Frequently Asked Questions
How Does a Paralegal Differ From a Legal Secretary?
Generally, paralegals do more professional work, similar to work done by attorneys, such as creating documents, interviewing witnesses and clients, and conducting research, all under attorney supervision. Sometimes job responsibilities are identical for legal secretaries and paralegals, the only difference being the title. Some in the field claim the best way to get a paralegal job is by first "learning the ropes" as a legal secretary. Other former secretaries say they had to change firms to get recognition as a paralegal. The paralegals may have to convince an attorney that making coffee, typing and photocopying are not the best uses of their skills. The paralegal does less clerical work and may not be expected to be an expert typist or word processor, but may have to do some of this just as some attorneys do. Salaries of paralegals and legal secretaries may not differ either, but generally the paralegal has greater potential for earnings.
What Makes a Successful Paralegal?
To begin with, general skills and characteristics of the prospective paralegal include the following: (1) the ability to write clearly and communicate effectively orally; (2) a high degree of motivation; (3) skill in analyzing and summarizing material; and (4) a desire to be a paralegal rather than an attorney. A paralegal must be a self-starter, be able to meet deadlines and handle stress, yet be willing to do repetitious work. While it is often necessary to work independently, the paralegal must work well with other people, both in taking and following orders from supervisors and getting along with peers. Specific performance criteria that suggest a person will succeed include: at least a 3.0 GPA; a B.A. or B.S. degree; or two years work experience, particularly in law-related work.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
A paralegal is a non-lawyer who assists attorneys in their professional duties. The lawyer's task is to obtain facts, research the law in a case, then apply the law to a set of facts in order to reach a legal conclusion. The paralegal is limited to the first two tasks. In general, the paralegal can do everything an attorney can do except give legal advice and represent clients in court. There is no required training, certification or licensing procedure to become a paralegal. The day-to-day tasks of a paralegal depend on the employer and the specific job. It is estimated that 70% of paralegals work for attorneys in private practice, about 25% work for government agencies, and the remaining 5% are in the legal departments of corporations, freelancing, etc. Within these, the paralegal may specialize in one area of law such as: (1) litigation; (2) probate, wills, estates and trusts; (3) real estate; (4) business and corporate law; (5) family law and domestic relations; (6) criminal law; (7) bankruptcy; and (8) administrative law. These are discussed below, but first, here is a list of general tasks which may be performed by paralegals:
- Researching law and writing summaries of the research
- Preparing briefs of researched cases
- Applying research of facts to attorney's case
- Composing office memoranda
- Composing letters to clients and general correspondence
- Drafting legal documents; digesting depositions
- Interviewing clients and making telephone contacts
- General supervision of the law library in the office
- Updating, filing pocket parts in the law books
- Gathering information for client files / investigation
- Docket control, maintaining timely and orderly flow of office work
- Attendance at court hearings
- Presenting papers to court which do not require an attorney
- Maintenance of books and records for clients
- Trial preparation, depositions, witnesses, negotiations
- Tax work and accounting
The litigation specialist works with people who sue (plaintiffs) and people who are being sued (defendants) in civil cases (actions between private parties). The paralegal does much of the work in preparation for trials such as interviewing clients and witnesses, making telephone contacts, drafting documents for use in court, research and writing, handling correspondence, organizing and filing documents and exhibits, and preparing witnesses for trial. There are more paralegals in this specialty than in any other. A person doing this work must thrive on detail and deadline pressures as the trial draws near. Personal injury practice is a large specialized area of litigation. A knowledge of medical terms is an asset for this practice area.
PROBATE, WILLS, ESTATES AND TRUSTS
This is an area of law which combines two certainties of life--death and taxes. The paralegal will often work directly with clients drafting wills, creating trusts, and doing much more of the work involved in probating an estate. Some of the tasks in probate are: gathering information about estate assets and heirs; drafting and filing the necessary court papers; monitoring the timing of matters (docket control); distribution of assets; and transfer of securities. Finally, death often results in taxes due, and the paralegal may have to do the Federal Estate Tax and income taxes. Knowledge of business, accounting and investments may be needed. There may be less pressure in this job than in some others because deadlines are known well in advance.
Knowledge of real estate law is essential here. The paralegal handles drafting of deeds, offers to purchase, mortgages, contracts, closing statements, as well as other documents; makes financial arrangements for clients; does lease agreements; goes over contracts for clients; orders title insurance; and often must search for title records.
BUSINESS AND CORPORATE LAW
The paralegal in this specialty must understand the laws on the formation of corporations and other business enterprises and how they operate under the law. Much of the work is preparing and filing documents necessary for the formation and operation of businesses. There may be a little client contact. Much of the time is spent drafting bond issues and stock certificates following the many applicable state and federal regulations.
FAMILY LAW AND DOMESTIC RELATIONS
When working for an attorney with a family law practice, the paralegal may deal directly with clients in guardianship matters, dissolutions, custody, paternity disputes, dependency proceedings, support enforcement and abuse in the home, among other matters. Adoptions are the most pleasant part of family law. Gathering facts, drafting documents, investigation and trial preparation are some of the tasks involved.
In criminal law, the attorney is defending a client accused of a crime-so the paralegal should know criminal law and the importance of defenses. Some of the tasks involved are: investigation of facts; interviewing witnesses; motion and trial preparation; and keeping track of documents and evidence. The paralegal might be dealing with the client, who is allegedly a criminal, and must feel comfortable with this.
Here, the paralegal will draft documents in connection with the bankruptcy of the client and the defense of those involved. It requires a knowledge of the Bankruptcy Act and procedures to be followed.
Administrative agencies are created by governments to administer particular legislation such as the Social Security Act, Workmen's Compensation Act, establishment of the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), etc. If a person is denied benefits by one of these agencies, he or she is entitled to appeal. A paralegal can take the client's case from the initial interview, through preparation for the hearing, and finally represent the client when the case is heard before an administrative judge. Appeals before a court must be handled by an attorney. Some cases involve persons who have allegedly been overpaid by the agency, which is suing to get their money back. Most of these cases involve the poor, and the use of paralegals rather than attorneys can save them money. The paralegal in all cases must work under an attorney.