The practice of law is increasingly complex, and lawyers can use all the support they can get. Paralegals often play a large role on legal teams, providing invaluable support to lawyers. But this begs some questions: What are paralegals? Are they the same as legal assistants? What are they allowed to do? This blog will attempt to briefly answer these questions.

First, what is a "paralegal"? The term is often used interchangeably with "legal assistant". For example, the ABA has defined legal assistant/paralegal as follows:

"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."

Similarly, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) definition states:

"Legal assistants, also known as paralegals, are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney."

The takeaway from these definitions is that paralegals perform legal work under the supervision of an attorney. The attorney must supervise the work and the attorney remains responsible for the work.

So, what exactly can paralegals do? Perhaps a better starting place is what can paralegals not do? While there may be jurisdictional differences, in general, paralegals cannot: (1) accept cases from potential clients; (2) set fees; (3) give direct legal advice to clients; (4) negotiate legal matters on behalf of clients (unless communicating offers of behalf of a supervising attorney); (5) represent clients in court settings; or (6) sign pleadings or motions on behalf of the attorney or client (most jurisdictions allow paralegals to sign off on firm letterhead if they put appropriate designations below their names). Any of these tasks would likely run afoul of rules of professional conduct and ethics, or unauthorized practice of law statutes in most states.

Notwithstanding the list above, there are many things a paralegal/legal assistant can do to support the attorney in representation of a client. For example, a paralegal may: (1) conduct client interviews and maintain general contact with the client after the establishment of the attorney-client relationship, so long as the client is aware of the status and function of the paralegal, and the client contact is under the supervision of the attorney; (2) locate and interview witnesses, so long as the witnesses are aware of the status and function of the paralegal; (3) conduct investigations and statistical and documentary research for review by the attorney; (4) conduct legal research for review by the attorney; (5) draft legal documents for review by the attorney; (6) summarize depositions, interrogatories, and testimony for review by the attorney; (7) attend executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, court or administrative hearings, and trial with the attorney; (8) author and sign letters provided the paralegal's status is clearly indicated and the correspondence does not contain independent legal opinions or legal advice.

There is no doubt that lawyers rely heavily on paralegals. Indeed, given the number and variety of tasks paralegals can perform in the legal setting, paralegals have earned a level of trust and respect in the legal profession commensurate with the role they play as part of the client's legal team.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.