What is a Paralegal?

what-is-a-paralegal
Law offices rely heavily upon paralegals for all types of support work. In general, these indispensable professionals do research, investigate cases, file motions and briefs with the court, interview witnesses and prepare court presentations, among other things. And if you are a paralegal practicing a specialty, you’ll do even more, from performing trademark searches to filing federal and state securities filings, depending upon where you choose to focus

intro-paralegal-iconBesides administrative and sleuthing duties, paralegals are the very first to adapt to the use of new technologies, and as a result, are often the best trained employees in a law office. There is no end to the flexibility, resourcefulness and adaptability of a paralegal. In fact, to fully understand a paralegal’s career, it might be helpful to see how the profession began and look at a few examples of the paralegal role in major cases, and in the day-to-day workings of a law firm.

History of the Paralegal Profession

The paralegal profession grew from the need to increase access to legal services. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and other causes instigated a need for legal services for people who had a difficult time finding—and paying for—legal advice or representation.

To remedy this situation, legal secretaries began appearing in firms. These workers performed many of the same tasks as an attorney, but billed at a much lower rate. The reduced legal fees were attractive to clients across the board, not just lower-income or middle class people who had recently been afforded new civil or consumer rights.

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At first, these legal assistants were trained on the job. In fact, many still learn their profession on the job. However, as the legal profession continued its expansion, firms needed legal assistants who already had training in the legal field—professionals who could dig into briefs and motions on their first day. As the need for legal assistance broadened, the profession took on a life of its own and those who worked helping attorneys with substantive legal tasks became known as paralegals.

The American Bar Association formally recognized the paralegal profession in 1968. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that the ABA amended the definition of the title “legal assistant,” which was first professionalized by the association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Responsibility in 1971. The committee also defined the formal education and training requirements practicing paralegals and legal assistants should follow.

One Famous Paralegal

eric-brokovich-imgOne of the most well-known paralegals is Erin Brockovich, who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the eponymous 2000 film directed by Steven Soderbergh. Brockovich attracted the attention of Hollywood when she led the charge in an environmental case against Pacific Gas & Electric in 1993. The film follows Brockovich as she interviews witnesses, builds support for a class action suit, and collects evidence to support her case against the utility company.

While Brockovich attained great acclaim for her hard work and memorable personality, there are hard-working paralegals behind the scenes of every court case. They might not receive the acclaim of Brokovich, but without the hard work and dedication of the paralegal team, critical tasks, administrative efforts and important details might fall through the cracks and make the difference between winning and losing a case.

Paralegals in the Law Office

law-officeParalegals take many different roles in a law office. Their specific duties will vary depending upon the attorney they work for, the size of the firm and the nature of their cases. While many paralegals work mainly in the law office and law library, they also appear in court as part of the support team for a client, or outside the office to meet with clients, handle depositions and conduct interviews that will later be used in trial.

As a paralegal’s career proceeds, they will likely find that their work is becoming specialized. If, for instance, they show a special aptitude for working on personal injury cases, their career might become centered on that area of law. Others might see their talents are best realized in the interview process. Those paralegals will see their worth increase as they interview litigants for class action lawsuits.

A paralegal’s job duties will basically be similar as far as administrative and research tasks, but will also differ depending upon the area of law in which they specialize, and will focus upon the needs of that specialty.

The areas paralegals may choose to specialize in include bankruptcy law, corporate law, family law, immigration, nursing, real estate, finance, and wills and trusts among others.

Paralegals in the Courtroom

courtroomParalegals are often found in court as part of their attorney’s team in important cases. By the time a case comes to trial, the main work of interviewing clients, drafting briefs and otherwise building the case is done. However, paralegals will need to be in the courtroom to keep their attorney on track and organized. As the case ensues, a paralegal will pull evidence files or other documents that the attorney needs to follow his or her questioning strategy. Paralegals may even set up presentations for the jury.

The paralegal’s role stops with these types of tasks, however. They are legally forbidden from making legal arguments in court or advising a client. Paralegals also cannot set legal fees or undertake representation.

Take the First Step

If you are considering this exciting and diversified career path, the time to get started is now. There are many accredited paralegal degree programs available both online and in the traditional on campus format. We can help you find the program that provides the training you need to succeed as a paralegal in today’s competitive market.

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