What Do Paralegals Do?

Working under the supervision of an attorney, the paralegal’s work product is merged with and becomes part of the attorney work product for a client. In communications with clients and the public, the paralegal's non-lawyer status must be clear. Paralegals cannot give legal advice or perform any duty specifically reserved for licensed attorneys.

Typical duties of a paralegal include but are not limited to the following:

  • Conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client.
  • Locate and interview witnesses.
  • Conduct investigations, statistical and documentary research.
  • Conduct legal research.
  • Draft legal documents, correspondence and pleadings.
  • Summarize depositions, interrogatories and testimony.
  • Attend executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings and trials with the attorney.
  • Author and sign correspondence provided the paralegal status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice.

Within a law firm setting, a paralegal's time for substantive legal work (not clerical or administrative work) is billed to clients much the same way as an attorney's time, but at a lower hourly rate.

While the paralegal profession has its beginnings in law firms, today, paralegals work in most corporations and business organizations such as banks, insurance companies and health organizations.  The government is also a big employer of paralegals.


Paralegal Education

Paralegal education programs are offered in many formats and lengths. Generally, paralegals are graduates of two-year associate degree programs.  Various kinds of public and private institutions offer paralegal education, including community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, business colleges and proprietary institutions. The variety of institutions makes it possible for persons with diverse backgrounds to enter the profession. The most common types of programs are:

  • Associate Degree Programs. These programs are offered by two-year community colleges, some four-year colleges and universities, and some business schools. Upon successful completion of 60-70 semester units, a student earns an associate degree. The curriculum usually consists of approximately 1/2 paralegal courses and 1/2 courses in general education and related areas.
  • Bachelor Degree Programs. Paralegal education is also offered by four-year colleges and universities which have a paralegal studies major, minor, or concentration within a major. These programs are usually about 120-130 semester units, including 30-60 semester units in paralegal and related courses. Upon successful completion of the program, the student is awarded a baccalaureate degree.
  • Certificate Programs. Various kinds of educational institutions offer paralegal certificate programs ranging from 18-60 semester units. Longer programs usually include both general education and paralegal courses, similar to associate degree programs. Certificate programs are usually designed for students who already hold an associate or baccalaureate degree.
  • Master's Degree Programs. A few colleges and universities that offer undergraduate paralegal degree programs are now offering an advanced degree in paralegal studies. Other universities offer advanced degree programs and law-related areas such as legal administration and legal studies.

The American Bar Association has a program of approving paralegal programs which meet their guidelines. Seeking ABA approval is voluntary on the part of the institution. A directory of the ABA approved paralegal schools may be found on the web site of the American Bar Association. 

The web site of the American Association for Paralegal Education may also offer some helpful information for you including a roster of member institutions. This website also provides helpful tips on evaluating a paralegal program.


Professional Standards

Employers establish the hiring standards for paralegals. Generally, a paralegal should meet certain minimum qualifications for employment, and for law firms to use in establishing billing rates. The following standards may be used to determine an individual's qualifications:

  1. Successful completion of the Certified Paralegal certifying (CP) examination of the NALA;
  2. Graduation from an ABA approved program of study for paralegals;
  3. Graduation from a course of study for paralegals which is institutionally accredited but not ABA approved, and which requires not less than the equivalent of 60 semester hours of classroom study;
  4. Graduation from a course of study for paralegals, other than those set forth in (2) and (3) above, plus not less than six months of in-house training as a paralegal;
  5. A baccalaureate degree in any field, plus not less than six months in-house training as a paralegal;
  6. A minimum of three years of law-related experience under the supervision of an attorney, including at least six months of in-house training as a paralegal; or
  7. Two years of in-house training as a paralegal.

In addition, IPA members and Certified Paralegals are bound by the NALA Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Violation of this Code may result in suspension of IPA membership, or suspension of the certification credential.

NALA's study of the professional responsibility and ethical considerations of paralegals is ongoing. This research led to the development of the NALA Model Standards and Guidelines for Utilization of Paralegal. This guide summarizes case law, guidelines and ethical opinions of the various states affecting paralegals. It provides an outline of minimum qualifications and standards necessary for paralegal professionals to assure the public and the legal profession that they are, indeed, qualified.


Research & Survey Findings

IPA Statewide Survey:  About every two (2) years, IPA conducts a statewide survey of paralegals.  Paralegals invited to participate include members of IPA and non-menbers.

NALA National Utilization and Compensation Survey:  About every 2 years, NALA conducts a national survey of paralegals. Paralegals invited to participate include members of NALA, non-members, and members of NALA affiliated associations. This "look" at the paralegal profession has produced some interesting and valuable data through the years. The findings are divided into 4 sections: participant background; employers and practice areas; billing rates; and compensation levels.  The survey analysis includes reviews of current findings in comparison with findings of previous surveys. Economic data is presented in terms of such factors as size of city, size of firm, educational backgrounds, years of experience, and specialty area of practice.

For a report of the survey findings:

Job Analysis:  The latest nationwide study of paralegal duties was conducted by NALA and results reported in the Job Analysis released in May 2012. This report provides detailed information about on-the-job duties and responsibilities of paralegals, and skills needed to perform their work. Survey findings are utilized by the NALA Certifying Board to ensure the Certified Paralegal examination focuses on the skills and knowledge required of working paralegals in today’s environment. The job analysis study is conducted appoximately every 6 years.


US Supreme Court and Paralegals

Seldom does a professional association or occupational group have an opportunity to address the United States Supreme Court to advance the career field. NALA has been fortunate to have participated in two cases before the US Supreme Court and, indeed, the paralegal profession has benefited from this participation. Both cases were on the recoverability of paralegal fees in attorney fee awards.

Missouri v. Jenkins, 1989
The first instance in which the US Supreme Court addressed the recoverability of paralegal fees was under section 1988 of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fee Awards Act of 1976. In this case, the petitioner was seeking the award of attorney and paralegal fees after a lengthy litigation. The Court was asked whether the work of paralegals, law clerks and recent law graduates could be reimbursed at market rates, rather than their cost to attorneys (wages).

The Court recognized that everyone - attorneys, paralegal employees, and clients - benefits from the proper utilization of paralegals. In its opinion, the Court stated:

By encouraging the use of lower cost paralegals rather than attorneys wherever possible, permitting market-rate billing of paralegal hours "encourages cost-effective delivery of legal services and, by reducing the spiraling cost of civil rights litigation, furthers the policies underlying civil rights statutes.

Click here to read the Court's decision in this case. NALA filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner. NALA's brief and occupational survey are mentioned in footnote 11 of the Court's opinion.

Richlin v. Chertoff, 2008
The question before the US Supreme Court in this case is very similar to that in Missouri v. Jenkins. However, instead of considering the award of paralegal fees under the Civil Rights Act, this time, the court was asked to review if paralegal fees could be reimbursed at market rates under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Citing the Court's decision in Missouri v. Jenkins the court again stated paralegal fees may be awarded at market rates. This is a particularly interesting case in that the Supreme Court only accepts a few cases for review each year.

Click here to read the Court's decision in this case.

Impact of These Decisions
The importance of these decisions cannot be overstated. Twice, the US Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether paralegal time may be reimbursed at market rates under fee shifting statutes. Twice, the Court has provided an unequivocal "yes." The Court has recognized the value of attorney utilization of paralegal services as a cost efficient way to deliver paralegal services. At the same time, the Court recognized paralegal time should be billed the same as other professional staff.