Paralegals are professionals who serve as aids to attorneys in different areas of the law. To be a paralegal, you need formal education, training, and experience to gain knowledge and expertise of the legal system and be successful in your chosen field. Paralegals are a vital part of any legal team. By utilizing the valuable services of paralegals, attorneys can increase the efficiency and cost effective delivery of legal service by their firms. This results in reducing client costs and freeing up attorneys to focus on tasks only they can perform.

Defining “Paralegal”: What the NALA and the ABA Say

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the leading paralegal association in the U.S., publishes the NALA, Inc. Model Standards and Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegals. This important document serves as a comprehensive resource and guide for maintaining voluntary standards for paralegal training and practice. According to the NALA Guidelines, define paralegals are defined as persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services.

The American Bar Association (ABA) also offers a definition of what a paralegal is. According to the ABA, a paralegal is a person qualified by training, education, or work experience and who performs legal work in a law office, corporation, lawyer, governmental agency, or a similar organization.

Paralegal Standards: Qualifications for Paralegals

It is important to note that paralegals are not licensed or regulated at the national or state level. However, NALA suggests that all paralegals meet certain minimum qualifications before being employed by attorneys. The minimum qualifications laid out by NALA include:

  • Graduate from an ABA-approved paralegal program
  • Complete of the NALA Certified Paralegal (CP) certifying examination
  • Graduate from a course of study for paralegals through an accredited institution that includes at least 60 semester hours of classroom study
  • Graduate from a paralegal course of study (other than those in 1 and 3), plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
  • Earn a bachelor’s degree in any field, plus at least 6 months of paralegal training (in-house)
  • Earn at least 3 years of experience, supervised by an attorney, including at least 6 months of training as a paralegal (in-house)
  • Earn at least 2 years of training as a paralegal (in-house)

By meeting these minimum qualifications, an individual will have knowledge of the legal profession needed to succeed.

In addition to completing training and earning experience, paralegals can take an examination to earn certification. The NALA CP examination is voluntary, but allows you to earn national certification that signifies that you have met a high level of professionalism and knowledge. Paralegals with this certification are highly sought after because they have proven they meet state court and bar association standards and established qualifications used by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The NALA is only one example of an organization that offers voluntary certification programs. Others include:

  • National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA): Registered Paralegal (RP)
  • NALS-The Association for Legal Professionals: Professional Paralegal (PP)
  • American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI): American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP)

A number of states also offer their own state-specific voluntary certification programs.

Guidelines for Paralegal Standards and Professional Responsibilities

As a paralegal, you will be permitted to perform any task delegated and supervised by an attorney. To aid in the delegation of tasks, NALA has outlined a set of guidelines:

  • Guideline 1 -Paralegals should disclose their status as paralegals when establishing a relationship with a client, other attorneys, a court, an administrative agency, or members of the general public. Like attorneys, they must also preserve a client’s confidence.
  • Guideline 2 -Paralegals should not:
    • Establish attorney-client relationships
    • Represent a client before a court, unless authorized by the court to do so
    • Give legal opinions or advice
    • Engage in any act that involves the unauthorized practice of law
    • Set legal fees
  • Guideline 3 – Paralegals may perform services for an attorney when representing a client as long as:
    • The attorney supervises the paralegal
    • The attorney takes professional responsibility for all work done on behalf of the client
    • The attorney maintains a direct relationship with the client and maintains control of all client matters
    • The services do not involve providing legal opinion or judgment
    • The services performed by the paralegal must supplement the attorney’s work
  • Guideline 4 – The attorney, when supervising the paralegal, should take time to properly educate and train the paralegal about local rules and practices, professional responsibility, and firm policies. The attorney should also monitor the paralegal’s professional conduct and work.
  • Guideline 5 – The paralegal may perform any function delegated by the attorney, including, attending court or administrative hearings, real estate closings, and trials with the attorney. In addition, the paralegal can conduct legal research, client interviews, and investigations. Many paralegals also draft legal documents for review by the attorney and summarize depositions, testimony, and interrogations.

The ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services is similar to the NALA’s guidelines, and include:

  • Guideline 1 – An attorney is responsible for the paralegal’s actions
  • Guideline 2 – An attorney may delegate any task normally performed by a lawyer, except tasks outlines by court rule, statute, controlling authority, etc.
  • Guideline 3 – An attorney may not delegate the following tasks to a paralegal:
    • Establishing an attorney-client relationship
    • Establishing the fee to be charged
    • Rendering a legal opinion to a client
  • Guideline 4 – An attorney must ensure that others know the paralegal is not licensed to practice law
  • Guideline 5 – An attorney may identify the paralegal by name and title on the his or her letterhead and business card
  • Guideline 6 – An attorney must ensure the paralegal preserves client confidences, just as he or she would
  • Guideline 7 – An attorney must prevent any conflicts of interest caused by the paralegal’s other employment or interests
  • Guideline 8 – An attorney may charge/bill for the work performed by a paralegal, but paralegals are not allowed to establish their own fee
  • Guideline 9 – An attorney may not split fees with a paralegal or pay a paralegal for the referral of legal business. A paralegal’s pay is also not contingent upon the outcome of a case
  • Guideline 10 – An attorney should facilitate continuing education and pro bono activities for the paralegal