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What is a Paralegal?

Through formal education, training, and experience, paralegals gain knowledge and expertise of the legal system and of substantive and procedural law. This allows them to complete work of a legal nature, provided the work is supervised by an attorney.

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Since the development of the profession in the 1960s, paralegals have become a vital part of the legal process. The integration of these legal professionals has increased the efficiency and cost effective delivery of legal services, reducing client costs and freeing up attorneys to focus strictly on their clients and their cases.

From litigation to trial practice to real estate to estate planning law, paralegals are indispensible members of legal teams. But what exactly do they do? What is their legal authority? And what makes them so important to law firms and businesses as in-house legal experts?

How NALA and the ABA Define What a Paralegals Is

NALA, the leading paralegal association in the U.S., publishes the NALA, Inc. Model Standards and Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegals, which was originally adopted in 1984. The document serves as a comprehensive resource and a guide for maintaining voluntary standards for paralegals in practice.

The NALA Guidelines define paralegals as persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services.

NALA also adopts the American Bar Association’s (ABA) definition of a paralegal: a person qualified by training, education, or work experience and who is employed/retained by a law office, corporation, lawyer, governmental agency, or a similar organization that performs legal work.

Statutes, case law, court rules, and bar association documents may also provide similar definitions for paralegals. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations provides information on definitions and regulations for paralegals by state.

Paralegal Standards: Minimum Qualifications for Paralegals

Paralegals are not licensed or regulated at the national or state level. This means that employers establish hiring standard for the paralegals they employ.

However, according to NALA, all paralegals should meet certain minimum qualifications, which include satisfying at least one of the following:

  1. Graduation from an ABA-approved paralegal program
  2. Completion of the NALA Certified Paralegal (CP) certifying examination
  3. Graduation from a course of study for paralegals through an accredited institution that includes at least 60 semester hours of classroom study
  4. Graduation from a course of study for paralegals (other than those in 1 and 3), plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
  5. A bachelor’s degree in any field, plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
  6. At least 3 years of experience, supervised by an attorney, including at least 6 months of training as a paralegal (in-house)
  7. At least 2 years of training as a paralegal (in-house)

These minimum qualifications recognize legal-related work backgrounds and formal education backgrounds, both of which are designed to provide students with a broad exposure to—and knowledge of—the legal profession. These qualifications also assure the public and the legal profession that paralegals have the qualifications necessary to perform their duties.

The NALA CP examination is a voluntary national certification that paralegals use to signify that they have met a high level of professionalism and knowledge. It meets state court and bar association standards and has even been used to establish qualifications for paralegals used by the U.S. Supreme Court.

A number of other organizations also offer voluntary certification programs that many employers look for when hiring a paralegal:

Further, a number of states, including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, have their own state-specific voluntary certification programs.

Guidelines for Paralegal Standards and Professional Responsibilities

Paralegals are permitted to perform any task delegated and supervised by an attorney, provided the attorney assumes full responsibility for the end product of their work. NALA has outlined a set of guidelines for paralegals:

Guideline 1: Paralegals should disclose their status as paralegals when establishing a relationship with a client, other attorneys, a court, an administrative agency, or members of the general public. They must also preserve a client’s confidence and avoid any actions that would involve the appearance of impropriety.

Guideline 2: Paralegals should not:

  • Establish attorney-client relationships
  • Represent a client before a court, unless authorized by the court to do so
  • Give legal opinions or advice
  • Engage in any act that involves the unauthorized practice of law
  • Set legal fees

Guideline 3: Paralegals may perform services for an attorney regarding the representation of a client, provided:

  • The attorney maintains a direct relationship with the client and maintains control of all client matters
  • The attorney supervises the paralegal
  • The attorney takes professional responsibility for all work done on behalf of the client
  • The services do not involve providing legal judgment
  • The services performed by the paralegal supplement the attorney’s work

Guideline 4: The attorney, when supervising the paralegal, should:

  • Educate and train the paralegal with respect to local rules and practices, professional responsibility, and firm policies
  • Monitor the paralegal’s professional conduct and work
  • Ensure the work assignments correspond to the paralegal’s training, knowledge, abilities, and experience
  • Provide continuing education for the paralegal through courses, workshops, in-house training, and seminars

Guideline 5:

The paralegal may perform any function delegated by the attorney, including:

  • Attending court or administrative hearings, real estate closings, and trials with the attorney
  • Composing and signing letters, provided it does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice
  • Conducting legal research
  • Conducting client interviews and contacting the client after the attorney has established an attorney-client relationship
  • Conducting investigations and statistical/documentary research
  • Drafting legal documents for review by the attorney
  • Drafting pleadings and correspondence that are reviewed and signed by the attorney
  • Locating and interviewing witnesses
  • Summarizing depositions, testimony, and interrogations

The ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services reflects NALA’s guidelines:

  • Guideline 1: A lawyer is responsible for the paralegal’s actions performed at the lawyer’s direction.
  • Guideline 2: A lawyer may delegate any task normally performed by a lawyer, except those tasks outlines by court rule, statute, controlling authority, etc.
  • Guideline 3: A lawyer may not delegate the following to a paralegal:
    • Establishing an attorney-client relationship
    • Establishing the fee to be charged
    • Rendering a legal opinion to a client
  • Guideline 4: A lawyer must take measures to ensure that others know the paralegal is not licensed to practice law.
  • Guideline 5: A lawyer may identify the paralegal by name and title on the lawyer’s letterhead and business card.
  • Guideline 6: A lawyer must ensure the paralegal preserves all client confidences.
  • Guideline 7: A lawyer must prevent any conflicts of interest caused by the paralegal’s other employment or interests.
  • Guideline 8: A lawyer may charge/bill for the work performed by a paralegal.
  • Guideline 9: A lawyer may not split fees with a paralegal or pay a paralegal for the referral of legal business. A paralegal’s pay should never be contingent upon the outcome of a case.
  • Guideline 10: A lawyer should facilitate the paralegal’s continuing education and pro bono activities.
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