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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
about paralegals and paralegalism can be found at the following websites.
* The Illinois Paralegal
Association web site at www.ipaonline.org
which provides information about the Association and links regarding paralegal
* The National Federation
of Paralegal Associations, Inc., (NFPA) web site at www.paralegals.org
which provides a national perspective on the paralegal profession.
* The American Association
for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) website at www.aafpe.org
which provides information about paralegal education and programs.
* The American Bar
Association (ABA) website at www.abanet.org/legalservices/paralegals
provides information about the role of paralegals in assisting attorneys.