What is a Paralegal

ABA Definition of a “Paralegal”

According to the ABA’s House of Delegates, the current definition of a legal assistant or paralegal reads as follows:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

It is important to note, however, that paralegals cannot give legal advice, accept cases, set legal fees, represent clients in court or perform any legal service without the supervision of a licensed lawyer, and may not provide legal services directly to the public except as permitted by law. 

Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant

Certification organizations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) recognize both Certified Legal Assistants (CLAs) and Certified Paralegals (CPs), and hold the terms paralegal and legal assistant to be synonymous, differing in use by geographic location only. 

Job Description

Becoming a paralegal requires a great deal more than excellent organizational skills and office diplomacy; it is no mere clerical career.  While being a paralegal can be both rewarding and stimulating, it can also be emotionally and intellectually demanding, requiring skilled and motivated individuals.

Duties

Duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Interviewing witnesses and clients
  • Investigating cases
  • Researching legal issues
  • Reviewing and organizing client files
  • Preparing legal documents
  • Assisting attorneys in court
  • Assisting at closings and trials
  • Handling other activities as directed by the supervising attorney

Skills

Necessary skills include, but are not limited to:

Organizational Aptitude

  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to multi-task
  • Managing multiple files and accounts
  • Identifying and fulfilling  workplace needs

Communication Skills

  • Word usage, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar
  • Nonverbal communications
  • Drafting of correspondence
  • Client interviews and recurring client contact

Emotional Intelligence

  • Maintenance of working relationships with employer, clients, visitors, co-workers, and the public
  • Tactful interviewing questions
  • Identifying  and navigating specific social situations, such as those which arise with the elderly, or the very young

Technological Savvy

  • Understanding of legal programs
  • Ability to use online legal research databases
  • General computer and communications technology know-how

Ethical Knowledge

  • Understanding of ethical legal restrictions, such as confidentiality agreements, unauthorized practice, etc.
  • Professional integrity according to the legal assistant code of ethics
  • Relationships with co-workers and support staff
  • Attorney codes

Analytical Ability

  • Identify relevant facts and information in a case
  • Be able to solve problems
  • Research skills

Who Hires Paralegals?

Because of the nearly all-inclusive nature of a paralegal’s training, paralegals and legal assistants increasingly assume a variety of roles in a multitude of fields, in nearly any organization with a legal department.  These include:

  • Law firms and sole practitioners
  • Corporations
  • Insurance companies
  • Banks and trust companies
  • Mortgage and title companies
  • Labor unions
  • State and federal courts
  • Government agencies

Compensation:

Earnings vary considerably depending upon such factors as: the size of the community; the geographic allocation; the size of the firm; the nature of the legal practice; and the paralegal's educational and professional experience.