Paralegals perform a wide variety of tasks to assist an attorney or a legal department. For the most part, a paralegal handles or assists in functions that would otherwise have to be done by an attorney. In this way, paralegals considerably lighten the attorney’s load and improve the speed, and productivity of the legal work at hand.
Paralegals are paid well – generally, about $30,000 to $80,000 per year – but attorney overhead and salaries still result in billing rates that exceed paralegal billing rates by twice or three times. So paralegals don’t just improve the speed and productivity of the services provided to clients; they also help provide those superior results more cost-effectively.
As a paramedic is to a physician, so is a paralegal to an attorney; in both cases, the para may play a vital role in the outcome for the patient or client.
Paralegals may also perform some administrative and clerical functions in common with the typical duties of legal assistants, legal secretaries and file clerks.
In general, however, compared to administrative support personnel, a paralegal’s work more closely approaches and overlaps with that of a licensed attorney, and a paralegal has more advanced research skills and more expertise -- in both legal theory and legal practice and procedure.
The day-to-day activities of a paralegal vary, depending on:
- The type of employer, i.e. law-firm, government agency, non-profit organization, or corporate legal department.
- The area of law, social mission, or industry involved.
- The paralegal’s specialization, if any.
Typical paralegal job activities
Let’s consider some typical paralegal duties that nearly all paralegals encounter in their careers.
Most paralegal positions will include some or all of the following duties:
- Legal research, usually followed by organization, analysis and presentation of the significant implications of the information found by the paralegal. Paralegals assist attorneys in preparation for trials, administrative initiatives, real estate closings, and hearings and meetings of all kinds. They conduct legal and factual research. They gather and organize the relevant facts, legal principles and precedents for a case, identify the applicable laws, precedents, and published opinions and articles. The paralegal would then prepare a functional presentation of all of the preceding. This may include not just reports for the attorney, but also exhibits for the court and presentations to clients.
- Law office administration
Draft legal documents
This can include complaints, deposition notices, subpoenas, legal briefs, interrogatories, and pretrial orders.
Conducting client interviews
An attorney will usually conduct initial client interviews, but a paralegal may be present to take notes. Paralegals also often conduct follow-up client interviews and routine interviews as required by the ongoing legal matters at hand.
- Investigate the facts of a case. This may include conducting witness interviews and other investigations as needed:
- Draft correspondence
- Maintain files and dockets
- Attend client meetings, various types of administrative hearings, execution of wills, real estate closings, and/or court or hearings and trials
Other common paralegal duties
Other duties that are slightly less ubiquitous, but nonetheless span many paralegal positions include:
- Working with witnesses (e.g. interviewing)
- Participating in court hearings
- Write petitions and file them
Miscellaneous administrative and other duties:
This may include answering telephone calls, maintaining reference files, maintaining case dockets and attorney schedules, calling witnesses to set up interviews, scheduling meetings, hearings, administrative procedures and depositions; some paralegals also make travel arrangements when needed, and may attend trials, real estate closings, meetings, depositions, will executions, and hearings of all kinds.
Not all paralegals are the same
Paralegals can choose a specialty, and build their expertise and qualifications for that specialty through education and experience.
Paralegals can also choose the kind of employer they wish to work for – private-practice attorney or law-firm, public-defender, government agency, NGO or non-profit, or corporate law department.
A paralegal’s salary, schedule, and day-to-day activities will vary considerably based on these choices. Individuals should investigate any contemplated career path in detail; as an introduction, however, let’s consider a few different types of paralegal jobs and look at how dramatically the day-to-day work life of one can differ from another.
Some of the more popular areas of paralegal specialization include:
- Corporate law
- Family law
- Nurse paralegal
- U.S. military paralegal specialist
- Real Estate
- Estate planning, probate and trust paralegal
- Intellectual property
- Criminal defense law
- Banking and finance law
- Public defense
- Judicial paralegals
There are also certain industries that require de-facto paralegal specialization, such as the fossil fuels, mining, and waste-management industries. Similarly, software development and other technical and innovative fields that have an intensity of intellectual property protection and proprietary licensing needs require the services of a skilled paralegal.
The Wide Variety of Paralegal Career Directions and Work Life
Let’s examine several differing paralegal career directions to appreciate the range and variety of potential daily work lifestyles for an aspiring paralegal. First, let’s take a look at the following four paralegal career directions:
Family law paralegal
Child custody and child welfare issues, domestic violence, same-sex domestic partnerships, adoptions, divorce, paternity suits, and prenuptial agreements are all examples of issues that fall under the rubric of family law.
Military paralegal specialist
Because of the broad scope of military life and potential issues within military organizations, military paralegal specialists may require expertise in contract law, fiscal law, criminal law, family law, administrative law, and international law.
A nurse paralegal may be called upon to evaluate whether a medical professional acted negligently and whether patients received the appropriate level of medical care. The daily work life of a nurse paralegal may include reviewing medical records and other legal documents, and interpreting medical terminology to help an attorney understand a case.
The daily work of the bankruptcy paralegal requires finance and accounting skills. The paralegal may interview clients, analyze their businesses finances – or investigating the finances of debtors, when working for creditors. Drafting and filing the numerous and lengthy documents required for the bankruptcy process are a constant.
Just like attorneys and doctors, the potential lives and careers of a paralegal are as varied as are their passions and interests.
The preceding were just four examples among dozens of possible paralegal career directions.
These do not by any means exhaust the potential variety of possibilities:
An immigration paralegal, for example, may need multiple language skills and may be challenged with obtaining documents from foreign governments. A public defender paralegal, on the other hand, may be involved in numerous criminal defenses for indigent clients, and spend a lot of time in jail-house meeting rooms and courtrooms.
Likewise, a corporate paralegal may focus on the legal issues for the latest emerging software or technology -- whereas the life of a paralegal who chooses to work for a non-profit or NGO will center around the specific mission of that organization, whether it be serving the health and education needs of children, protecting the environment or any other mission.
Aspiring paralegals should also think about what environment they will be happiest in – e.g., consider the differences between an urban corporate office, a small private law firm, a government agency, or an independent non-profit organization. The life a freelance paralegal is another option: freelance paralegals have the challenge of lining up work and don’t have a guaranteed paycheck, but one benefit is that they can choose which clients and jobs to take on.
Also consider whether you will spend most of your day in the office doing research and paperwork, or in the field, spending time in court or doing interviews and other investigational work. And as discussed in a separate article, there are also differing salary ranges for each potential paralegal career direction.
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