Paralegals contribute to the legal system by enhancing the quality of legal services and by working to increase the access to justice. The paralegal profession began in the late 1960s but it didn’t establish its legitimacy until the early 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s the field went through tremendous growth as the role paralegals play in the delivery legal services expanded. Today the paralegal profession is one of the fastest growing occupational groups in the United States. So who are they and what exactly do they do?
The prefix para carries the meanings of “near” or “beside” and “similar to” or “subordinate to.” The meaning of the word then suggests that a paralegal is one who works near or beside a lawyer and is subordinate to them. This is basically true because paralegals are individuals who do specialized legal work under the supervision of an attorney.
Paralegals do much of the work that an attorney would do. They communicate with a client by administering initial interviews and explaining legal procedures. Often the attorney will be to busy to return calls to their clients, so paralegals are used for this because they are usually far more accessible. Almost all legal matters involve some form of research and often this job is delegated to the paralegal. It is often a paralegals job to look for specific statutes and apply those legal rules to a client’s case. Often, an attorney will request that the paralegal write a report on what he/she finds during the research. Drafting is another responsibility of the paralegal. Most paralegals are given responsibility for preparing drafts of legal documents for the lawyer to review. Contracts, wills, complaints, motions, interrogatories and more need to be prepared in a law office. Another important role is one of case management. They help with the flow of paperwork involved in the preparation for going to court. They also assist in assembling exhibits and documents that are to be presented in court.
It may seem that paralegals can do about anything a lawyer can, but this is not true. First of all, they may not represent a client in court. They may help with the entire case and have the same knowledge of the facts that the attorney does but they may not act as a client’s attorney. They also may not give legal advice, although they can describe legal procedures. Even if they know the answer to a legal question, they must first ask the attorney and then relay the message. By giving legal advice, a paralegal is committing the crime of unauthorized practice of law. They also may not sign the documents they draft. The attorney has the authority to review and sign them. The attorney has the law degree and license and they are the one at risk if ethical rules are violated. The paralegal only has to answer to the attorney for mistakes he/she may make. This is often the rationale behind the limitations on what a paralegal may do.
In order to become a paralegal, you must possess good communication and writing skills along with the eager ability to learn. There is no specific amount of education you need but many lawyers will not employ someone with out a related degree. Some colleges offer a certificate, associates, or bachelors degree in paralegal studies or legal studies. This profession is ever growing and ever expanding, so expect to see more and more degree programs develop across the country.