Paralegals - What Exactly Do They Do?

By: Shelby Ryan

So, what's a lawyer got that a paralegal does not?

Well, there's that law degree diploma hanging on the wall. And that hefty fee that comes with an office visit.

While there are some limitations to what a paralegal can do, chances are that most of your attorney's work is done by a paralegal, a legal assistant that he or she trusts to know the law and the documents being prepared. Be thankful - the paralegal fee is far less than the fee would be if an attorney were completing your paper work. Don't worry that your legal work is less effective or efficient because it was completed by someone other than your actual attorney. When the attorney puts his or her signature on a document prepared by a paralegal, the lawyer is verifying that the information is correct. It's just as legal - but probably costing you a lot less - to have the paralegal complete your paper work.

There are a lot of duties a paralegal plays in an attorney's office. The paralegal may do legal research and writing for your attorney. A paralegal may even take over as case manager, a situation that many firms are considering if they have not already adopted to help keep legal fees lower and affordable.

There are five things a paralegal cannot do. One, a paralegal cannot give legal advice. Only a licensed attorney should do that. Two, a paralegal cannot develop the attorney-client relationship. It just makes sense - the attorney-client relationship should be between those two people, otherwise it would be called the law firm representative - client relationship. Three, the paralegal cannot sign papers on behalf of the client. Only the attorney can attest his or her name to those legal documents. Four, the paralegal cannot represent a client in court. While many paralegals could probably do so quite well, it just isn't legal. And, five, the paralegal cannot set and collect legal fees. Only the attorney can do that.

Different states have different requirements for paralegals. Some do specifically require certification. Other states allow attorneys hiring the paralegals to judge the person's qualifications. After all, the attorney will be the one signing off on all of the paralegal's work. Some attorneys require a certain amount of legal experience, a background in research or other clerical skills. If you are interested in a career as a paralegal, check with some attorney's offices or law firms in your hometown. See what their qualifications are. If they prefer to hire paralegals with course certificates, ask if they can recommend a school or schools for you to examine.

There are plenty of opportunities to take paralegal courses, even for today's busiest people. In addition to home study courses, there are online courses, and programs of study at two and four year colleges and universities. One method of study is sure to fit your budget and the school of your choice may even have financial aid options available. If you are thinking of a paralegal career - or changing careers to be a paralegal - check out all your options and decide if having a two or four year paralegal certificate will help make you more marketable in the legal world.

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