Paralegals are also referred to as legal para-professionals, legal aides, legal assistants, legal researchers, law clerks and legal executives. The main job description of a paralegal or legal assistant is to support a lawyers in his or her work through a variety of support-based and administrative duties.
Although this training does not take as long as a lawyer’s training paralegals are trained in many different aspects of the law and are a vital part of the legal system.
In most cases, training will be focused in a particular area of the law such as environmental law, real estate law, commercial law, bankruptcy, insurance, family law, litigation or any other specialization in which a paralegal or legal assistant may wish to undertake. All these areas provide slightly different paralegal job descriptions, however more entry level professionals will begin with easier tasks geared towards more general legal administrative duties.
Although all paralegals are trained in law and in legal research methods, an important distinction between a paralegal and an attorney is that paralegals are not allowed to set legal fees, appear in a court of law as a person’s legal representative, provide legal advice or sign any court documents as a legal representative. All such duties are strictly the responsibility of the supervising attorney.
A typical paralegal job description will be made up of tasks geared towards supporting a lawyer in his or her day to day work. In the past, many of these tasks were handled by the attorney, however due to a booming legal industry worldwide, there is an ever increasing need for legal assistants to ease this workload. In many cases these tasks can be carried out by a lawyer however it generally proves more efficient to delegate these tasks to a paralegal.
Paralegal Duties – What does a legal assistant do?
It is important to note that due to the nature of paralegal work, as well as specializations between different areas of study it can become quite difficult to define a typical job description. Generally speaking, although the tasks and duties may vary depending on the specific law firm or on area of specialization it will generally include tasks such as:
1. Carry out legal research
This is a vital step in any legal case, and is an important part in determining a variety of factors which will assist the lawyer in deciding which approach to make for his or her client. The research will be aimed at finding out preceding cases relevant to a case, relevant statutes, court decisions, legal articles and other writings. Paralegals may also carry out general background checks on witnesses.
A paralegal must always take care to provide accurate information to the lawyer, and be diligent in his or her research.
2. Draft legal documents
Depending on the size of the law firm, a paralegal’s duties may include drafting documents such as mortgages, separation agreements, sale agreements, trust agreements, real estate closings and other types of contracts. This is an example of an administrative duty which greatly aids the firm in decreasing the workload of attorneys and other staff.
3. Prepare for court cases
Paralegals play a crucial role in helping lawyers prepare for their court cases. They will help in the preparation of legal arguments, opening statements, closing statements and court pleadings or motions. As a legal assistant becomes more experienced, the duties regarding case preparation may become more and more involved, with an open dialogue with attorneys helping the successful completion of a legal case.
4. Investigate and fact-check information
A paralegal may carry out investigations in relation to a case in order to authenticate or validate information. This investigation may include locating relevant witnesses for their case, as well as finding relevant background information about the defense or prosecution which may help an attorney craft a convincing legal argument.
5. Interview witnesses
The paralegal may interview witnesses or the client in order to gather relevant information. He or she will then prepare a report on the interview for the lawyer which he may use for preparation of his case. Some relevant information that might be presented to a lawyer can be character-based, such as “is the witness telling the truth?” or any potential personal or financial issues which might impact the case.
6. Undertake administrative duties
Paralegals, in some cases, are also referred to as law clerks as the nature of the work may involve tasks such as filing and other clerical duties such as answering phone calls, taking messages and answer correspondence. As mentioned previously, although this may not be the most glamorous duty a paralegal will undertake, it plays a vital role in the legal system.
NOTE – Although this is a typical paralegal job description, duties may differ depending of the firm.
United States Paralegal Salaries
If you are interested in finding out more about a paralegal salary, please head over to our comprehensive overview on paralegal salaries. Otherwise, please click on the map below to find out the different paralegal salaries in each state.
Varying Duties Around the World
Paralegals within the United Kingdom are given the freedom to work under an attorney and to represent their own clients in lower-case court matters. One reason why so many paralegals are now able to work within the United Kingdom has to do with the cost of rising legal fees. In the past, attorneys would normally work for free and aid low-income people with their cases.
Over the years this situation has changed. The rising cost of court aid has forced many attorneys to abandon this practice. Since that has happened many poor people within the U.K. have been unrepresented in legal matters. The U.K. then decided to allow paralegals to step in and to help fill the need of legal representation for the poor. Paralegals within the U.K. typically only work on simple cases involving civil matters and minor criminal offenses. Sometimes they are able to work on more formal cases as well.
People can become a paralegal within the United Kingdom with or without a degree. Some people are hired by law firms or attorneys and then are given on-the-job training. Even though this is the case, it is best for an individual to have a degree to perform this job.
There are legally governing bodies within the United Kingdom that represent paralegals. They monitor paralegals activity and their code of conduct. Paralegals who are hired or trained through these organizations may become lawyers, partners in a firm, advocates in courts, coroners and judges. Governing organizations will help them to be qualified for these professions.
Canadian paralegals are given the authority to work in many important positions of the law. They can perform their duties in Provincial Offences, Provincial Tribunals and Boards, Summary Criminal Cases, as Commissioners, Notaries Public and as a Justice of the Peace.
Some provinces within Canada (such as Ontario) independently license paralegals. Any person that decides to get involved with this profession must first complete an accredited educational program and then complete a licensing exam.
The education process for paralegals in Canada include completing an associate’s or bachelor’s undergraduate degree. Many paralegals are not required to complete law school training since they would then be qualified to become attorneys. The education that they complete will give them the knowledge that they need to work in the legal field. Often times, many Canadian paralegal professionals must complete Continuing Legal Education courses as a part of their employment within a firm. These continuing education courses are usually required by their state, association or firm.
While the country of Australia employs paralegals as a part of their legal system it does not constitute a large part of the employment sector. Recently, government officials are trying to do away with the term “paralegal” because as certain law firms have been using this title to their favor by overcharging clients for legal services.
The country of Australia does not have a governing body for paralegals and they are are not recognized as a legitimate profession by the nation’s labor board. Often the term law clerk, legal assistant, or legal aid is used. Only a few schools within the nation of Australia offer paralegal training and many people within the legal field find it less important those who have received this type of education. Paralegals in Australia can choose an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree level of education.
Another thing that further hinders the acceptance of paralegals within Australia, is the fact that they are not easily classified into any profession. Paralegals in Australia are often confused with legal assistants, law clerks, police prosecutors and clerk courts.
Paralegal Training – What You Need To Know
In the past, it was possible to commence work as a paralegal or legal assistant without any formal training. In these cases, individuals would “work their way up” through a firm and eventually begin working as a paralegal. These days however, it is becoming a necessity to pursue some form of paralegal training.
It is interesting to note that presently there is no governing body surrounding paralegals, so technically it would still be possible for someone with no formal training to being work as a paralegal. In practice, this is not widely the case and most firms or government positions require some form of paralegal or legal assistant training.
Paralegal Training – Which Paralegal Degree Do I Need?
Luckily there are a wide range of paralegal training programs offering different levels of education to suit most needs. Completing a search below can give you an idea of what types of training programs exist in your area (or online).
When it comes to legal assistant and paralegal studies, there are three main types of certification.
- Home Study and Online Paralegal programs
- Associates degrees offered by two-year community and junior
- Four-year college and university programs offering degrees in
Home study and online Paralegal programs provide an excellent way to learn the paralegal profession outside of a traditional college environment. There are an increasing amount of people going this option, and more and more people are looking online to get their certification. It is important to note however, that not all schools who offer paralegal courses are accredited by the American Bar Association, and a great deal of care is advised when choosing an online school. If there are any doubts, its often best to ask the school if they are accredited, or seek further information from other sources.
The two year associate degree offered by many two year community and junior colleges has proven to be the most popular degree that students across the US are seeking. It provides all the necessary requirements in terms of education as well as being a shorter term study period than a four year college and university program. Employers seem to prefer this level of degree over an online degree, however with time, both are becoming a viable option for paralegal certification.
Although less common than an associates degree or certification offered by an online accredited institution, four year college and university programs are an excellent option for those wishing to get the most out of their paralegal career. As with most career paths, the more you invest in education the better the return in the long run. Many firms do not require this level of certification, however those wishing to proceed into management or possibly make the move to becoming an attorney may want to consider this option.
Some popular choices for paralegal degree programs include Berkley College, Daymar College, and Washington Online Learning Institute. Those wanting to check out a range of paralegal blogs should also consider looking at our list of blogs and paralegal resources.