Forty years ago, when the paralegal profession was in its infancy, lawyers were not yet certain of the best way to use them, so they would often doubled as legal secretaries. Today, paralegals play an integral role in the delivery of legal services. While they still may perform administrative tasks, many paralegals assume much of a lawyer’s workload, employing an advanced understanding of the legal system. This frees the lawyer to focus on providing legal representation and saves clients money.
The day-to-day work of a paralegal can vary tremendously depending on the place of employment and the paralegal’s specialty. Litigation paralegals will have considerable work related to trials, while in-house legal staff for corporations can spend much of their time drafting board resolutions and filing documentation related to business needs.
However, some elements of the job description are similar no matter the field of practice.
According to the National Association of Legal Assistant’s 2016 Utilization & Compensation Survey Report, paralegals are more often being included in more sophisticated work that involves using independent judgment during client interactions and when performing case management and administrative duties.
The Paralegal’s Role
Paralegals Are Detail-Oriented
When a court filing needs to be proofed and double-checked, or an oral argument fact-checked, it is most often a paralegal that lawyers will turn to in order to make sure the job is done right.
Tiny mistakes lead to life-altering consequences in legal matters, and paralegals are charged with preventing those mistakes.
Paralegals Are Researchers and Investigators
No stone is left unturned, whether they are researching precedent in LexisNexis or combing through depositions looking for inconsistencies.
Critical thinking skills and legal knowledge set paralegals apart from other law office staff. This allows them to understand and follow leads, grasping the thread of a case in the same way that a lawyer would do and pulling to find out where it unravels.
Paralegals Are Communicators
Paralegals are conduits for information. They get more face time with clients than anyone else in the office, explaining the process and asking critical questions.
Paralegals are also a point of contact for law firms, interacting directly with opposing counsel, courts and law clerks, support staff within the firm, cooperating attorneys, contractors and potential clients.
Paralegals must become excellent writers, fully conversant in legal language and able to translate legalese into plain English.
Paralegals Are Organizers
They put exceptional organizational skills to use building and maintaining case files and documents, and increasingly, they are expected to be the office expert in high tech data storage and collection systems.
Paralegals ensure that firms adhere to court calendars and hunt down and eliminate schedule conflicts before they turn into case-killers. They coordinate times and attendance for depositions and they provide lawyers with a second set of eyes and hands in all court proceedings.
Paralegals Are Specialists
Most paralegals specialize in certain aspects of the law or types of cases:
- Estate planning and probate
- Family Law
- Intellectual Property
- Real Estate
…as well as many other types of law.
Even outside of law firms, paralegals working in corporations or as consultants often have a certain aspect of the law or type of task they specialize in. Within their own area of expertise, a paralegal can become as valuable a resource as a skilled lawyer.
Paralegals Are Independent Freelance Contractors
Some paralegals hang out their own shingle and call the shots in their own firms outside the corporate rat race.
In some industries, paralegal-owned businesses are the norm. Nurse paralegals, for instance, often operate as consultants and expert witnesses under their own auspices. And the amount of legal training paralegals receive makes them good candidates to open and operate legal services firms.
Paralegals Are Versatile
A paralegal can walk into work in the morning to deal with preparing exhibits for a major wrongful death case and end up being dragged into providing a final polish on a motion for summary judgment that has to be filed by day’s end.
Many paralegals at law firms or in corporations serve a number of different bosses. They may support several lawyers or serve as a resource for a number of different departments. Switching tracks in a heartbeat without missing a step is all in a day’s work.
Paralegals Are Part of the Business Team In Corporate America
From insurance companies to media conglomerates to multinational manufacturing firms, legal expertise has become a vital component of important business decisions. Paralegals may be the go-to resource for up-to-date information on everything from corporate entity structure to tax law and strategy to public policy.
Paralegals Are Leaders
One task that often gets delegated down from attorneys to paralegals is the responsibility for coordinating and supervising the firm’s support staff. Paralegals can take on leadership roles both in law firms and private businesses, supervising other paralegals, secretaries, or staff.
Paralegals make excellent law office managers since they understand the legal aspects of the work the firm specializes in doing. They are ideally situated to make the hard calls about resource allocation and staffing and they speak the language required to coordinate lawyers and support staff.
Paralegal careers evolve with the practice of law, but every current trend points to them continuing to become even more important both in law firms and corporations. Their status as the right-hand of practicing attorneys has been cemented in the legal field and their value to business is being proven daily.
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