What is a Paralegal?
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 who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. (From the National Association of Legal Assistants website).
The legal assistant profession developed in the 1960's when law firms and individual practitioners sought ways to improve efficiency and delivery of legal services. Further growth of the career was the direct result of the growing volume of work due to increased public awareness of legal remedies. Today, law firms are the largest employer of legal assistants; however, opportunities also exist in a variety of other professional settings such as corportate legal departments, insurance companies, and government agencies.
The terms legal assistant and paralegal are used interchangeably, much like the terms attorney and lawyer. The practice of law is regulated by each of the 50 states. In all states, paralegals are prohibited from practicing law without a license.
A legal assistant/paralegal cannot give legal advice, represent a client in court, set a fee, or accept a case - all of which are generally considered the practice of law. Working under the supervision of an attorney, the legal assistant's work product is merged and becomes part of the attorney's work product. In communication with clients and the public, the legal assistant's non-lawyer status must be clear. A legal assistant may perform any function delegated by an attorney, including but not limited to the following:
- Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client, so long as the client is aware of the status and function of the legal assistant, and the legal assistant works under the supervision of the attorney.
- Locate and interview witnesses.
- Conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research.
- Conduct legal research.
- Draft legal documents, correspondence and pleadings.
- Summarize depositions, interrogatories and testimony.
- Attend executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings and trials with the attorney.
- Author and sign correspondence provided the legal assistant status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice.
- Professionally, a paralegal's time for substantive legal work (as opposed to clerical or administrative work) is billed to clients much the same way as an attorney's time, but at a lower hourly rate.