The Paralegal Profession: [Almost] Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask

When you work as a paralegal in a law firm or legal department, everyone knows your purpose; after all, they hired you to do the job. However, since I began offering paralegal services to attorneys on a full-time basis, I found that MANY attorneys, especially younger attorneys, don’t actually know the paralegal’s role. Some attorneys will come straight out and say, ‘I don’t know what a paralegal could do for me; I don’t even know what they do.’ Others hesitantly admit, with a slight twinge of guilt, that they’re not really sure of the paralegal’s role.

At first, I was surprised. But the more I thought about it I realized it should be no surprise at all — after all, they don’t teach you about paralegal support in law school any more than they teach you how to start, build, and operate your law practice. As such, it only makes sense to start this blog by giving you a little information about the paralegal profession. You’ll find this to be the second in a series on the background of the profession (the first gave a brief history).

What is a paralegal?

Let me first say that a paralegal is not a legal secretary. I frequently hear attorneys, especially solo practitioners, refer to their legal secretary as their “legal assistant” or “paralegal.” (The terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” are used interchangeably. Read this brief post on the history of the paralegal profession to find out why.) However, there is a significant difference between legal secretaries and paralegals. Legal secretaries provide administrative support; their tasks are generally not billable. In contrast, paralegal tasks generally are billable.

The American Bar Association (ABA), a cornerstone in the foundation and development of the paralegal profession, is probably the first body to publish a formal definition for paralegals. (HINT: The ABA is also a tremendous resource for information on paralegals.) Currently, the ABA defines a paralegal as “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.” In short, a paralegal is someone qualified to provide substantive legal support under the direction and supervision of an attorney.

Now to make things interesting, national paralegal associations have also published paralegal definitions for their respective members as have paralegal associations at the state and local levels. In addition, several states have also defined the role of paralegals for the members of their state. States that have not defined the specific term “paralegal” often provide substantially similar definitions for paraprofessionals or nonlawyer assistants. A convenient resource, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) publishes a chart identifying paralegal definitions adopted by each state.

Confused by so many definitions? Don’t worry. Most of these definitions are very similar to the ABA’s definition. However, some states define a paralegal more broadly while others are very specific. In California, for example, one cannot hold oneself out as a, or be given the title of, paralegal unless very specific requirements are met. (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 6450-6456.) California was the first state to develop stringent requirements for paralegals and comes closer to paralegal regulation than any other state. A few other states have also begun to move forward in developing more rigorous guidelines in defining who can be a paralegal, especially Florida. As such, it’s important to be familiar with your jurisdictional requirements.

Let’s find out . . .

In working with attorneys all over the country, I’ve seen paralegals defined and utilized in various ways. As an attorney, how do you generally define paralegals in your area? Is there a distinction between legal secretaries and paralegals/legal assistants? Please share in the comments below and be sure to include your geographical location. I’m curious to know!

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