I think a shorter list is what one is not, but in summary, paralegals provide day to day support by assisting attorneys, law offices, or other various agencies conducting research, drafting legal documents, and handling cases. 

Paralegals play a critical role in the legal field as they ensure not only that the firm runs smoothly, but that the attorneys are well prepared and up to speed on their cases. Paralegals are an attorney’s right-hand person. They work as a team to build a case to best benefit the client. Believe it or not, the more work an attorney assigns to you, the more he or she trusts in your abilities and skill set to perform the work and do an outstanding job. 

Also, when a paralegal takes on part of the attorney’s workload, the attorney can focus on other important aspects of the case. This also saves the clients’ money because a paralegal’s hourly rate is not as costly as the attorneys.

Great paralegals stay on top of new legislation

Since paralegals play such a key role in the legal field, it is important they acquire a progressive understanding of the legal system. A good paralegal knows the general laws and does the work assigned. However, great paralegals stay on top of new legislation and perform research that could be a gamechanger in a case. 

There are numerous paralegal programs from certificates to ABA (American Bar Association) approved Associate Degrees where you can obtain your Associates in Paralegal Studies[1].

What a paralegal is NOT

Simply put, a paralegal is not an attorney, however, we will touch on that more below. A paralegal is not a legal assistant or legal secretary. The difference between the two is that a paralegal has either a certificate or associate degree providing them with the title of a paralegal whereas legal secretaries or assistants do not. Nor is a paralegal a court reporter. A paralegal does not go to court with the sole purpose of transcribing the hearings or trials.

What skills make for a successful paralegal?

A successful paralegal is a driven paralegal. To excel in the paralegal profession, one must remain hungry to learn and evolve. The legal field is forever changing, and a great paralegal is always one step ahead. A successful paralegal also learns to cope with stress and keep pushing forward. A successful paralegal possesses a wealth of knowledge as it relates to the legal field and is an effective researcher. While most may believe that anyone can “research” by typing it into Google, that is not the case with legal research. Platforms like LexisNexis and Westlaw require specific keywords, connectors, and search terms to ensure the most accurate and on-point results.

What is it like to be a paralegal?

Being a paralegal is a very rewarding profession. However, like with any career, there are some drawbacks. For example, the job is demanding, long hours, stressful, and high pressure. The good does outweigh the “bad” of the profession. As a paralegal, you are the go-to person in the firm for anything and everything. Not only do the clients trust and respect you, but the attorneys do too.  See our guide to the best and worst aspects of being a paralegal for further information on the highs and the lows.

What is the difference between a lawyer and a paralegal?

One of the major differences between lawyers and paralegals is their education and licensing. To be an attorney you must attend law school and obtain a Juris Doctorate Degree (JD). Many states, however, require a potential attorney to have a bachelor’s degree before they can enroll in a JD program. Furthermore, if one chooses to attend an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school, they will also need to take the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), which will determine one’s eligibility to enroll in certain of their preferred law schools.

Future lawyers also undergo a rigorous background back by whichever state he or she plans to practice in to ensure his or her competence, fitness, and character.

So, first a potential lawyer must go through law school and earn their JD, but before they officially become a lawyer, they must pass the dreaded BAR EXAM. It is said to be one of the most grueling and difficult professional examinations. If one passes the bar, they are sworn in and licensed to practice in that State. They also endure annual occupational license fees, malpractice insurance coverage, and other state-specific fee requirements.  Lawyers can give legal advice, represent clients in legal proceedings, and perform activities associated with the practice of law.

Conversely, a paralegal’s education is obtained by a certificate or an associate degree specializing in paralegal studies. While formally the education is required to earn the title of paralegal, some attorneys hire and give the title paralegal without the education. However, a formal education holding a certificate or specialized degree is the candidate that is more usually more likely to get hired.

A paralegal cannot give legal advice

A paralegal can draft correspondence, motions, complaints, discovery, and much more, but under the supervision of an attorney. Paralegals wear many hats. For example, in addition to their legal duties, they also manage the daily operations of a firm like organizing files, scheduling meetings, and interacting with clients. Paralegals sometimes have the opportunity to attend a mediation, deposition, hearing, or trial with an attorney.

One major distinction between a lawyer and a paralegal is that a paralegal cannot give legal advice and cannot prepare legal documents of which have not been approved or signed off on by an attorney.  Furthermore, paralegals are not able to provide potential clients or clients advice on the law or any legal procedures. They can in no way, shape, or form represent the client in any way.

What’s the career route from paralegal to a lawyer?

After working in a firm for several years, many paralegals choose to go to law school and become a lawyer themselves. Again, most U.S. states require that before one can enroll in a JD program, a bachelor’s degree must be obtained. Also, every ABA-approved school requires potential students to take the LSAT although some law schools are not ABA-approved and may not require the LSAT. A non-ABA approved school still allows one to practice in the State where they take the bar, but there are some restrictions as to reciprocity and potentially practicing in other States.

Most paralegals have a leg up in law school simply because they have the practical experience that many law students do not have. With that said, law school is still a BEAST and is a challenge for every single law student.

What’s the difference between paralegals and legal assistants?

Many people believe that paralegals and legal assistants have similar jobs, but there are some noteworthy differences. Education for a paralegal varies from a certificate to a college degree. Legal assistants do not need any further education past high school. Another distinction is that legal assistants perform more administrative tasks such as handling intake calls and directing them to the proper paralegal or attorney, taking messages, and performing general intake.

The salary of a paralegal and legal assistant is also different. Paralegals tend to earn more than a legal assistant and have a better opportunity for career advancement. However, legal assistants do take on the roles of a paralegal, as they absorb more knowledge, can begin to conduct research and draft correspondence. Sometimes the only difference is the title.

Can a paralegal give legal advice?

NO! One of the most IMPORTANT differences between a lawyer and a paralegal is that A PARALEGAL CANNOT GIVE LEGAL ADVICE! This rule is established by the ABA and other state and federal laws. This rule has proven to be challenging as the very definition of “legal advice” is gray and somewhat ambiguous because every essential part of a paralegal’s job deals with interpreting and communicating legal strategy.

What is considered legal advice? It can be as innocent as saying, “This case looks like a home run!” So, paralegals must be cautious when communicating with not only clients but potential clients as well. When in doubt, it is best to say, “I am sorry, but as a paralegal, I am not authorized to give legal advice.” Simply put, legal advice can be considered as to whatever the client perceives as legal advice. It may be awkward, and the client may be upset, but it is better for all parties to protect each other’s best interest.

A paralegal may be in the clear if they provide basic factual information about the case or the state/federal court. This can include filing deadlines or the process when filing a case, so the client is aware of the various procedures. Remember, this does not extend to relaying outcomes or expressing your opinion as to the merits of the case.

The lawyer is responsible

Punishment for this ethical rule is not just a slap on the wrist. While warnings may be provided, it could result in stiff fines or disbarment for the responsible attorney. This is because paralegals are not admitted to the bar and the reprimand(s) transfers the responsible attorney or the firm the paralegal worked under when the violation occurred.

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