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Definition of a Traditional Paralegal

published April 16, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing

( 129 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)

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To understand the difference between a traditional and a non-traditional paralegal, it is first necessary to define the terms. This is more difficult than it sounds. In an emerging profession without mandatory entrance requirements, there is no single definition of a paralegal. However, most definitions share some common components, although none currently acknowledge the existence of the non-traditional paralegal.

Definition of a Traditional Paralegal

Perhaps the simplest definition can be found in a legal dictionary. For example, Ballentine's Law Dictionary: Legal Assistant Edition (Delmar/LCP, 1994) defines a paralegal as

A person who, although not an attorney, performs many of the functions of an attorney under an attorney's supervision.

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) takes its definition further:

Legal assistants are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training, and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney. Within this occupational category, individuals are also known as "paralegals."

The American Bar Association (ABA) definition contains many of the same components as the NALA definition, but expands on where a paralegal may work:

A legal assistant is a person, qualified through education, training, or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency, or other entity in a capacity or function which involves the performance, under the ultimate direction and supervision of an attorney, of specifically delegated substantive legal work, which work, for the most part, requires a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts that, absent such assistant, the attorney would perform the task.

However, this definition, too, states that a paralegal works ultimately only under the direction and supervision of an attorney.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) definition is the only one that allows the possibility that paralegals may at times not work under a lawyer. Indeed, this is the circumstance in which many non-traditional paralegals find themselves.

A paralegal/legal assistant is a person qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency, or other entity, or may be authorized by administrative, statutory, or court authority to perform this work.

Nowhere does this definition state that a paralegal must be supervised by an attorney. Therefore, although it never outwardly discusses non-traditional paralegals, it does allow the existence of paralegals who may not be directly, or even indirectly, under attorney supervision.

What a Traditional Paralegal Does

A traditional paralegal can "perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts." But the question then becomes "What does a traditional paralegal do?" This question is nearly as difficult as the question "What is a traditional paralegal?" simply because there is no single answer.

The reason there is no single answer is that there are so many things paralegals do, and what they do depends largely on where they work. A paralegal working in a law firm which specializes in criminal law performs far different tasks than a paralegal employed by a real estate law firm. Both paralegals perform highly different daily tasks than a third counterpart employed by a nonprofit organization such as Legal Aid.

The complexity of tasks a paralegal may perform increases as his or her level of experience increases. Common tasks that many paralegals perform include drafting legal documents, collecting and organizing information and documents, maintaining records, monitoring cases, interviewing clients, performing legal research, and conducting investigations.

Where a Traditional Paralegal Works

The final question is, "Where does a traditional paralegal work?" The answer is quite simple: in law firms. NALA's 1993 National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report of 3,000 paralegals, found that the average paralegal works in a law firm staffed by twenty-five lawyers and seven paralegals. This paralegal is female, about 39 years old, and lives in a city with an average population of 500,000.

Now that the traditional paralegal is defined, how does the non-traditional paralegal differ from the traditional?

A non-traditional paralegal is defined as any person with paralegal training or experience who is not employed by a law firm, whose position may or may not be titled "paralegal" but requires typical paralegal skills. In some cases, paralegal experience or training is required for the position by an employer. In other cases, paralegals themselves have translated the skills they have gained over time into new positions.

What a Non-Traditional Paralegal Does

As stated above, what a traditional paralegal does is largely defined by where he or she works. This holds true for non-traditional paralegals as well. A non-traditional paralegal performs many of the same tasks the traditional paralegal performs, such as drafting legal documents and collecting and organizing information and documents. So the difference between the two does not lie in the duties which they perform, because the duties are substantially the same. (However, many non-traditional paralegals feel mat they have a far higher level of challenging tasks and responsibility than traditional paralegals have).

Where a Non-Traditional Paralegal Works

The place of employment truly defines the difference between a traditional and non-traditional paralegal. Non-traditional paralegals work for corporations (both in legal departments and in a wide range of other departments), in government at all levels (local, state, and federal) in non-profit organizations, and as entrepreneurs. In short, they can work in any environment that uses the legal skills and knowledge that a paralegal brings to the work force.

Current surveys shed some light on the types of places where these paralegals are finding work. The NALA1993 National Utilization and Compensation Survey Report found that 77 percent of the respondents work in law firms. The other 23 percent, the non-traditional paralegals, are employed in a variety of places. One percent work in banks, 2 percent work in insurance companies, 8 percent work in corporations, 7 percent work for government or in the public sector (the public sector primarily comprising non-profit organizations), 2 percent are self-employed, and 2 percent fall into the category of "other."

The NALA survey is conducted every two years. Some small shifts occurred between the 1989 and 1993 surveys. For example, the number of paralegals employed by law firms decreased four percent during the four-year period-from 81 percent in 1989 to 77 percent in 1993 (see Figure 1-2). This is a small change, perhaps, but it does indicate a trend. One can speculate that many paralegals employed outside of law firms may not have the title "paralegal," may not, therefore, identify themselves as paralegals, and consequently may not participate in paralegal surveys. Thus, there may actually be more non-traditional paralegals than any survey indicates.

Why Be a Non-Traditional Paralegal

There are as many reasons to be a non-traditional paralegal as there are types of non-traditional jobs. The paralegals interviewed cited a wide range of reasons for not working in law firms, including money, altruism, working environment, benefits, skill utilization, challenge and independence, career ladders, and competition for traditional paralegal jobs.

Influencing Factors

1. Money

For non-traditional paralegals employed in corporations, a major reason may be money. Legal Assistant Today's 1993 Salary Survey, a national poll of their readership, found that paralegals employed in corporations reported an average salary of $32,949. This is 13.3 percent higher than the average salary of $29,071 reported by paralegals in law firms. For some paralegals employed in corporations, the salary range is far better, as Lyndi Reed stated: "... the money is so much better in a corporation. In my first shift from private practice to a corporation, I literally doubled my salary." On the other hand, non-traditional paralegals employed in government or the public sector report an average salary of $27,954-3.8 percent lower than their counterparts in law firms.

2. Altruism

Although non-traditional paralegals in government and the public sector typically make less money than other non-traditional paralegals, they cite altruism as a motivator. They derive satisfaction from working for the public."... there are days when I have wonderful things that I bring home in my heart that I know I've done for people. Today, I got a lawyer for a man who was on the verge of becoming homeless. I'll go home tonight knowing that his situation is taken care of." (Mary Kelly Finegan)"... you don't work in the government for big money. But when your clients are the people who live in the state you have a sense of doing something important in every case." (Kathleen Weir)

3. Working Environment

Non-traditional paralegals leave law firms in search of a better working environment. Law firms can be stressful places to work. Other locations may eliminate some stress. Donna Barr offers the following as a reason for taking a non-traditional position: "I wanted to be in an environment that realized that you had another life outside of work and that there are more important things in life than billable hours and the whole package that comes with that. I was really frustrated with the stress level." Non-traditional paralegals may also find less hierarchy and more team spirit and camaraderie in work outside a law firm. "... in our office we don't think 'No, I can't do that because it's a secretary's job.' Our attorneys will answer the phone if it's ringing. There's a nice attitude in this office. Things are more informal here. Everybody works together." (Marian Miller) "... the people I work with here are more approachable and team oriented; there's a camaraderie that I never felt at the law firms where I've worked. We're all doing a different part of the job, but the end goal is the same for everybody." (Janis Whisman)

4. Benefits

Benefit packages for non-traditional paralegals are a factor. The 1993 Benefits Survey of 630 paralegals nationwide, conducted by Legal Assistant Today, compared benefit packages of paralegals in law firms to those in corporations. Some benefits are actually better for law firm paralegals than for corporate paralegals. For example, 72.5 percent of law firm paralegals have private offices, while only 58.8 percent of corporate paralegals enjoy this benefit. Law firm paralegals also receive free legal representation and parking allowances more often than their corporate counterparts do.

Nevertheless, most benefits in corporations are substantially better than in law firms. Health insurance benefits are similar, but other forms of insurance differ. For example corporations are 17 to 51 percent more likely than law firms to offer life, dental, disability, and vision insurance to their paralegal employees. Perhaps even more important for the female paralegal is the fact that maternity benefits are offered in 83.3 percent of the surveyed corporations but in only 55 percent of the law firms. Of concern to both female and male paralegals is that 54.9 percent of the corporations offer parental leave, compared with only 39.3 percent of the surveyed law firms.

None of this takes into consideration the more luxurious benefits that some non-traditional paralegals enjoy. For example, it is not uncommon for non-traditional paralegals employed in government or the public sector to receive four weeks or more of vacation per year. Paralegals working for corporations may have access to company restaurants and health clubs at minimal or no cost. "We have a twenty-four-hour fitness center that is only eight dollars a month. They have aerobics, TV, showers, juice-you don't have to do anything but bring your clothes." (Yvonne Barlow) Other non-traditional paralegals enjoy car or home-computer lease and purchase plans, company stores, and stock investment plans.

5. Skill Utilization

Many paralegals feel that their skills are underutilized in law firms-one more factor for leaving the traditional world. "I quit that job because I didn't think that my paralegal skills were being utilized very well." (Whisman) Fortunately, paralegalism is a career with a wide variety of skills that can be translated into a multitude of positions. "It's very valuable training you can take the paralegal skills and apply them to something that, although different, is very closely related to being a paralegal." (Scott Collister) "Really, I think the skills paralegals have... the basic skills, the organizational skills, and analytical ability are the same wherever you go You can take your fundamental knowledge and your basic skills and go anywhere with them if you want to." (Barlow)

Non-traditional paralegals successfully parlay their skills into new positions. Their skills are so transferable that they find a great deal of similarity between their former, traditional positions and their new, non-traditional ones. "Once I got into it, I thought, "Oh, wow, this is exactly what I've been doing for years." (Reed)

Additionally, some non-traditional paralegals have never worked in a traditional law firm, but they, too, find that their past work skills translate well into a non-traditional paralegal position. For example, nurse-paralegals are working for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and insurance companies. Their nursing background combined with their paralegal training is invaluable for evaluating medical malpractice claims.

Nevertheless, even non-traditional paralegals sometimes find that their abilities are not well understood."... not many people have a good understanding of what skills a paralegal has. So in order to move from this job into another, I'd first have a big task in educating those around me about what I can do. If I could accomplish that, then I think similarities between jobs and required skills would surface and more avenues would be open to me." (Whisman)

6. Challenge and Independence

Many non-traditional paralegals wanted more independence and challenge than they were able to find in traditional jobs. "[I have] an appetite for challenge. In the private sector, it's almost like working for a factory.... I'm not satisfied to do that." (David L. Hay) Non-traditional paralegals thrive on challenge and enjoy their freedom at work. "The job I have now gives me a lot of freedom. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility, and I don't have a lot of people looking over my shoulder. I have a lot of control over what I do." (Finegan)

With freedom comes responsibility. Non-traditional paralegals often work with a high level of autonomy, being primarily responsible for many decisions and cases. "I think that I have more responsibility, more sole responsibility for projects that I do." (Reed) "The challenge for us... is that we're the ones who actually... make all those decisions. Our supervising attorney is available if we seek guidance, but basically... we make most of those decisions on our own." (Janis Jones) The ability to work independently is a large factor in these paralegals' success. "You're not going to be successful in a paralegal position unless you are able to work independently. If you have to have somebody over you all the time telling you how to do it, when to do it, and what to do, you're not going to be successful." (Reed)

7. Career Ladders

An additional reason for leaving the traditional paralegal world is the availability of career tracks or ladders in the non-traditional world. Although some law firms do have career tracks for paralegals, opportunities for advancement are usually better elsewhere. Non-traditional employers such as government and corporations often have a specific path on which paralegals can move up, increasing their pay and responsibilities with each move. Employees can start as associate paralegals, for example, and eventually become senior paralegals. Paralegals employed by government agencies have additional opportunities to advance because they can transfer into other government agencies in their system that have higher positions open.

Non-traditional paralegals also have other advancement opportunities. Their employers may have many positions available that are not law-related, which a paralegal can perform. For example, a paralegal employed in a corporate legal department may advance to a position in the advertising department-an opportunity rarely available in any but the large law firms. Non-traditional employment widens paralegals' skills, making them more prepared for the workplace of the future, in or out of a law-related position. "I wanted something that would move me along a career path either here or someplace else, so that I could not only use my legal skills but also get more involved in the business side ..." (Barr)

8. Competition for Traditional Paralegal Jobs

A final reason that paralegals may end up pursuing non-traditional positions is that competition for law firm jobs is keen. Other employers who need employees with legal skills can open up an enormous number of possibilities for a creative job seeker. Because of the number of applications they receive for paralegal positions, law firms can afford to be picky and hire only those with previous experience. Corporations and non-profit agencies may be more willing to consider a paralegal straight out of school. "... I was running into a dead end as far as the traditional paralegal positions went because I lacked experience [this company] didn't care that I didn't have experience." (Kathy Klima)

More new graduates of paralegal training programs are finding positions outside law firms. Placement figures from paralegal schools demonstrate this nontraditional growth. The Denver Paralegal Institute found an enormous increase in the percentage of its graduates placed in government and corporate jobs between 1987 and 1991. In 1987, 5 percent of new institute graduates accepted positions with government entities, and by 1991 this figure had increased to 14 percent, or nearly triples the original figure. During the same period, graduates going to work for corporations almost doubled-from 9 percent to 19 percent.

If the competition for traditional paralegal jobs is what initially pushes some paralegals away from traditional positions, ultimately it is not what keeps them away. Life is so good outside of law firms that non-traditional paralegals have very little reason to consider going back. "... [Non-traditional paralegals] may never want to go to a traditional job because the opportunities are so good outside of the law firms!" (Klima)

Job Satisfaction of the Non-Traditional Paralegal

Non-traditional paralegals are happy with their jobs. As with any job, there are good and bad days, as one interviewee points out: "Now, this job is not perfect; no job is.... There are days when things go wrong and everything feels like it's tumbling down, but by and large, I love it." (Barlow) Not one of the sixteen paralegals interviewed expressed any plans to leave his or her current position for a law firm job. There are too many benefits stated to return to traditional employment. These paralegals express a high level of job satisfaction and fulfillment. "My job is extremely fulfilling. It's wonderful I've been blessed." (Kathy Gedeon Scott)

Taking a traditional law firm paralegal job would be a step backward. These paralegals are obviously going to move forward. And if stepping forward means going out of the paralegal field, they have the skills and confidence to move on. They will have reached their peaks as paralegals and will seek new challenges. "Where I am now is very comfortable and I feel very satisfied and successful... [but] I'm looking to start a second career because I feel my first career has almost reached a pinnacle, in a certain sense ..." (Shelley Widoff)