A paralegal is someone who performs delegated legal work for which a lawyer is ultimately responsible. They perform a variety of tasks which include maintaining and organizing files, drafting documents and conducting legal research. Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for law firms, government agencies, or corporate legal departments.
Paralegals may typically do the following:
Paralegals help lawyers prepare for trials, hearings and corporate meetings. Depending on the size of the organization or firm, a paralegal's duties could vary, especially in a smaller firm. In addition to reviewing and organizing information, paralegals may prepare written reports that help lawyers determine how to handle their cases. If lawyers decide to file lawsuits on behalf of clients, paralegals may help draft documents and prepare the legal arguments to be filed with the court.
Rather than handling a case from beginning to end, paralegals that are employed in larger organizations work mostly on a particular phase of a case. For example, a litigation paralegal might only review legal material for internal use, conduct research for lawyers, maintain reference files, and collect and organize evidence for hearings. Litigation paralegals often do not attend trials, but might draft settlement agreements or prepare trial documents.
Law firms increasingly use computer software and technology in preparing for trials and for managing documents. Paralegals use computer software to prepare presentations and draft and index documents. In addition, paralegals must be up to date on the latest software used for electronic discovery and familiar with electronic database management. Electronic discovery refers to all electronic materials that are related to a trial, such as data, emails, accounting databases, documents and websites.
Paralegals can assume more responsibilities by specializing in different areas. Some of these areas could be litigation, corporate law, criminal law, personal injury, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, real estate and family law. In addition, experienced paralegals may assume supervisory responsibilities, such as delegating work to other paralegals or overseeing team projects.
There are several paths to becoming a paralegal. One can enrol in a community college paralegal program to earn an associate’s degree. A limited number of schools also offer bachelor’s and master's degrees in paralegal studies. For those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, they can also earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Some employers may also hire entry-level paralegals without any experience or education in paralegal studies and train them on the job, although these jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree.
Associate’s and bachelor's degree programs in paralegal studies usually combine courses in legal research and the legal applications of computers with other academic subjects. Most certificate programs provide this paralegal training for people who already hold college degrees. Some certificate programs only take a few months to complete.
Many paralegal training programs also offer an internship, in which students gain practical experience by working for several months in a private law firm, a corporate legal department, the office of a public defender or attorney general, a government agency or a legal aid organization. Internship experience helps the students improve technical skills and can enhance their employment prospects.
Sometimes employers hire college graduates with no legal experience or education and train them on the job. In these cases, the new employee often has experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such as criminal justice or tax preparation. That being said, employers prefer candidates who have at least one year of experience in a law firm or other office setting and have technical understanding of a specific legal specialty. For example, a personal-injury law firm may desire a paralegal with a background in health administration or nursing. It is particularly important for people who do not have formal paralegal training to have work experience in a law firm or other office setting.
Many local and national paralegal organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications to students able to pass an exam. Yet other organizations offer voluntary paralegal certifications for those who meet certain experience and education criteria.
Paralegals usually require less supervision and are given more responsibilities as they gain work experience, and experienced paralegals may delegate assignments to clerical staff and other paralegals.
Paralegals are found in all types of organizations, but most work for a corporation's legal department, government agencies or law firms. They usually work full time, and although most paralegals work year round, some are temporarily employed during busy times of the year. Paralegals who work for law firms may need to work overtime to meet deadlines. Occasionally, paralegals travel to gather information and do other tasks, but for the most part work in offices and law libraries.