Attorneys often wonder why they should hire a paralegal, or if they do, just how that paralegal can help. The answers to those questions are simple, but the implications of hiring a paralegal can be profound for your law office.
Paralegals can improve the efficiency and profitability of a law office because paralegals can literally perform most of the same tasks attorneys perform – but, at reduced rates and reduced salaries. Since paralegals can perform substantive legal tasks at reduced rates, some firms are using paralegals to reduce the cost of legal services to clients and thereby attract more clientele. Since hiring a paralegal is less costly in terms of salary and benefits than hiring a new attorney, firms can increase their staff and their productivity at lower costs.
Today, paralegals are making a real difference in the practice of law. Many of the larger law firms use paralegals extensively to perform substantive legal work. These firms have experienced first-hand the true value of paralegals. Smaller firms and firms in outlying counties are beginning to understand the impact a paralegal professional can have in a law office.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a paralegal? The American Bar Association (ABA) defines “paralegal” 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.” Although the term “legal assistant” is included in this definition, there is often confusion as to the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal. The ABA indicates that the terms are generally synonymous, but in practicality, the title “legal assistant” more often refers to a position that is more administrative or secretarial in nature, whereas the term “paralegal” more often denotes a position that includes more substantive legal work. For this reason, paralegal professionals are more likely to respond to positions that are classified as “paralegal.”
It is noteworthy that the definition above indicates that one can be classified as a paralegal by “education, training, or work experience.” However, since law firms are using paralegals to do substantive legal work, the trend is that lawyers want to hire paralegals with legal educational training. Hiring a paralegal with a bachelor’s degree or associate’s degree or certificate in paralegal studies ensures that the paralegal is trained in all aspects of legal work.
Although paralegals can receive educational training like attorneys, they are not currently licensed like attorneys, nor are they subject any other regulatory scheme. However, some states, like California, require a certain level of education of persons using the title “paralegal,” and other states are considering state regulation. Last year, the MSBA created the Special Committee on Paralegals, and one of the long-range goals of this Committee is to review the status of state regulatory schemes for paralegals nationwide and determine if such regulation should be imposed for paralegals.
Currently, paralegals can become “certified” if they complete a voluntary certification process from a professional association that has developed specified levels of professional competency. The National Association of Paralegals (NALA) awards the designation of Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) to persons who have met its requirements, which include a competency exam. In addition, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) awards the designation of (RP) to persons who have met its requirements, which also include passing a competency exam.
The ABA does not certify paralegals; however, the ABA does approve college paralegal programs. Today, more educational institutions are seeking ABA approval for their paralegal programs. Likewise, more lawyers are not only seeking college-trained paralegals, but they are seeking paralegals trained at ABA-approved institutions. Why? Because ABA approval of a paralegal program ensures that the program satisfies rigorous standards of legal education.
What a Paralegal Can Do
Adding paralegals to your staff can be a real asset to your law practice because of the legal knowledge a paralegal brings to the job. Most lawyers who initially hire a paralegal are surprised at the substantive legal knowledge and skills the paralegal possesses. For the most part, individuals who receive educational training in paralegal studies are trained just like law students.
Trained paralegals can be delegated any task normally performed by a lawyer (except those proscribed by law), as long as the lawyer supervises the work. Trained paralegals are qualified to perform substantive legal work, such as simple and complex legal research; simple and complex legal writing including legal memoranda, motions, and appellate briefs; document writing and preparation, including pleadings and interrogatories; reviewing and organizing client files and trial notebooks; interviewing clients and witnesses; assisting at closings and trials, etc. Note also that some paralegals are becoming trained mediators. This skill, too, can be an asset to a law firm specializing in ADR.
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Source: Maryland State Bar / Bar Bulletin / “How To Make Your Law Office More Efficient “ / By Karen L. Cook