Paralegals have a large role in the efficiency of law firms. Their responsibilities have gradually increased over the years and they are now responsible for duties that were once only handled by an attorney. Although paralegals are not allowed by law to give legal advice, they are able to assist the attorney with all types of legal work and essentially have the same duties as an attorney.
There are certain do’s and don’t when it comes to being a paralegal. There are certain things that the paralegal is responsible for and certain things that the lawyer is responsible for. For reasons of legality, a paralegal is limited in the duties that they can perform while working at a law firm. Even though there are limitations to what a paralegal is allowed to work on, the truth is that many paralegals do a lot of the attorney’s work. The attorneys trust the legal assistants to understand the law and understand the types of documents being prepared.
One of the duties that a paralegal can do is handle the paperwork and prepare legal documentation. The paperwork can consist of contracts, pleadings, court motions, share holder agreements, and many other types of documents. A paralegal is involved in writing different legal agreements and forms. Paralegals are also allowed to reword documentation and help attorneys craft agreements that will be used in court.
One of the most interesting things that a paralegal can do is interview witnesses. Interviewing witnesses has the potential to be quite exciting. Especially if the witnesses are part of an interesting or thrilling case. Other research that needs to be conducted for the case is also a critical part of the paralegal’s job. The job of interviewing and research is normally delegated to the paralegal and is one of the many reasons individuals enter the paralegal profession. When a person completes paralegal school they are able to perform substantial legal tasks and take on more complex legal responsibilities.
There is an extensive list of things that paralegals are not able to do. One of the major things that paralegals are not allowed to do is practice law. No one can practice law without a license, including a paralegal. Paralegals can only work under the supervision of a licensed attorney and they are not permitted to perform solo legal duties in their own practice. When a paralegal does perform legal duties without supervision it is considered the unauthorized practice of law.
Even though a paralegal cannot give legal advice, accept a case, or represent a client in court, they do work under the watchful eye of the attorney and play a huge role in the communication between the lawyer and the client. Although the paralegal serves as a liaison between the client and attorney they are not supposed to give confidential information to the client that will substantially impact the case.
One of the things a paralegal cannot do is give legal advice. A paralegal must abide by this rule because in many cases when a person wants legal advice pro-bono or for a significantly less cost they will illegally seek out paralegals. It’s not that a paralegal doesn’t know the law or understand different legal documents, it’s that a paralegal has not passed a bar exam, and only those who pass the bar exam are allowed to give legal advice.
Paralegals are also not allowed to solicit for legal business, they are not allowed to set fees for clients, and they cannot accept or reject cases. All of those duties are the sole responsibility of the lawyer. Another thing a paralegal cannot do is sign any type of legal document with the attorney’s signature. Even if the paralegal has the attorney’s permission to sign the document it’s still illegal for them to do so.
Paralegals cannot give legal advice under any circumstances. Legal advice is telling or advising a client what they should do in a certain situation and it can also constitute giving the client any information that would lead them to make a legal decision for their case. Paralegals cannot give advice because they are not regulated by the state bar association. Although they cannot give legal advice they can always refer the client to an attorney that would be able to help them. Decades ago when the role of a paralegal included more back office tasks like organizing and filing, it was a lot rarer for the paralegal to have direct contact with the clients. Today, paralegals have a lot more exposure to the clients, so this opens up the potential problem of the unauthorized practice of law. The unauthorized practice of law is rendering services that should only be given by the professional judgement of lawyers. There are penalties attached to the unauthorized practice of law and the unauthorized practice of law is considered a first degree misdemeanor. Prosecution and penalties can include $25 to $500 citations. There have been several cases in which paralegals have been sued for the unauthorized practice of law. In San Bernardino County, a superior court judge charged 40 independent paralegals with the unauthorized practice of law in 1997. The Florida Bar Association prosecuted a former legal secretary and had her jailed for the unauthorized practice of law. In Oregon, a paralegal that ran a paralegal service was sued by the state for the unauthorized practice of law and an attorney who allowed his paralegal to represent a church at a zoning hearing unsupervised was charged with the unauthorized practice of law.