It’s an understatement to say that lawyers have a lot on their plate. Whether it’s meeting with clients, preparing legal documents, studying case files, or prosecuting a case in court, they can’t always do everything on their own. This is when paralegals step in and assist attorneys with various tasks. So what does a paralegal do exactly? How is a paralegal different from a legal assistant or legal secretary? These are both great questions, and they will be answered shortly.
What Is A Paralegal?
The word paralegal can have several meanings in different countries. In the United States, a paralegal is generally a person qualified through education and training to perform legal work that requires the understanding and knowledge of the law and legal system. Or another way of putting it, a paralegal is a lawyers best friend.
The types of tasks a legal secretary performs is very similar to a paralegal. The same goes for a legal assistant. Legal secretaries usually carry out more administrative tasks, mostly because they have less legal experience than paralegals. They also tend to make less money because there are no education requirements to become a secretary. In most law firms, there are fewer paralegals than legal secretaries.
The majority of paralegals work at law firms, but they are also employed by public courts, police forces, government agencies and private corporations. They are mainly hired full-time by the employer, but there are also self-employed paralegals. The employment rate for paralegals is expected to grow at an average rate of 18 percent between 2010 and 2010.
Even though paralegals have a wide range of responsibilities, they are not technically required to obtain a bachelor’s degree from a university. After graduating high school, anyone can enroll in an associate’s degree for paralegal studies. The program usually lasts for two years. Another route is to enter a paralegal certificate program, which can be completed in several months or years, depending on your schedule. There are also online programs available for anyone interesting in becoming a paralegal. More often than not, people work within the legal field as an assistant or clerk, and later decide they want to become a paralegal.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual paralegal salary is around $50,500. The lowest ten percent make around $29,420, while the top ten percent made an average of $75,500. However, it should be noted that their salary is highly dependent on where the person is working and how much experience he or she has as a paralegal.
What Does A Paralegal Do?
This is not a simple question to answer because paralegals are not assigned the same tasks and responsibilities in every law firm. With that said, they are trained to handle different types of assignments, regardless of the type of law being practiced. Paralegals should possess a diverse set of skills and be expected to learn and adapt to any type of work environment.
Beginning paralegal duties usually involve filing paperwork, communicating with clients and drafting out contracts. Not all attorneys have legal secretaries by their side, therefore they rely on paralegals to do administrative work. In bigger law firms that deal with class action lawsuits and mass tort cases, it is common for paralegals to spend most of their day on the phone speaking with clients. It can be in regards to a status update, questions about their case, or requesting documents. They are not allowed to give legal advice though, since they are not attorneys.
More experienced paralegals are involved with preparing legal documents, interviewing clients, and task completion. Certain court documents need to be signed or filed by a specific date. When the attorney is not in the office to take care of it, it becomes the paralegal’s job to take care of it. Legal documents such as declarations and motions can take time to produce, and attorneys don’t always have the time to sit in front of a computer. Again, paralegals can step in and help create these documents if needed to. Interviewing clients can also be a long process for attorneys, and any help they can get from paralegals can go a long way.
Since paralegals have a strong background in the way the legal system works, they are very helpful for legal research. This in turn can provide more free time for the attorney to work on other important tasks. The client can also benefit from this, since the paralegal’s time is usually billed at a lower hourly rate than the attorney’s.
With all the different responsibilities a paralegal has, it is vital that he or she is organized. And since most attorneys handle multiple cases with many different clients, it’s up to the paralegal to keep everything on track and make sure the attorney can easily find any paperwork or documents.
Advancement in legal technology means that more and more work is being done on the computer these days. Courts are now accepting e-filing, meaning everything is now sent via the internet. Programs such as Legal Solutions Plus, E-Transcript Viewer and Jury Instructions Selector are being implemented at more firms. Online databases are common at most medium-sized and large law firms. Microsoft Word and Excel are used daily to create legal documents, exhibits, client letters, and mail merges just to name a few. For these reasons, a paralegal must possess some sort of computer skills. There is a reason they spend most of their work day in front of a computer.
The laws vary from state to state, but generally speaking, paralegals aren’t able to set legal fees, give legal advice or represent a client in court. Those are duties that only lawyers are allowed to do. Apart from that, paralegals are pretty much able to perform and assist attorneys with any other tasks.