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What is a Paralegal?
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What is a Paralegal
A paralegal can be defined as a person qualified through education, training, or work to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and that is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by an attorney. This person is retained/employed by an attorney, law office, government business or other entity under the supervisory authority of an attorney; or is authorized by a governmental administrative agency or statutory or court authority to perform this work. Paralegals are neither licensed nor certified by the State of Illinois.
DO PARALEGALS PRACTICE LAW?
No, only attorneys licensed by the Illinois Supreme Court can practice law in the state. By virtue of their education, experience and professional license, attorneys can give legal advice, represent a client in court, establish fees for clients, and accept cases. More importantly, only an attorney has the ultimate authority in making decisions regarding the legal rights of a client. Equally, an attorney bears the ultimate responsibility for the quality of legal services provided to clients. These things a paralegal is NOT permitted to do. A paralegal functions under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
WHAT DOES A PARALEGAL DO?
Paralegals are resource persons who, as an important part of the legal team, assist in providing economical, quality legal services to the public. The specific tasks a paralegal performs vary with the setting in which a paralegal works. Some paralegals are generalists who work with sole practitioner attorneys to deliver a wide range of legal services. However, most paralegals are employed by larger law firms, legal departments of corporations, or official governmental agencies to specialize in a particular area of law. These include areas such as civil and criminal litigation, corporations and business transactions, Federal and state registered securities, estates and trust, family law, real estate, intellectual property (trademarks and patents), immigration, commercial finance, and legislative research, to name a few. Some paralegals are also employed by companies that provide support services to attorneys and law firms, and legal departments, such as document filing and research services.
ARE PARALEGALS PROFESSIONALS?
Among various definitions of "professional" we find such common elements as one who possesses (1) knowledge and skills of a profession, (2) commitment to self-improvement, (3) service orientation, (4) pride in the profession (5) accountability for one's work, (6) ethical decision making, and (7) leadership. Paralegals exhibit these qualities by taking personal responsibility for their work, maintaining high work standards, and exhibiting a mature attitude of dignity and respect for the various people with whom they work. Many paralegals elect to maintain and upgrade their skills through on-going education and by voluntarily participating in professional organizations such as the Illinois Paralegal Association (IPA) and which holds its members to a Code of Ethics. Paralegals also volunteer for pro bono work to provide legal services to those in need.
WHAT KINDS OF TASKS DO PARALEGALS PERFORM?
The work that paralegals do varies with the settings and specialty areas in which they work. Some of the types of the tasks which paralegals perform include:
(1) conducting factual research involving documents and internet resources;
(2) performing legal research using library and on- line resources;
(3) reviewing and drafting legal documents;
(4) analyzing and organizing records and documents;
(5) assisting with business and real estate transactions;
(6) maintaining corporate records and minute books;
(7) attending to governmental and agency filings;
(8) interviewing witnesses and clients; and
(9) assisting with preparation of cases and with appearances in court.
WHAT KIND OF SKILLS DOES A PARALEGAL NEED?
Ideally, a paralegal displays a mix of analytical, administrative, managerial, research and communicative skills. These include the ability to organize complex tasks and independently solve problems, pay attention to details, manage time effectively, research factual and legal issues, work efficiently as a part of a team, and communicate efficiently in speech and writing. In addition, the legal environment requires a proficiency in computer and Internet skills. Paralegals typically use word processors, spread sheet programs, data bases, and on-line resources, but also must learn and adapt to new and specialized software programs unique to their specialty and place of employment. Some paralegals function as coordinators who manage other paralegals. A paralegal must also have ability to constantly learn about new developments in the law and new technologies as they are integrated into the legal profession. Sometimes paralegals train attorneys and other paralegals on new technologies.
HOW DO I BECOME A PARALEGAL?
Some paralegals receive on-the-job training at a law firm, business or government agency. However, today most paralegals do have formal training through a two-year, bachelor, or post-baccalaureate paralegal program. Many of these programs are approved by the American Bar Association; however, this is not a requirement for a paralegal program. The courses in these programs expose students to the nature of the legal system, issues in legal ethics, legal research and writing, and essential legal concepts. Paralegal students often specialize in a specific legal area, such as litigation, business, real estate, probate, family law, health law, environmental law, bankruptcy or immigration. These paralegal programs usually require the equivalent of one or more years of full-time study. Some programs are offered on-line. Other programs include a brief internship to familiarize the student with working in a legal environment.
HOW CAN I FIND MORE INFORMATION ABOUT BECOMING A PARALEGAL?
The best place to start is by conducting research to find out about the paralegal profession, jobs, and programs to determine whether being paralegal suits your interests and abilities. One place to start is the website of the Illinois Paralegal Association (IPA), a member of the non-profit National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) comprised of fifty-two paralegal associations throughout the United States. The IPA is a voluntary organization of working and student paralegals dedicated to promoting communication among paralegals, the legal community, and civic and professional organizations. It encourages and provides continuing education of paralegals, informs its members of developments within the profession, promotes the interests and standards of the paralegal profession, and holds its members to a professional code of ethics.
Further information about paralegals and paralegalism can be found at the following websites.
* The Illinois Paralegal Association web site at
which provides information about the Association and links regarding paralegal programs.
* The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc., (NFPA) web site at
which provides a national perspective on the paralegal profession.
* The American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) website at
which provides information about paralegal education and programs.
* The American Bar Association (ABA) website at
provides information about the role of paralegals in assisting attorneys.