Not all legal work requires a lawyer's expertise. In recent years, lawyers have increasingly used paralegals--also called "paralegals" or "legal technicians"--to provide legal services to more persons at less cost.
Paralegals work directly under the supervision of a lawyer. While the lawyer assumes responsibility for the legal assistant's work, a legal assistant is often allowed to perform all the functions of a lawyer other than accepting clients, setting legal fees, giving legal advice, or presenting a case in court.
Paralegals generally do background work for the lawyer. To help a lawyer prepare a case for trial, a legal assistant investigates the facts of the case to make sure that all relevant information is uncovered. The legal assistant conducts research to identify the appropriate laws, judicial decisions, legal articles, and other material that will be used to determine whether the client has a good case or not. After analyzing all the information, the legal assistant prepares a written report that is used by the attorney to decide how the case should be handled. If the attorney decides to bring a lawsuit for the client, the legal assistant may prepare legal arguments, draft pleadings to be filed with the court, obtain affidavits, and assist the attorney during the trial. The legal assistant also may keep files of all documents and correspondence important to the case.
Besides trial-related work, paralegals may help draft documents such as contracts, mortgages, separation agreements, and trust instruments. They may help prepare tax returns and plan estates. Some paralegals coordinate the activities of law office employees and keep the financial records for the office.
Paralegals who work for corporations help attorneys handle corporate matters such as employee benefit plans. They may help prepare and file annual financial reports and secure loans for the corporation. Paralegals also review government regulations to make sure that the corporation operates within the law.
The duties of paralegals who work in government vary depending on the type of agency that employs them. Generally, paralegals in government analyze legal material for internal use, maintain reference files, conduct research for attorneys, collect and analyze evidence for agency hearings, and prepare informative or explanatory material on the law, agency regulations, and agency policy for general use by the agency and the public.
Paralegals employed in community legal service projects help the poor, the aged, and other persons in need of legal aid. They file forms, conduct research, and prepare documents. When authorized by law, they may represent clients at administrative hearings.
Some paralegals, usually those in small and medium-sized law firms, have varied duties. One day the legal assistant may do research on judicial decisions on improper police arrests and the next day may help prepare a mortgage contract. This requires a general knowledge of many areas of the law.
Most paralegals work for large, departmentalized law firms, government agencies, and corporations and specialize in one area of the law. Some specialties are real estate, estate planning, family law, labor law, litigation, and corporate law. Even within specialties, functions often are broken down further so that a legal assistant deals with one narrow area of the specialty. For example, paralegals who specialize in labor law may deal exclusively with employee benefits.
A growing number of paralegals are using computers in their work. Computer software packages are increasingly used to search legal literature stored in the computer and identify legal texts relevant to a specific subject. In litigation that involves many supporting documents, paralegals may use computers to organize and index the material. Paralegals may also use computer software packages to perform tax computations and explore the consequences of possible tax strategies for clients.
Paralegals do most of their work at desks in offices and law libraries. Occasionally, they travel to gather information and perform other duties. They may work alone or with others. Most legal assistant work a standard 40-hour week. Sometimes, they work very long hours and are under pressure to meet deadlines. They usually do not get paid for overtime work, although they may receive compensatory time off.
Paralegals handle many routine assignments. Some find that these assignments offer little challenge and become frustrated with their duties. On the other hand, many lawyers assign more responsible tasks as the legal assistant gains experience. Furthermore, as new laws and judicial interpretations emerge, paralegals are exposed to many new legal problems that make their work more interesting and challenging.
Paralegals held nearly 87,000 jobs in 1990; private law firms employed the majority. Paralegals are found in nearly every Federal Government agency; the Departments of Justice, Treasury, Interior, and Health and Human Services and the General Services Administration are the largest employers. State and local governments and publicly funded legal service projects also employ paralegals. Banks, real estate development companies, insurance companies, accounting firms, management consulting firms, manufacturing firms, and other corporate offices hire paralegals.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
There are several ways to enter the legal assistant profession. Increasingly, employers require formal legal assistant training. However, some employers prefer to train their paralegals on the job. Entrants to this occupation include legal secretaries and high school and college graduates with no legal experience. Other entrants have experience in a technical field that is useful to law firms, such as a background in tax preparation for tax and estate practice or nursing or health administration for personal injury practice.
Several hundred formal programs in legal assistance are available from 4-year colleges and universities, law schools, community and junior colleges, career schools, proprietary schools, legal assistant associations, and a few law firms. The requirements for admission to formal training programs vary widely. Some require some college courses or a bachelor's degree. Others accept high school graduates or persons with legal experience. A few schools require standardized tests and personal interviews.
Most legal assistant programs are completed in 2 years, although some take as long as 4 years and others only a few months. Some schools offer general legal assistant training with courses in many different areas of the law, including legal research techniques. Others provide training in specialized areas of the law, such as real estate, estate planning and probate, litigation, family law, contracts, criminal law, and income taxation. Many employers prefer applicants with training in a specialized areas of the law. Many legal assistant training programs include an internship in which students gain practical experience by working in a law office, corporate legal department, or government agency. Depending on the program, graduates may receive a certificate, an associate degree, or, in some cases, a bachelor's degree in legal assistance.
The quality of legal assistant training programs varies; the better programs generally emphasize job placement. Prospective students should examine the experiences of recent graduates of programs in which they are considering enrolling.
Currently, paralegals need not be certified. The National Association of Paralegals, however, has established standards for voluntary certification which require various combinations of education and experience. Paralegals who meet these standards are eligible to take a 2-day examination given by the Certifying Board of Paralegals each year at several regional testing centers. Persons who pass this examination may use the designation Certified Legal Assistant (CLA). This designation is a sign of competence in the field and enhances one's employment and advancement opportunities.
Paralegals must be able to handle legal problems logically and effectively communicate (both orally and in writing) their findings and opinions to their supervising attorney. They must understand legal terminology and have good research and investigative skills. Familiarity with the operation and applications of computers in legal research is increasingly important. Paralegals must always stay abreast of new developments in the law that affect their duties.
Because paralegals often deal with the public and other employees, they must be courteous and uphold the high ethical standards of the legal profession. A few States have established ethical guidelines that paralegals in the State must follow.
Experienced paralegals usually are given progressively more responsible duties and less supervision. In large law firms, corporate legal departments, and government agencies, experienced paralegals may supervise other paralegals and delegate work assigned by the attorneys. While advancement opportunities usually are limited, a few paralegals are promoted to managerial positions.
The number of job openings for paralegals is expected to increase significantly through the year 2000, but so will the number of persons pursuing this career. Thus, competition for jobs should increase as the number of graduates from legal assistant training programs rises. Still, job prospects are expected to be good for graduates of highly regarded formal programs.
Employment of paralegals has grown tremendously since the emergence of this occupation in the late 1960's. Employment is expected to continue to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. The emphasis on hiring paralegals should continue in both legal and law-related fields so that the cost, availability, and efficiency of legal services can be improved. Besides employment growth, numerous job openings are expected to arise as persons leave the occupation for various reasons.
Private law firms will continue to be the largest employers of paralegals as a growing population sustains the need for legal services. The growth of prepaid legal plans also should contribute to the demand for the services of law firms. Other organizations, such as corporate legal departments, insurance companies, real estate and title insurance firms, and banks will continue to hire paralegals. Job opportunities are expected to expand throughout the private sector as companies become aware of the value of paralegals.
Job opportunities for paralegals will expand even in the public sector. Community legal service programs provide assistance to the poor, the aged, minorities, and middle- income families. Because these programs operate on limited budgets, paralegals will be used to keep expenses down without having to limit services. Federal, State, and local government agencies, consumer organizations, and the courts also should continue to hire paralegals in increasing numbers.
To a limited extent, legal assistant jobs are affected by the career cycle. During recessions, the demand for some discretionary legal services, such as planning estates, drafting wills, and handling real estate transactions, declines. Corporations are less inclined to initiate litigation when falling sales and profits lead to fiscal belt tightening. As a result, paralegals employed in offices adversely affected by a recession may be laid off. On the other hand, during recessions, corporations and individuals face other legal problems, such as bankruptcies, foreclosures, and divorces, that require legal solutions. Furthermore, the continuous emergence of new laws and judicial interpretations creates new career for lawyers and paralegals without regard to the career cycle.
Earnings of paralegals vary greatly. Salaries depends on the education, training and experience the legal assistant brings to the job, the type of employer, and the geographic location of the job. Generally, paralegals who work for large law firms or in large metropolitan areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less populated regions.
Paralegals have an average annual salary of about $26,400 in 1990, according to a utilization and compensation survey by the National Association of Paralegals; the middle 50 percent earned between $21,200 and $30,800 a year. Starting salaries of paralegals averaged $22,150 while paralegals with 3 to 5 years of experience averaged $25,650 a year. Salaries of paralegals with over 10 years of experience averaged $30,200 annually, according to the same survey. In addition to a salary, many paralegals received an annual bonus, which averaged $1,200 in 1990. Employers of the majority of paralegals provided life and health insurance benefits and contributed to a retirement plan on their behalf.
Several other occupations also call for a specialized understanding of the law and the legal system but do not require the extensive training of a lawyer. Some of these are abstractors, claim examiners, compliance and enforcement inspectors, occupational safety and health workers, patent agents, police officers, and title examiners.
Sources of Additional Information
General information on a career as a legal assistant and a list of legal assistant schools approved by the American Bar Association are available from:
Standing Committee on Paralegals, American Bar Association, 750 North Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, Ill. 60611.
For more information on certification of paralegals and schools that offer training programs in a specific State, contact:
National Association of Paralegals, Inc., 1420 South Utica, Tulsa, Okla. 74104.
Information on local training programs and job prospects is available form your local legal assistant association. A list of these associations can be obtained from:
National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc., P.O. Box 40158, Overland Park, Kan. 66204.