What is a Paralegal? - dummies

By Lisa Zimmer Hatch, Scott A. Hatch

Both paralegals and lawyers are legal professionals. The difference is that an attorney must supervise a paralegal’s work, and a paralegal can’t do certain things, like give legal advice and represent clients in court.

But there are many things paralegals can do.

paralegal in law library
©By Kzenon/Shutterstock.com

What does a paralegal do?

Because using a paralegal instead of an attorney can save a lot of money, law firms and corporations are increasingly relying on paralegals. As a paralegal, you’ll likely be doing many of the tasks that in past decades were accomplished only by licensed attorneys.

Researching and analyzing the law

Courts make decisions about current cases based on the decisions made in past cases. So, to effectively prepare a case, you have to know what the courts have decided in similar circumstances and evaluate them to figure out how they apply to the case you’re working on. You find prior cases and relevant statutes through legal research.

Performing legal research can eat up gobs of time, so attorneys often count on competent paralegals to take up this duty. No matter which area of law you enter, you’ll have to do legal research. If you work in areas that frequently require litigation, you’ll do lots of research, but even other areas like domestic law, trusts and estates, corporate law, and entertainment law are going to require you to hit the books.

Of course, legal research has increasingly moved away from books and into computer technology. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be doing less research, just that you may be doing more of it from your desk rather than heading to a law library.

Your job doesn’t stop with the accumulation of research. You also have to analyze the information by applying law to facts and probably draft memos that present your analysis for the lawyers in your firm. You may need to apply the information that you find to a corporate contract, will, or other legal document. In many cases, you may even be asked to do initial writing on motions that will actually be filed in court. So although you may not be speaking in court, your work will be.

Interviewing and investigating

Cases aren’t only about relevant statutes and case precedents; they’re also about the facts. You may interview witnesses and collect evidence in your paralegal career. Evidence gathering is especially important in any kind of litigation. Litigation results in many areas of law. For example, corporate law may involve litigation stemming from contract disputes or product liability; patent and trademark law may lead to trials over intellectual property rights; and family law features frequent litigation, especially stemming from divorce and child custody issues.

For each of these kinds of lawsuits, there are witnesses to interview and evidence to gather. For example, if your supervising attorney were working for a plaintiff in a product liability suit, you would need to gather information on the harm caused by the product, interview other people who may have been adversely affected by the product, work to determine what the company knew of the danger and when, and collect information from any additional witnesses.

Even if you aren’t working in litigation, you may still need your interview and investigation skills. For example, when you help prepare a prenuptial agreement for a family law practice, you need to determine the client’s assets and investigate the background of the future spouse. If you’re working for attorneys in entertainment law who are reviewing a record deal for one of their clients, you may have to investigate the details of the deal or the record company. Whatever the area of law you become involved in, you’ll use your interview and investigation skills.

Convening with clients

Without clients, the practice of law wouldn’t exist. Tasks like legal research and document preparation may seem to be the main duties of legal professionals. But, you only engage in these and other legal tasks because you’re working on behalf of a client. Establishing good relationships with clients is essential to open communication and good legal practice — and it’s also important to strengthening your career.

During your paralegal career you may find that you’re often the liaison between the client and the attorneys you work for, which may be one of the most important duties you have. As the liaison, you keep the client informed of how the case is progressing and work with the client to get all the relevant case information. Then you accurately relay what the client tells you to the attorney who represents the client.

As a paralegal, you generally aren’t allowed to have your own clients. If you tell clients that you’re representing them in a legal matter, you’re probably guilty of the unauthorized practice of law. So, in every case, clearly communicate to the client your status as a paralegal. All your duties are supervised by a licensed attorney, which means that you communicate everything the client tells you to your supervising attorney. Attorney-client privilege doesn’t require or even allow you to keep any secrets from your client’s lawyer.

Administrating the legal environment

In some offices, you may work as a case administrator. An administrator handles the case details for a client and the attorney. For example, law firms have special accounts where they keep money that belongs to clients rather than to the firm. If a client wins a judgment or if money included in a will is being dispersed, that money passes though the accounts of a law firm. Or, you may keep track of the money bequeathed through a will if you work for a probate attorney.

In a small law office, your paralegal duties may also include administrating the entire operation, including the filing system, the calendar, and the billings.

Where paralegals work

Paralegals work in many different areas of the law. Some paralegals choose to earn high salaries in corporate law or complex litigation. Other paralegals work for low-income clients or for public interest or environmental law firms. Some paralegals like the personal atmosphere of a small firm and others take control of their futures by starting their own paralegal businesses. There are as many different choices for paralegals as there are types of law!

Big law firm

If you think that attorneys are the only legal professionals capable of making six-figure salaries, you’re wrong! In bigger cities, experienced paralegals working for large firms can make more than $100,000 per year. Two factors have a big influence on the salary you can earn as a paralegal:

  • Your level of experience: The longer you work as a paralegal, the more valuable you become. (That’s why it’s important to get started on your career as soon as possible.) As you develop your skills, you’ll be given more complex tasks and get paid accordingly.
  • Your area of specialization and the responsibilities of your job: If you choose to specialize in corporate law or litigation, you have a high earning potential. Increased salaries usually mean more responsibility. The highest paid paralegals often supervise other paralegals or have particularly important duties within the firm.

Here are some areas of the law where paralegals often make the highest salaries:

  • Litigation: Paralegals working in the field of litigation have some of the most interesting, and challenging, duties available to legal professionals. Litigation can be fast-paced and complex with dozens of potential witnesses and mountains of evidence. It takes qualified and talented lawyers and paralegals to deal with complicated litigation. If you aren’t afraid of intense work that often extends beyond the normal workweek, you may have what it takes to make a big salary in litigation.
  • Corporate law: Corporate law involves important and lucrative deals. Contracts, mergers, takeovers, and issuing of stock constitute just some of the activities of a corporate legal team. If you have an eye for detail and you’re interested in business, corporate law could mean a big deal for you.
  • Other special areas of law: Another way to make a high salary is to specialize. Paralegals are always in demand in certain specialties. These specialties require knowledge of more than just the law. For example if you have a degree in chemistry, you could specialize as a paralegal working with the pharmaceutical industry. Nurses find highly paid positions as consultants in firms that specialize in medical malpractice.

Examples of areas where your interests can turn into a high paying paralegal position include patent and trademark law, environmental protection and other areas involving science, and medical malpractice and product liability.

Small law firm

Working in corporate law, complex litigation or an unusual specialty might not be for you. Paralegals do tend to earn the most in these areas, but salary isn’t everything. Working in a small firm offers many advantages, and if you don’t want to live in one of the big cities in the United States, a small firm may be your best option.

As a paralegal in a small firm, you may find yourself performing diverse tasks while working on a wide variety of cases. You might be compiling asset information for a bankruptcy filing, interviewing witnesses for a child custody issue, helping a client draft a will, and assisting a small business with incorporation. Talk about multitasking!

If you like to constantly confront new challenges, if you like seeing your efforts have immediate results for real people, and if you’re flexible enough to do your best with any assignment you’re given, the small firm might be the choice for you. Plus, small firms often offer opportunities for fledgling paralegals to get their feet in the door.

The pro bono paralegal

If you’re willing to sacrifice salary for public assistance, you could become a paralegal at one of the pro bono firms that work for justice rather than profit. These firms work to help disadvantaged clients, save the environment, uphold civil rights, and protect constitutionally guaranteed liberties. By working for one of these firms, you’ll pull in a modest salary but make a big difference!

Government paralegals

A growing area of employment for paralegals is with the public sector. All levels of government and court systems employ paralegals. The biggest federal employer of paralegals is the Department of Justice, followed by the Social Security Administration and the Treasury Department, but nearly every cabinet department employs paralegals. State governments have been hiring new paralegals at increasing rates. Paralegals have been replacing licensed attorneys in bureaucracies because using paralegals saves governments lots of money.

If you choose to become a paralegal in the public sector, you’ll be a member of a bureaucracy. The public sector has more defined rules and procedures and more definite job descriptions and roles than the private sector does. Working for a small firm, you might be asked to perform just about any task required for a client. Working for the government, you’ll likely have a strictly defined job description and a firm knowledge of exactly what you’ll be doing each day.

The public sector pays less than large firms but generally more than small firms. Government employment also tends to be less risky then employment in the private sector. Government employees have more rights, including the protection of certain personnel procedures that don’t allow government employees to be fired on a whim. Government jobs also tend to provide excellent benefits packages. If you favor stability, a public sector job may be right for you.

The paralegal as independent contractor

On the other end of the spectrum from stable government employment is the paralegal entrepreneur. If you don’t want to be tied down to a single firm, if you want the opportunity to work for different firms on different projects, or if you’re comfortable taking risks and reaping the rewards that come with being your own boss, you may choose to strike out on your own as an independent contractor.

Independent contractors are paralegals for hire. If a small law firm suddenly gets involved in big litigation, it needs lots of help. Instead of hiring a bunch of employees and paying them benefits, the firm may be better off contracting with a freelance paralegal. Of course, freelance paralegals still have to be supervised by an attorney. But, by creating your own paralegal contracting service, you can take more control of your professional life than you usually can working for one particular firm.