When building a support team of professionals, attorneys often hire multiple paralegals. Much as nurses assist surgeons, paralegals assist attorneys, communicating between attorneys, clients, and outside parties. Paralegals provide a wide variety of legal services and perform many of the same tasks as attorneys, making them a powerful asset to lawyers and legal offices. The specific ways in which paralegals assist attorneys differ depending on their specific type of workplace.
The paralegal profession requires three main skills: reading, writing, and communicating. Paralegals split their time between computers, law libraries, telephones, and other people.
Reading and Writing
Paralegals devote many hours to reading and writing: researching laws, legal books, databases, articles, and other materials, as well as filing forms, drafting documents, and writing case reports.
As the liaison between lawyers and the outside world, paralegals work directly with clients, experts, reporters, and countless others. Paralegals also contact outside sources for forms or information.
Variability. There is no “typical day” for paralegals. They provide various functions, from creating “Exhibit A” to obtaining medical records to reviewing contracts. And as in any career, a paralegal's experience will differ by agency, organization, and employer. The level of stress, work, responsibility, and even respect will vary. But the legal versatility and efficiency of paralegals have garnered much esteem in recent years. Employment is expected to soar, although competition will also rise.
Paralegals work mostly for private law firms, corporate legal departments, and government organizations. While corporate and government paralegals usually work standard 40-hour weeks, law firm paralegals may work long, irregular hours.
Inexperienced paralegals may perform simple secretarial tasks under supervision, but experience brings more varied duties and less supervision. Experienced paralegals may serve as technology experts or mentor inexperienced paralegals.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2008 report, the highest paid paralegals worked for oil companies, medical laboratories, software publishers, and computer equipment manufacturing. The highest paid paralegals worked in Washington D.C. , New York , California , and Illinois .
Many paralegals enjoy luxurious benefits: bonuses, paid sick leave, savings plans, life insurance, dental insurance, and/or reimbursement for continuing legal education. Paralegals also gain invaluable legal experience that some later use as attorneys or other legal authority.
Paralegal associations offer ethical and professional guidelines to promote ethicality and professionalism. See our home page for links to the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Capital Area Paralegal Association, and more.
Litigation Paralegals work for attorneys in private law firms. When clients seek legal aid, paralegals gather all the relevant information into reports or databases that attorneys can use to decide whether to take clients' cases to trial. Litigation paralegals must understand court procedures, legal research techniques, and computer programs. As a result, they quickly become experts in technology, research, and public relations.
Initiating legal action
The first step is meeting the client and investigating the bare bones of the case.
Paralegals intensify investigations of the case and research public sources and legal material to ensure that the attorneys understand and consider all relevant information. Paralegals utilize computers and libraries, but many also conduct interviews, consult experts, contact opponents, and observe depositions.
Paralegals organize their research and important documents into reports and databases. Attorneys review the reports, then make their decision: settle the case without going to trial, or take the case to trial on behalf of the client. If they choose the latter, paralegals prepare the attorneys for trial.
Paralegals organize case documents; arrange witnesses, jurors, experts, and exhibits; and help attorneys prepare legal arguments, pleadings, and motions. Some attend trial to take notes and handle exhibits.
Once the court makes a decision, paralegals help attorneys either dispute or accept the decision.
Once clients are satisfied, paralegals prepare settlement bills and forms. Paralegals also organize and file settled cases.
Litigation paralegals and attorneys do not work solely on litigations. They also help clients plan estates, write contracts, write wills, or other legal procedure. In addition, paralegals inform the agency of important laws, agency regulations, and agency policies.
Corporate Paralegals work with staff attorneys in corporate legal departments to form and run corporations. They must understand the legal and financial aspects of businesses, as well as federal economic systems like the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service, and Uniform Commercial Code.
Paralegals file the forms that build partnerships between attorneys and clients seeking to start a corporation.
Paralegals file legal and financial forms with the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies to establish the corporation.
Once the corporation is formed, paralegals ensure that it runs successfully and legally. Many paralegals assist attorneys with employee contracts, stock options, and other business legalities. They also monitor government regulations to ensure that corporations operate legally. Additionally, experienced paralegals supervise team projects within the corporate legal department.