Paralegal Do’s and Don’ts: What can (and can’t) a paralegal do for you

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Just knowing how the paralegal profession came about (the reason for its development) provides much insight into the role of paralegals. Similarly, the paralegal definition itself explains the type of support paralegals provide. Knowing these things, however, stops short of explaining what a paralegal can (and can’t) do for you.

Paralegals: What do they do

By knowing the definition of a paralegal, you know what paralegals do – they provide substantive legal support to attorneys. I know, it still doesn’t really detail what they do. That’s understandable, though. The definition is relatively broad because paralegals perform a broad range of tasks. When I talk to attorneys who don’t know what they can delegate to their paralegal, I tell them to think about all the things they (the attorneys) do throughout the day. That’s what their paralegal can do.

In essence, a paralegal can perform any task an attorney normally does except those that constitute unauthorized practice of the law (UPL) (more on that in a minute). Tasks a paralegal is not already experienced or trained on can be taught by the attorney who is willing to teach his or her paralegal. If you already work with a paralegal, you probably do this without thinking about it; you do so every time you explain a new assignment or your paralegal asks questions about an assignment. A paralegal’s ability to support his or her attorney is limited only by the attorney’s imagination and the paralegal’s willingness to learn.

What paralegals don’t do

A paralegal cannot perform any task that constitutes UPL. Each state defines the actions that constitute unauthorized practice of law. The American Bar Association has dedicated a convenient web page that links to each state’s legal ethics guidelines and rules of professional conduct (where general rules for UPL can be found). Also check for state statutes specific to paralegals for additional definitions of UPL as related to paralegals. In general, though,

• a paralegal cannot set legal fees;
• a paralegal cannot undertake representation;
• a paralegal cannot give legal advice; and
• a paralegal cannot represent a client in court.

Paralegals can assist with everything else an attorney does.

That’s pretty much everything.  But, allow me to recap the main points of the past few posts in order to drive home one final point. Recall from my post on the history of paralegals the purpose of the profession; why it was developed: To support attorneys. And, as the definition postulates, paralegals perform substantive legal tasks for their attorney(s). However, those substantive legal tasks cannot include anything that constitutes UPL. If you put these points together into one cohesive idea, this means paralegals cannot provide legal services to the public. They can only provide substantive legal support under the direction and supervision of an attorney. A paralegal who provides legal services to the public is committing the unauthorized practice of law. (I know, I’ve said that before. I can’t emphasize it enough, though. This is something that really gets under my skin. I have no problem with it if such services are allowed by law and a paralegal is working in compliance with those requirements, but that’s not what happens.)

Now before anyone jumps up and down, let me clarify that I am speaking in reference to the paralegal profession in general; each state’s jurisdictional requirements dictate the depth and breadth of the paralegal’s role. In certain jurisdictions, paralegals may have limited authority to appear in certain proceedings – most often those of administrative agencies and tribunals. Moreover, in certain jurisdictions, document preparers (or professionals of similar title) do provide services to the public. This is different than working as a paralegal. Generally, document preparers are authorized, under very strict requirements, to prepare court-mandated forms for individuals wishing to pursue a legal proceeding in pro per (aka pro se). The document preparer is prohibited from providing any type of advice to the individual, including any advisement or determination of the appropriate forms for the proceeding. You’ll often find that paralegals work as document preparers because of their legal background. They are not, however, paralegals when working in this capacity.

In short

If you have not yet had the opportunity to work with a paralegal you should now at least have a general understanding of the profession. Paralegals are here to assist you with your substantive legal tasks. To help you maintain a work-life balance. To make legal services affordable for your clients. To serve as your right arm through the development and completion of every legal matter you undertake. As the attorney, you are responsible for delegating and supervising the work of your paralegal so you should also be familiar with your jurisdiction’s rules and guidelines as they pertain to paralegals.

To determine what specific tasks you can delegate to your paralegal, look back at your time sheets or keep a list of everything you do as you work through the day. Start by delegating the little tasks and expand from there as you become more comfortable and confident in your paralegal’s abilities. To start you brainstorming, read my brochure, “What is a paralegal?” This brochure, along with several other resources, are available to you on the Resources page of my website, ParalegalSvcs4Attys.com. After you’ve read the brochure, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the other resources available to you. As always, if you’d like to discuss your particular circumstances, let me know. I’m always happy to provide advice and make recommendations.

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One Response to Paralegal Do’s and Don’ts: What can (and can’t) a paralegal do for you

  1. Christine McCombs says:

    This post is so acurate. In my office, we have paralegals and legal secretaries. Our legal secretary does things that are purely administrative for the most part. As a matter of economy, we’ve taught her a few paralegal tasks that are related to her role as a matter of paralegal economy. For instance, our legal secretary handles billing and collections as a primary role. It makes sense for her to know how to draft a Motion to Withdrawal because she is the one who is told when we need to withdrawal from a case. Instead of walking over to my desk and asking for it to be added to my already overwhelming work stack (family and criminal law), she can keep the file at her desk, turn on a timer, knock one out and bill for it. She also manages our receptionist, orders supplies each week, covers for the receptionist and handles a little support for marketing. Whereas I handle case management, legal research, drafting, corresponding with clients and all those associated with their case, and I manage the various systems in place that keep us running smoothly. Like evaluating cases for closure, building knowledge and forms directories. Very different indeed.

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