What does a Paralegal Do?

What does a Paralegal Do?

While it is commonly said that the paralegal field is one of the fastest growing professions today, those considering it often wonder “What do paralegals do?”.  That   question cannot be completely answered in a short article because what a paralegal does is largely dependent on the type of law practiced by the attorney or firm for which he or she works, followed by the capability and preferences of the paralegal.

What is a Paralegal?

According to the ABA, a 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.” That definition is very broad and doesn’t really give a good answer to this question.

What Do Paralegals Do?

While the exact work done by paralegals differs depending on the job, generally speaking, paralegals deal with the facts and the documents while attorneys deal with the laws.  According the billing guidelines issued by many clients, paralegals should do work that would otherwise be done by attorneys, rather than work that would otherwise be done by secretaries.

What Does a Paralegal Do in an Estate Planning Practice?

Attorneys who specialize in estates, trusts and wills use paralegals to draft simple wills by using information from the client to fill in forms the attorney has previously drafted.  When asked to probate a will and distribute assets to heirs, an attorney may have the paralegal review the documents brought in by the client, write letters to the brokerage houses, compute the value of the assets, contact heirs (or even search for them) and draft the pleadings to be filed with the court.  Often the paralegal is the client’s prime contact with the firm as some people just need a listening ear and paralegal time is less expensive than attorney time.

What Does a Paralegal Do in a Litigation Practice?

Paralegals who work in civil litigation can be divided into roughly three groups (though some will practice in more than one area):  personal injury plaintiff, personal injury defense, and complex business litigation.  Here are the major things paralegals do in each area:

  • What does a paralegal do when representing a personal injury plaintiff?

    Whether the injury was from a car accident, a slip and fall or a defective product, personal injury plaintiffs are people who have been injured, and who believe they were injured through the fault of someone else.  Plaintiff attorneys are paid a percent of the recovery in a case, so they make extensive use of paralegals to control costs.  At the initial meeting the client is asked to execute authorizations allowing the attorney access to his or her medical records.  It is generally the paralegal’s job to send those authorizations to doctors and gather the plaintiff’s medical records.  Often plaintiffs do not have the money to see a doctor and the attorney refers them to a doctor who has agreed to defer collecting a fee until after the case settles.  The paralegal interfaces with the doctors’ offices to make sure the plaintiff is obtaining care and to track his or her recovery.  The paralegal in generally in charge of maintaining a current list of medical expenses and summarizing the medical treatment for the attorney.  If suit is filed, the paralegal may prepare the first draft, making sure the factual information is correct while the attorney worries about the legal theories of recovery.Once suit has been filed, the defense will send over written discovery–questions about the plaintiff’s background, medical history, employment, questions about the accident itself and the effect it has had on the plaintiff.  It is generally the paralegal’s job to contact the plaintiff, get his or her answers to these questions and then prepare a formal response that includes a lot of objections.The next step in the typical personal injury case is depositions and the plaintiff attorney’s paralegal will often interface with the defense attorney’s paralegal to schedule these proceedings where attorneys get to question the other party and witnesses under oath.If a case proceeds beyond depositions and is set for trial, paralegals often draft the lists of exhibits and witnesses that have to be filed with the court.  They may prepare demonstrative evidence, whether that means creating a timeline graphic or blowing up and mounting a page from the medical records.  Paralegals may go to trial (but remember that even busy litigators rarely try cases) where they take notes, coordinate witness appearances, hold the client’s hand and manage documents.  Sometimes if witnesses cannot make it to trial, a paralegal may read that person’s deposition to the jury.When a case is over the paralegal may prepare the final statement showing the amount received from the defendants, the amount of expenses incurred, the attorney’s fee and the amount left for the client.

  • What does a paralegal do in a defense practice?

    Opposite the personal injury plaintiff firm is a defense firm, usually hired by an insurance company.  Insurance companies like to be kept updated on the status of files and if a paralegal has strong writing skills, he may be asked to prepare the first draft of these reports.
    Like the plaintiff paralegals, defense paralegals interface with the client and prepare discovery responses and schedule depositions.  Defense paralegals prepare subpoenas for the plaintiff’s medical and employment records and prepare summaries of them for the attorney.  Their duties in preparing for trial and assisting at trial are similar to those of the plaintiff’s paralegal.

  • What does a  paralegal do in complex business litigation?

    Once you get out of the personal injury sphere, you are often talking about cases in which parties subpoena large numbers of records from each other and then pour over those records to find support for their contentions.  Keeping those records organized and indexed in a way that the attorneys find useful is a major paralegal task.  If a paralegal’s client received a subpoena, she may go to his office, talk to him about what records are responsive to the subpoena, arrange to have those records copied or imaged and then, once she has the documents, a paralegal will review them according to directions given by the attorney as well as organize them either in a computer database or in folders on a shelf.  It is the paralegal’s job to get the document that attorney wants when she or he wants it.

A Quick Summary

 A paralegal is someone who has some knowledge of the law but whose real skills are in the area of making molehills out of mountains.  Paralegals obtain information the clients and other parties and distill it into forms the attorneys can use to bolster their cases.  Paralegals organize, summarize and classify.  A lawyer can practice law without a paralegal, but why would he or she want to do so?