What do paralegals do?

The legal profession consists of a variety of tasks, ranging from the routine to the unexpected, and lawyers would likely never sleep if every task for each case were their responsibility to handle. Paralegals assist lawyers with many of the routine tasks of legal work, which in turn helps them reserve their focus for the duties that they alone can perform. Here's a list of the duties typically performed by paralegals, listed in approximate order of frequency and general importance:

1. Legal research

Conducting a law practice requires an enormous resource of information, and just about every case or contract requires a separate set of highly specialized reference material. This is where paralegal careers come in. These legal professionals are often charged with digging through a firm's bookshelves and databases to come up with information that's essential to individual legal situations.

Kimberli Taylor, a probate law paralegal in California, says that paralegal research duties can include case law, statutes and treatises that are relevant to a specific case. "It also means verifying that the law you are basing your case on is still good law and not overturned or repealed," she says. "Legal research in my area can also include research to locate assets and heirs."

2. Drafting legal documents

Law practice is among the most paperwork-heavy occupations out there, and the composition of legally binding documents can make up the bulk of a paralegal's workday at certain firms. "As long as the supervising attorney reviews it before it is signed or filed," Taylor says, "paralegals can draft anything the lawyers can."

One important note about documents drafted by paralegals is that, depending on state statutes, failure to have an attorney review them before they are passed on to clients may risk legal malpractice or unauthorized practice of law, according to Taylor.

3. Office administration

A well-run office is vital to the success of a law firm, and paralegals are sometimes given the responsibility to ensure that schedules are kept and important information is comprehensibly organized. Paralegals at smaller practices typically contribute to the execution of clerical duties, but larger firms are likely to have an office administration staff that operates separately, freeing up the trained paralegals to work on things that require their expertise.

4. Attending court hearings

Paralegals who conduct considerable amounts of research relevant to a certain proceeding may accompany an attorney to court as an assistant, but it's not particularly common practice. "In my experience," Taylor says, "paralegals don't often attend hearings unless they are part of a litigation trial team." They may be responsible for running tech for the lawyers or displaying exhibits exactly on time, but "it's a supportive role," she says.

Along with those general duties, the specific tasks performed by paralegals can vary depending on their specialty within the field of law. If you choose to specialize in administrative law, contract administration, bankruptcy, estates and trust administration, litigation, personal injury, intellectual property, workers' compensation, tax law, alternative dispute resolution or another unique segment of the law profession, your responsibilities may be somewhat different from the list given above.

What paralegals don't do

Although paralegals can take on a fairly wide array of legal responsibilities, there are a few elements of law practice that are off-limits to anyone but fully fledged lawyers. Here are a few of the duties of professional law that only lawyers can perform:

  • Giving legal advice. Paralegals may be better versed in the ins and outs of the law than most laypeople tend to be, but they are not allowed to provide anything that might be construed as official legal advice.
  • Serving as counsel. Attending court hearings to provide assistance to an attorney can help a proceeding go smoothly, but paralegals are prohibited from turning up in court to serve as counsel in an attorney's place.
  • Signing court documents. Although preparing, researching or proofreading legal documents is a frequent part of a paralegal's workload, only lawyers can sign off on those documents and designate them as official.

Skilled and experienced paralegals are among the most valuable resources in the legal profession, and paralegal salary figures reflect the occupation's value. All in all, paralegal employment can bring you close to the action of the legal profession and give you valuable experience working through the nuts and bolts of everyday work that lawyers handle.

If paralegal work seems like it might be right for you, start by comparing on-campus or online paralegal programs in your area, and find out how to get on track to a valuable career in the legal field.

1. Duties You Can Expect to Perform as a Paralegal, Center for Advanced Legal Studies, http://www.paralegal.edu/blog/bid/213723/Duties-You-Can-Expect-to-Perform-as-a-Paralegal
2. "Paralegal Responsibilities," National Federation of Paralegal Associations, http://www.paralegals.org/associations/2270/files/Paralegal_Responsibilities.pdf
3. Kimberli Taylor, Paralegal at Conover & Grebe LLP, Interviewed by the author via email on Nov. 14, 2014