A look at paralegals and their role in the legal system

January 21, 2016

As part of our recent discussion concerning selecting and retaining a lawyer, there were several mentions of paralegals, primarily in connection with billing rates. Who are paralegals, what do they do, and what part do they play in the justice system? Before going any further, and in the spirit of full disclosure, you should know that I was once the director of the Paralegal Studies Program at Middlesex County College (I continue to teach one class) and was the president of the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), the national organization for quality paralegal programs.

While there are a number of definitions and descriptions of what a paralegal is and can and cannot do, one element most have in common is that a lawyer is ultimately responsible for the paralegal’s work. We will see in some parts of the country, that concept is eroding through state legislation and regulation. The American Bar Association, the preeminent national organization for attorneys, has developed the following definition: “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience, who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity, and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

AAfPE’s definition emphasizes the need for formal education and describes a paralegal as someone who “performs substantive and procedural legal work as authorized by law, which work, in the absence of the paralegal, would be performed by an attorney. Paralegals have knowledge of the law gained through education, or education and work experience, which qualifies them to perform legal work. Paralegals adhere to recognized ethical standards and rules of professional responsibility.” The two major national paralegal organizations, the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, each have definitions of paralegals that are somewhat similar to the ones above.

The paralegal profession is a relatively new one tracing its beginnings to the 1960s, when a large number of new rights granted by federal legislation required legal assistance to be offered. In particular, fair housing and voting rights laws faced strong opposition, particularly in the South. Since the people who most needed legal help were often unable to afford it, a number of civil rights organizations established community clinics to provide help. The cost of having lawyers deliver the assistance was beyond the human and fiscal resources of those groups, so they trained other employees to provide basic services under the supervision of staff lawyers. The training was pretty disorganized and provided little in the way of formal education, but it did result in many more people being served than if only attorneys were able to assist.

Before the 1960s there were always office staff, often legal secretaries, who performed functions “beyond their title” that pretty much matched the current definition of paralegal — or legal assistant — that was the more commonly used reference 50 years ago. Next time, we will look at how paralegals can enhance access to justice, how they are trained, and more of their role in the legal system.

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