Paralegals, or legal assistants, assist lawyers in preparation for hearings, trials, closings, and corporate meetings. Most paralegals work for law firms, government agencies, or corporate legal departments. A paralegal most likely has a degree or certificate in paralegal studies, although many employers do not require certification.
Many tasks can be delegated to paralegals, including the research of laws and judicial decisions related to a case. A paralegal might also organize case documents for an attorney and prepare reports for an attorney to use to make recommendations on a case. Paralegals can also prepare documents such as motions and pleadings and can obtain affidavits.
Although assigned duties vary according to the type of office in which a paralegal works, he or she is typically able to draft contracts, mortgages, and separation agreements. Other paralegals may assist with estate planning or tax preparation services. By law, paralegals are not allowed to perform certain duties which are restricted to attorneys, including presenting a case, providing legal advice, and setting legal fees. The paralegal field is rapidly growing because it is more economical to use a paralegal than an attorney for some duties.
Many different areas of the law are open to paralegals, including immigration, labor law, personal injury, and criminal law. Some paralegals choose to specialize in a particular area, such as litigation, corporate law, bankruptcy, or real estate. No matter what the area of law, paralegals perform most duties in an office or a law library.
A paralegal working in a corporate environment will likely perform different tasks than one working for a legal firm or the government. In a corporation, paralegals might work with employee benefits or contracts, prepare annual reports, or review government regulations. In a government agency, a legal assistant might research laws or agency policies or regulations. If employed by a community service agency, a paralegal might prepare forms and documents for citizens who need legal assistance. In a firm, paralegals might specialize in an area of the law or coordinate the firm’s employees.
A paralegal should have strong skills in documentation, presentation, research, and investigation. Additionally, paralegals must understand legal terms and have solid computer skills. Because of the nature of the work, a paralegal should also be ethical and work well with the public. In a paralegal training program, students learn to perform legal research and use software programs that have legal applications. Some paralegal programs offer an internship period during which a student gains useful experience in a legal firm, department, or organization.