Paralegals are also referred to as legal para-professionals, legal aides, legal assistants, legal researchers, law clerks and legal executives. The main function 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 paralegal 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, paralegal 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.
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 lawyer, however due to a booming legal industry worldwide, there is an ever increasing need for paralegals to ease this workload on lawyers. In many cases these tasks can be carried out by a lawyer but may be too much work for any one lawyer to do.
Paralegal Duties – What does a paralegal 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 paralegal job description may vary depending on the specific law firm or on area of specialization it will generally include tasks such as:
1. Carrying 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.
2. Drafting 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. Case preparation
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.
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. Interviewing 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.
6. 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.
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.