What Is a Paralegal? Duties, Skills, and More

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. In this article, we will discuss what a paralegal is, what is expected of paralegals, and how to become one.

Paralegals can improve the efficiency and profitability of a law office because paralegals can perform most of the same tasks attorneys perform – but, at reduced rates and salaries. Since paralegals can perform sub­stantive legal tasks, some firms are using paralegals to reduce the cost of legal services and thereby attract more clientele. Firms can economically increase their staff and productivity because hiring a paralegal is less costly in terms of salary and benefits than hiring a new attorney. 

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 can have in a law office.

What Is a Paralegal?

Let’s start with the basics. What is a paralegal? The American Bar Association (ABA) defines “parale­gal” as follows: “A 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 noteworthy that the defini­tion above indicates that one can be classified as a paralegal by “educa­tion, training, or work experience.” The typical level of education completed by entry-level paralegals is an associates degree, but one is not always required. 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.

What a Paralegal Can Do

It is crucial to understand what a paralegal does and the potential they have in growing a firm. 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: 
  • Legal research
  • Legal writing (including pleadings, motions, and appellate briefs)
  • Client file and trial notebook organization
  • Interact with clients
  • Schedule depositions
  • Coordinating case timelines and deadlines
  • Attend court with attorneys and keep track of exhibits

Note also that some paralegals are becoming trained mediators. This skill, too, can be an asset to a law firm specializing in ADR.

Attributes of a Quality Paralegal

To be a successful paralegal, individuals must possess a set of key attributes that allow them to effectively support attorneys and clients alike. A handful of these attributes include:
  • Strong organizational skills: Paralegals are often responsible for managing and organizing large volumes of legal documents and information, making strong organizational skills a must-have trait.
  • Attention to detail: The ability to pay close attention to detail is essential in the legal field, where small oversights can have significant consequences.
  • Excellent communication skills: Paralegals must be able to communicate effectively with clients, attorneys, and other legal professionals, both verbally and in writing.
  • Analytical thinking: Paralegals are often tasked with conducting legal research and analyzing complex information, requiring a strong ability to think critically and draw conclusions.
  • Adaptability: The legal field is constantly evolving, and paralegals must be able to adapt to changing technologies, laws, and procedures.
  • Professionalism: Paralegals must maintain a high level of professionalism in all interactions, representing both their firm and clients in a positive light.
  • Time management skills: With multiple tasks and deadlines to manage, paralegals must be adept at prioritizing and managing their time effectively.

By possessing these attributes, paralegals can provide valuable support to their legal teams and help attorneys ensure the success of their clients' cases.

Requirements of a Paralegal

Although paralegals can receive educational training like attorneys, they are not currently licensed like attorneys, nor are they subject to 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. 

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.

Becoming a Paralegal

When contemplating a career as a paralegal, it is important to take proactive steps to ensure a successful path. One valuable approach is to gain relevant experience in the legal field, which can be accomplished by securing a position as a legal secretary at a law firm or seeking a paralegal internship. In addition, completing a 2-year program to obtain a paralegal certificate can provide a solid foundation for a paralegal career. Obtaining a bachelor's degree can further enhance career prospects and enable professional growth. By accumulating relevant experience and education, individuals can increase their chances of securing desirable job opportunities in the paralegal profession. 

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Source: Maryland State Bar / Bar Bulletin / “How To Make Your Law Office More Efficient “ / By Karen L. Cook