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Paralegals and Legal Assistants, the Unsung Heroes of the Legal World
by Lynn Wallis
Published Apr-22-2014

 
Once considered a glorified secretary, paralegals and legal assistants have evolved into much more. The terms legal assistant and paralegal are used interchangeably, much like the terms attorney and lawyer. This profession was created in the 1960s in an effort to assist attorneys with their increasing caseload and extend access to the legal system to more socioeconomic groups, according to the Online Paralegal Degree Center. Private law firms, businesses, and governmental agencies quickly recognized the benefits of employing specially trained individuals to provide services at lower billing rates, benefiting the client and increasing efficiency.

The American Bar Association (ABA) first recognized the paralegal profession in 1968 and has defined a legal assistant or paralegal as "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." Since its inception, the paralegal profession has consistently experienced growth, both in the number of paralegals practicing and the type and level of responsibilities.

Possibly the most famous legal assistant in modern times is Erin Brockovich, a legal clerk with no formal education in law. She was instrumental in winning a $333 million settlement in 1993 against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company after it leaked dangerous chemicals into the local drinking water. Her story was later immortalized in the film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts.

A Day in the Life of a Paralegal
 
Paralegals have a variety of backgrounds, experience, education, duties, and responsibilities across a broad range of practice areas. This profession performs the same functions as attorneys except those generally prohibited by law, such as setting legal fees, presenting cases in court, and giving legal advice. In practice, the work of a paralegal can range from serving as a file clerk to a paraprofessional who drafts documents, secures affidavits, and interviews clients.

Their exact responsibilities will vary depending on the employer and the paralegal's level of education and legal expertise. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a paralegal or legal assistant typically performs the duties listed in Table 1. Paralegals may specialize in a wide array of areas such as litigation, personal injury, corporate law, criminal law, employee benefits, intellectual property, bankruptcy, immigration, family law, and real estate.

Table 1
Typical Job Duties of a Paralegal
Investigate the facts of a case.
Conduct research on relevant laws, regulations, and legal articles.
Organize and maintain documents in a paper or electronic filing system.
Gather and arrange evidence and other legal documents for attorney review and case preparation.
Write reports to help lawyers prepare for trials.
Draft correspondence and legal documents, such as contracts and mortgages.
Get affidavits and other formal statements that may be used as evidence in court.
Help lawyers during trails by handling exhibits, taking notes, or reviewing trial transcripts.
File exhibits, briefs, appeals and other legal documents with the court or opposing counsel.
Call clients, witnesses, lawyers, and outside vendors to schedule interviews, meetings and depositions.
Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics 
Work Environment and Pay
 
Paralegals work in a variety of settings, but they're most commonly employed by law firms, government agencies, and legal departments at corporations. According to the BLS, the main industries of employment are private legal services (72%) and government (15%). A small portion of paralegals (2%) were self-employed in 2012 (Graph 1).

The average wage in Oregon for paralegals is $26.65 an hour or $55,421 per year. The lowest 10 percent earn $16.14 an hour and the highest paid paralegals earn $39.63 an hour. According to the 2013 Current Population Survey, women dominate this profession and made up 86 percent of all paralegals and legal assistants in the United States. By contrast, women made up only one-third of lawyers in 2013.

Graph 1
Industries of employment for paralegals 2012
Much Diversity in Education
 
According to the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, paralegal education has evolved from a handful of programs to several hundred across the United States in only three decades. There are currently more than 1,000 programs offering certificates and degrees in paralegal studies in the United States. These programs vary greatly in cost, length, course requirements, semester hours, and format.

Both the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAPE) offer a voluntary approval process for paralegal educational programs. To qualify as an approved educational program by the ABA, educational programs must satisfy stringent requirements supervised by the ABA's Standing Committee on Paralegals. Approval by the ABA or the AAPE guarantees the program meets certain criteria of rigor and comprehensiveness. Educational programs for paralegals vary and may or may not be approved or accredited. Employers as well as the professional organizations that offer national certification may require that the educational programs be accredited, American Bar Association (ABA) approved, or both.

There are several paths and no set requirements for becoming a paralegal. Some states have considered requiring licensure for paralegals, similar to lawyers, which is an important issue for paralegals today. According to the BLS, the majority of paralegals and legal assistants have an associate's degree in paralegal studies, or a bachelor's degree in another field and a certificate in paralegal studies. There are also instances where employers hire college graduates with a bachelor degree with no legal experience or education and train them on the job.

Earning voluntary certification after completing an educational program may help applicants become more competitive in the job market. There are three major national organizations that offer professional certification to paralegals who meet voluntary regulation standards: The National Association of Legal Assistants, The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and the Association for Legal Professionals. After successfully completing the exam, paralegals become 'certified paralegals' which is a preferred designation by some employers.

Future Trends and New Opportunities
 
In Oregon, there were 2,155 paralegals and legal assistants in 2012, making up more than one-fifth of all jobs in legal occupations. This occupation is expected to grow faster than average or by nearly 22 percent from 2012 to 2022, adding 471 new jobs. This occupation attracts many applicants, so competition will be strong. Experienced, formally trained and educated paralegals with strong computer and database management skills should have the best prospects.

According to the BLS, as law firms strive to lower their costs of operation, they are expected to hire more paralegals and legal assistants. Also, many large corporations are increasing their internal legal departments to cut costs, as it is often less expensive to have an in-house legal department rather than retain outside counsel.

The profession will likely see changes in coming years, as a number of states are looking at regulating the profession and instituting standardized educational requirements. Also, some states have expressed an interest in examining a limited-practice licensing program.

California's State Bar Board of Trustees, for example, is now considering a limited-practice licensing program that would create a new class of professionals who could give legal advice on a limited basis. The state of Washington, through the Washington State Supreme Court, is the first state to have actually approved a new "legal technician" rule. The rule permits trained limited license legal technicians to provide limited legal assistance under carefully regulated circumstances, thus expanding the affordability of quality legal assistance while protecting the public interest.

Paralegal and legal assistant responsibilities will continue to evolve as the profession develops in response to the public's changing needs and the restructuring of the legal system to meet those needs.

Additional contacts for paralegals in Oregon include: