What is a Paralegal?

What is a Paralegal?

Written by Robert E. Mongue, J.D.
Robert E. MonqueRobert E. Mongue, J.D. is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Mississippi. A 1976 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, he has over thirty years of experience as a trial and appellate attorney in both state and federal courts. Robert is also the curator of The Empowered Paralegal.

Paralegals work everywhere attorneys work and do much of the same work under the supervision of an attorney, similar to what physician assistants or nurse practitioners do in the medical field. There are no governmental established standards or qualifications for becoming a paralegal but most participants in the American legal system accept the American Bar Association’s definition of a paralegal:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

Historical Development

While people performing the role of paralegals have existed almost as long as attorneys have been practicing law, paralegals were not formally recognized as a separate profession until the 1960s. At that time, many law firms made a distinction between “legal assistants” and “paralegals,” but that distinction has largely disappeared as the role of the paralegal had become more defined. Similarly, the route to becoming a paralegal has evolved over the last fifty years.

While the generally accepted definition of “paralegal” requires that they be qualified by “education, training, or work experience,” there are still formalized standards for that education, training, or work experience. In the early years of the profession’s development, paralegals often started out as file clerks and, solely through experience, worked their way up to become a legal secretary and then a paralegal. Now, however, it is much more common for employers to expect prospective paralegals to have some formal training.

Growth of the Paralegal Profession

With the growth of government regulation and the increase in citizens using the court system to resolve differences, legal issues have also increased as part of each of our daily lives. It has become more and more important that individuals and entities have the assistance of people trained in the law. For example, real estate transactions that once required only a deed now require extensive documentation and disclosures complying with federal and state disclosure and conveyance of laws. In addition, new areas of law continue to grow as our society becomes more complex, creating a need for legal personnel in areas such intellectual property, health care, international law, elder law, and environmental law.

At the same time, it has become necessary to find ways to reduce the costs of these legal services and to perform them more efficiently so they are affordable and available not only to large corporations and the wealthy, but also to small businesses and middle- and lower-class citizens. Paralegals have been at the forefront of this effort. They receive less legal training than attorneys but bring that training together with skills in organization, technology, written and oral communication, legal research, and client relations under the supervision of an attorney to provide the necessary reduction in cost and increase in efficiency.

According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals and legal assistants, terms generally used interchangeably, is projected to grow 18 percent between 2010 and 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations.

As the paralegal profession has grown, so have paralegal professional associations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. These associations provide networking, continuing education, and certification opportunities to their members while working to improve the paralegal profession and provide greater benefits to the public.

Paralegal Duties and Compensation

Paralegals as a profession have taken on more substantive legal work as the profession has developed. They perform legal research, write legal memoranda, draft documents including court pleadings, investigate facts, and generally assist attorneys in preparing for real estate closings, court and administrative hearings of all types, and business meetings. Paralegal have a role in every area of law including litigation, contracts, torts, domestic law, business organizations, will and estate administration, and criminal law. In all cases, the attorney takes ultimate responsibility.

Exact duties and compensation for paralegals depend on many factors. While every paralegal works under the supervision of an attorney, even “virtual” or “freelance” paralegals, a paralegal working for a small law firm in a rural community doing a general practice will, of course, have quite different duties than a paralegal working for an attorney in a large big-city firm focusing on complex business litigation. Each will have quite different duties than paralegals working in a government offices.

These factors as well as the experience, education, and capability of the individual paralegal also affect compensation. According to the National Association of Legal Assistants, the average salary for paralegals responding to their 2012 compensation survey was $57,000 including salary and bonuses.  However, this figure can be misleading as most paralegals earn less, especially at the beginning of their careers.

Paralegal Education and Qualifications

There are several avenues for obtaining formal training. Some educational institutions offer paralegal “certificates” based on minimal coursework devoted entirely to the skills and knowledge needed buy paralegals. These certificates should not be confused with certification provided through paralegal professional associations. Certificates simply state that coursework has been completed. Certification certifies that the paralegal has demonstrated competency in paralegal skills and knowledge.

As the profession has matured, employers look for more comprehensive formal education in the form of degree programs with majors in paralegal studies. Associate degree (two year) programs are offered by many community colleges and private educational institutions. However, full four-year bachelor’s degree programs are becoming increasingly common. As paralegals advance in their careers, they may even opt to obtain a master’s degree in paralegal studies.

Persons interested in a paralegal education should explore the many educational opportunities provided by reputable educational institutions. The American Bar Association provides a list of “ABA Approved” programs.  ABA approval is not accreditation. Because ABA approval is voluntary there are many quality programs that opt not to obtain it because it requires expenditure of resources that, in the opinion of the institution, can be better directed to enhancing the institution’s program. ABA does not approve online programs regardless of their quality.

All of the institutional members of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) are fully accredited by regional accreditation agencies.  AAfPE also provides useful information on evaluating a paralegal educational program.