If you are a Paralegal in the United States of America, what does that mean? It sounds very grand but is it really? I suppose the first thing to do is to ask:
A Paralegal is someone who works in a Law Firm or for another type of organisation where they are employed in a legal capacity and they are considered to be an expert on the law – however, they are not a qualified solicitor, attorney, or lawyer.
The Qualified Lawyer who is currently handling your divorce quite possibly started their career as a Paralegal. This way they build up their reputation with the Law Firm. Often, therefore, those Paralegals who are just starting out on their careers can become more involved with casework – and even take on low-level (but real) cases.
The US Bar Association advises us that those are as follows:
Case Management, including co-ordinating all aspect of a case and ensuring appropriate steps are taken timeously
Calculating and diarising deadlines for filing documents (at Court, etc)
Using an automation system and computerised support to prepare cases
Drafting Pleading, document responses and discoveries
Contracting and conferencing with clients
Analysing and summarising documents
Performing legal research
Clerical and administrative work
Let’s compare the above with the UK
A Paralegal in the UK
In the UK legal system, paralegals are often university law graduates; or, they could be former legal secretaries. Often, they are members of the paralegal institute and have special training in the field.
There is a UK Government website and, according to the section on Paralegals, a typical paralegal job in the UK includes:
Researching and preparing legal documents
Handling confidential information
Interviewing clients and witnesses
Providing clients with legal information
Handling a caseload of clients
Following instruction from more senior lawyers
General office admin duties
A UK paralegal could be paid between £14 000 – £120 000 depending upon their experience. However, in the US, it would probably depend on which one of the 50 state you were working in at the time. For example, in the state of California, the starting salary could be $59 000.
In the US and the UK the average paralegal work or billable hours are from nine to five. This means that being a Paralegal of either country means you are working a forty-hour week.
Under the US system there is an exception whereby if a client emergency trial is
involved, the working week could total between 60 to even 80 hours.
In the UK, if there’s an emergency situation, a paralegal might be expected to work a full 80 to 90 hours.
Paralegals and Attorneys in the US are looking to remove the billable hour’s system. This is mainly because if encourages firms to persuade Lawyers and Paralegal to work longer hours so as to expand client costs.
In the UK there has been no such discussion as yet. So, the billable hours’ system still exists, and client costs are thus inflated.
The above then, is a brief adumbration of the basics, and the rudimentary differences between countries.
What follows now, is an elucidation in more detail and depth; and gives a profundity of the complexities for which a Paralegal in the US is responsible.
This above person is employed /retained by a Lawyer, or a Law Office, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity; and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a Lawyer is responsible.
To be clear, Paralegals carry out tasks that require knowledge of the law and legal procedures. A Paralegal is not a Lawyer but is generally employed by a Law Office or an internal legal department of a company.
In the USA, a Paralegal is protected from certain forms of professional liability under the theory that Paralegals are working as an augmentation to an Attorney; and that Attorney takes the ultimate responsibility for the supervision of the paralegal’s work.
Paralegals often have taken a prescribed series of courses in law and legal processes. They may analyse and summarise depositions (sworn testimonies), prepare and answer interrogatories, draft procedural motions and other routine briefs; perform legal research and analysis, draft research memos, and perform in probate cases, divorce actions, bankruptcies and investigations. Consumers of legal services are naturally billed for the time the Paralegals spend on their cases.
However, in the USA, they are not authorised by the Government or other Agency to offer legal services (including legal advice) except in Washington State itself, this is much in the same way as Lawyers; nor are they Officers of the Court (do not confuse this with a Court Officer), nor are they usually subject to Government-sanctioned or Court-sanctioned rules of conduct.
It’s interesting to note here that, in certain jurisdictions – i.e. Ontario, Canada – Paralegals are licensed and regulated much in the same way as are Lawyers; and these licensed professionals may be permitted to provide legal services to the public and appear before certain lower Courts and administrative tribunals.
So, a Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience, to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts, and is customarily but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer.
To end this section; Paralegals in the US are not to be confused in any way, shape, or form, with the term of Law-Clerk.
Before I did the research for this article, I, like thousands of people, saw the term law clerk and made a completely erroneous assumption. What an interesting reveal it was to learn about Law Clerks:
A Law Clerk is usually an experienced, qualified Attorney who works in quite an elevated position as the right hand to a judge. The Law Clerk is privy to the process by which legal rulings are handed down and often assists the Judge in decision making. This is a prestigious opportunity for Attorneys; and it offers quite a unique perspective on the judicial process. So, certainly not to be confused with (in comparison) a semi lowly Paralegal!
The above heading is quite thought provoking because it contains so much divergence. Many Paralegals have completed a formal paralegal education program. Some have only on the job paralegal training. Formal paralegal education programs could result in a certificate, diploma, higher diploma, advanced diploma, associate degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or paralegal certificate. Countless Paralegals take Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course to fulfil the requirements if their firm, state, or association. To become a Paralegal takes between two to four years.
As I write this, you may think I’m leading you to make the assumption that Paralegals are cheap, unimportant and ordinary! They are anything but – as you’ll see further along:
It’s true that Paralegals exist precisely because they are not Lawyers and therefore can do the work more cheaply than the fees a Lawyer would bill. Apart from expertise, the main constraint on what work a Paralegal can or cannot do, is drawn from local rules that reserve specific activities of Lawyers. Some jurisdictions have a reserved activities list.
United States Law advises us that there are five particular acts which only a licensed Attorney can perform:
1. Establish the Attorney-Client relationship
2. Give Legal advice
3. Sign legal papers and pleadings on behalf of a party
4. Appear in Court on behalf of another person
5. Set and collect fees for legal services
Before the above five acts, the Paralegal can accomplish practically any other duty; including legal research, legal writing, factual investigation, preparation of exhibits, and the day to day tasks of case management. Here, the key is that Attorneys are entirely responsible for the actions of their Paralegals. Thus, by signing and filing Court documents drafted by Paralegals (or a Law Clerk), Attorneys make those documents their own – and the responsibility that goes with them.
Here’s the paradox:
1. The United States have limited the number of licensed Attorneys who may practice.
2. There is a growing demand for professional Paralegals
Although America is experiencing a recession the need for Paralegals continues to grow.