethical Responsibilities of Paralegals
In their book, Legal Ethics for Paralegals and the Law Office, Laura Morrison and Gina DeCiani present a clear, thorough understanding of the legal limitations of paralegals. It is crucial to remember that paralegals are not attorneys; even as freelancers they cannot practice law. They must work under the supervision of a lawyer. A paralegal's client is one to whom paralegal services are offered, not legal services.
There are certain areas, therefore, that must be handled very carefully, including depositions, court appearances, pleadings, and the offering of any kind of legal advice. A problem arises when exceptions occur. For example, in some local jurisdictions, paralegals may represent their lawyer-employer in court if the case is uncontested. Such exceptions may set a precedent for other jurisdictions; however, the basic rule remains the same. Paralegals cannot represent clients in court.
Paralegals may be present at depositions, but a lawyer must conduct the deposition. Paralegals assist lawyers and, in many cases, are factual experts as a result of their extensive research on any given case; legally, however, they cannot answer questions or give legal advice.
They cannot sign a pleading, which constitutes a written court appearance, or any other document filed in court on the client's behalf.
Here are some basic points to keep in mind:
- Avoid conflict-of-interest situations - If you work for several law firms that specialize in the same area, you may find that you are working for opposing sides of a case. If you are uncertain what to do about this, ask the attorneys for whom you will be working whether they feel that your working for both clients would constitute a conflict. If so, it is your ethical responsibility to act accordingly, particularly if you are working in a litigation case.
- While your duties and responsibilities are diverse, you must remember that paralegals are not lawyers, and that you may not give legal advice to a non-lawyer client, may not represent a client in court, and may not advertise your services as those of a lawyer.
In order to protect yourself from any possibility of infringement of these laws, it is best to take some precautions by following these guidelines:
- Never work directly for the public. Always work for an attorney.
- Do not meet independently with a client of an attorney.
- Make certain that the attorney for whom you are working reviews and signs your work.
- Have the attorney for whom you are working give you a letter that authorizes you to perform certain duties for him or her.
- Be certain that the attorney for whom you are working has been admit-ted to practice law in your state.
These guidelines are easier to follow when you work under the direct supervision of an attorney; as a freelancer, however, it important to remember these distinctions.
One can even go through the codes of ethics and professional responsibility of the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Association. They will serve as useful references at all stages of your paralegal career
, particularly if you decide to freelance.
In addition to recognizing the legal responsibilities of freelancing, it is important to understand the professional and personal qualifications necessary to succeed and the marketing strategies you must develop as a self-employed paralegal.
Types of Freelance Paralegals
There are two types of freelance paralegals. The first is usually referred to as an as an independent contractor, or a paralegal who is not on the payroll of any one organization. This type of paralegal works independently and bills his or her services to an attorney or law firm. Independent contractors usually bill on an hourly basis but at times will contract for a specific project or a fixed rate for the entire project.
Frequently, independent contractor paralegals work out of their homes and provide services in many areas of legal practice. They often use a post office box address to maintain their professional image.
The second type of freelance paralegal is known as a service-group paralegal, or one who works as part of a service company. Paralegal service companies usually have their own office space, have a staff of clerical help, and may offer specialized services, as in trust and estate law. Essentially, these groups are made up of entrepreneurs who need to be good business managers as well as knowledgeable paralegals. Unsuspecting paralegals may become victims to vendors, without legal qualifications, who try to sell franchises for running a paralegal service company. This point underscores the earlier recommendation that only experienced paralegals consider freelancing as a career option. They will know the questions to ask and will have developed professional contacts in the field to rely on when making such a decision.
In addition to ethical considerations, there are other major issues to consider before embarking on your career as a freelance paralegal. You must ask yourself whether you have the right qualifications.
To be qualified to offer paralegal services, you need credentials and experience. Only with training and professional experience, will you gain the necessary expertise to convince a client to buy your services. That client will want to know your background, what you have done, and how your former clients feel about your work. For these reasons, freelancing is not a sound career path for the beginning paralegal. After several years, you will have gained the experience to handle complex tasks; routine tasks require less experience. But your overall, judgment as a paralegal will improve with experience, and your goal must be to sell your client first-rate paralegal services. If you establish a reputation as a careless, inexperienced paralegal your freelancing career will never get off the ground.
If you gain experience by working under the direct supervision of an attorney before becoming a freelancer, you will not only develop a certain expertise but you will have developed a level of self-confidence necessary to get started on your own.
In addition to the professional qualifications, you will need certain personal qualifications for success as a freelance paralegal. Most of these traits are the same ones necessary for any entrepreneur who wants to succeed in business:
- You must be committed to working long, irregular hours.
- You must have strong interpersonal communication skills.
- You must be able to work under varying deadlines
- You must be able to handle pressure.
- You must be a self-motivated, self-directed person.
- You must have good time management skills.
- You must have a strong business sense.
- You must have energy, persistence, and drive.
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