Paralegals are often referred to as the members of a law firm, legal government body or other legal organisations who “do” what the fee-earners, or lawyers “consider” or “advise”. They are generally individuals hired by lawyers who provide indispensable administrative and research-based services, assisting on various cases on the basis of their expertise and potential specializations.
Depending on the country, they may have followed a similar education path to the lawyers they work with or they may have built up their legal knowledge through work experience. Whether through education or training they need to be qualified to perform the research or tasks requested of them to a high standard. Yet, regardless of their seniority within their field, a paralegal always works under the supervision and responsibility of a lawyer, and on such tasks as are assigned to them by said lawyer.
What is a paralegal not allowed to do?
There are, in fact a number of things that a paralegal is not authorized to do, and which sets paralegals apart from lawyers. Paralegals cannot:
- Represent a client in court
- Provide legal advice without the supervision of a lawyer
- Set or enforce legal fees
- Perform notarial activities
Nonetheless, as mentioned above, paralegals do have fairly extensive responsibilities within the legal firms or corporations they work for and they can be called on to perform a variety of duties.
What does a paralegal do?
The daily tasks of a paralegal can vary widely by specialty and can depend greatly on their level of experience and the roles their place of employment wants them to fulfil. That said, all paralegals are drawn together by a few common responsibilities which include:
- Conducting legal research
- Investigating the facts of a case
- Preparing reports for lawyers
- Drafting correspondence to clients
- Drafting legal documentation
- Assisting lawyers in preparing for court cases
- Attending interviews with clients
Paralegals additionally need to be confident and up-to-date on their knowledge of relevant law and guidelines as their positions involve more than simply filing legal documentation and can easily extend into assisting a wider legal team in developing legal arguments and motions.
From a specialisation perspective, the following are examples of tasks paralegals may carry out within specific legal fields:
- Arranging for mediation in family law matters
- Preparing the documents required to obtain a visa for a client in immigration law matters
- Gathering medical reports on behalf of a plaintiff in personal injury cases
- Drafting contracts in corporate legal matters
- Making the required arrangements to post bail in criminal law matters
Of course, not all paralegals are specialised into strict areas of law, but it is a phenomenon often perceived in larger law firms where departments are carefully staffed. Conversely, in smaller offices, or where paralegals are hired by one or a few lawyers practicing independently, they are more likely to be performing a wider variety of duties on a more general basis.
Overall, paralegals are individuals who possess extensive legal training but who have not passed the requisite qualification exams or completed the required training to qualify as lawyers. As such, they are often capable of performing similar duties to lawyers, but they are generally given less decision-making responsibility.
That is not to say that being a paralegal is simply a halfway point to becoming a lawyer or that all paralegals aspire to be lawyers. Being a paralegal requires an organized, inquisitive mind, a passion for legal research, and incredibly well-honed people skills. Paralegals often form the backbone of any firm or legal organization and are thus invaluable in their own right.