FAQ About Paralegals

What is a paralegal?

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  • 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.      
  • The titles "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are generally synonymous. One state, California, has a law specifying who may use the title "paralegal," and other states, such as North Carolina and Wisconsin are considering similar proposals. Maine, Indiana (PDF) and South Dakota have defined the terms. Maine's definition also carries fines for misuse.
  • Paralegals are qualified to perform their responsibilities by completing an educational program, receiving training on the job, or through actual work experience. They are not licensed as attorneys are.
  • Paralegals perform substantive legal work that would otherwise be done by attorneys. Clerical work is not substantive legal work.
  • Attorneys remain responsible for legal work delegated to paralegals and must supervise paralegals' work.
  • Paralegals work under the supervision of attorneys and are not "document preparers" working directly with the public.
  • Paralegals work in law firms, government agencies, business corporations, and anywhere that a lawyer may need assistance.
  • A paralegal’s duties vary widely; you may find yourself in a library researching legal precedent, in an office meeting with the president of a corporation, or at the courthouse recording legal documents. You may be helping to prepare for a criminal trial or calling clients to set up their real estate closing.
  • Paralegals, however, may not give legal advice, represent a client in court, or set the fees charged by a lawyer.

How do I become a paralegal?

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  • Educational programs for paralegals vary. These programs may or may not be approved or accredited. The programs at Middlesex Community College are both accredited by NEASC and approved the American Bar Association.
  • Educational programs approved by the American Bar Association must satisfy the stringent requirements of the approval process (PDF) supervise by the ABA's Standing Committee on Paralegals. These include a minimum of 60 semester hours of study (18 semester hours must be designed specifically to develop paralegal skills), extensive reports and periodic site visits. An ABA-approved paralegal education program has undergone a rigorous scrutiny of its curriculum, faculty, recruiting and admission practices, library and computer resources, student services, and other      aspects of the program.
  • Our paralegal program includes courses that will prepare you to work in the field upon graduation. We also offer internship opportunities, through the local courts and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, to help you gain work experience. Middlesex Community College offers all of its required paralegal courses at the Lowell campus during the day, and also at the Bedford campus during the day and again in the evening. You can choose to take all day classes, all evening classes, or any combination of the two.
  • There are several ways to become a paralegal, including through on the job training in a law office. But more often, lawyers want to hire a person who has had courses in paralegal studies from an accredited school, such as Middlesex Community College. Paralegals perform legal work under the supervision of a lawyer. Paralegals …sometimes called Legal Assistants…work in law firms, government agencies, business corporations…any where that a lawyer may need assistance. A paralegal’s duties vary widely; you may find yourself in a library researching legal precedent, in an office meeting with the president of a corporation, or at the courthouse recording legal documents. You may be helping to prepare for a criminal trial or calling clients to set up their real estate closing. Paralegals, however, may not give legal advice, represent a client in court, or set the fees charged by a lawyer.

How much can I expect to earn?

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Wages of paralegals and legal assistants vary greatly. Salaries depend on education, training, experience, the type and size of employer, and the geographic location of the job. In general, paralegals who work for large law firms or in large metropolitan areas earn more than those who work for smaller firms or in less populated regions. 

In addition to earning a salary, many paralegals receive bonuses, in part to compensate them for sometimes having to work long hours. Paralegals also receive vacation, paid sick leave, a savings plan, life insurance, personal paid time off, dental insurance, and reimbursement for continuing legal education. [1]

According to Salary.com [2], an entry level paralegal with an Associate’s degree and 0-2 years experience can expect to earn between $37,761 and $63,069 in Lowell and between $40,133 and $67,030 in Boston. To see some current legal job advertisements and salaries, visit Lawyers Weekly Jobs.

[1] Bureau of Labor statistics, U.S.Dept. of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012 Edition, Paralegals and Legal Assistants, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/paralegals-and-legal-assistants.htm (visited February 2014).

[2] www.salary.com, sponsored by Yahoo Hot Jobs (visited December 15, 2011).

Use the Robert Half Salary Guide and calculator to see what paralegals in your local area are currently making.

[3] http://www.roberthalflegal.com/salarycenter


How are paralegals regulated?

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  • Paralegals currently are not licensed as lawyers are, nor subject to any other regulatory scheme. California, however, requires a certain level of education of persons using the title "paralegal." Other states, such as North Carolina and Wisconsin, are considering regulation.
  • Since paralegals are not regulated, the supervising attorney remains responsible for the paralegal's work product and conduct. See Rule 5.3 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
  • Washington is the first state in the country to offer an affordable legal support option to help meet the needs of those unable to afford the services of an attorney. Legal Technicians, also known as Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT), are trained and licensed to advise and assist people going through divorce, child custody and other family-law matters in Washington.

What is a "certified" paralegal?

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  • Technically a "certified" paralegal is a paralegal who has completed the voluntary certification process of a professional association by developing a specified level of professional competency.
  • The term "certified" is sometimes mistakenly used when referring to a paralegal who has completed paralegal studies education program and earned a degree or certificate.
  • The American Bar Association (ABA) has a helpful description of the difference between a Paralegal Certificate and Paralegal Certification.
  • The American Bar Association does not certify individual paralegals, it simply approves certain paralegal education programs according to a rigorous process, described in more detail below.
  • The National Association of Paralegals (NALA) awards a designation that they call Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) to persons who have met its requirements, which include passing a competency exam. Advanced specialty certification (CLAS) exams are also administered by NALA, as are a few state-specific advanced competency examinations.
  • The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) awards a designation that they call Registered Paralegal (RP) to persons who have met its requirements, which include passing the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE).
  • NALS, the association for legal professionals, offers two paralegal certifications.

How is the American Bar Association involved with the paralegal field?

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What can paralegals do?

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  • You can read more about the work that paralegals do at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics web site.
  • You can also watch this video to learn more about what paralegals do.
  • Paralegals can be delegated any task normally performed by a lawyer, as long as the lawyer supervises the work, except those proscribed by law. See the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (PDF).
  • For example, paralegals can review and organize client files, conduct factual and legal research, prepare documents for legal transactions, draft pleadings and discovery      notices, interview clients and witnesses, and assist at closings and trials.
  • Paralegals must avoid the unauthorized practice of law. Generally, paralegals may not represent clients in court, take depositions, or sign pleadings.
  • Some federal and state administrative agencies, however, do permit nonlawyer practice. See, for example, Social Security Administration. Check with specific      agency to determine whether nonlawyer practice is authorized.
  • Paralegals may not establish the attorney's relationship with the client or set fees to be charged, and may not give legal advice to a client..
  • Typical tasks delegated to paralegals in various areas of the law are described on the websites of national paralegal associations, such as the National Association of Paralegals (NALA) .

What are a paralegal's ethical responsibilities?

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  • Paralegals are not directly subject to any rules of professional conduct promulgated by courts, legislatures, or government agencies.
  • Paralegals who are members of national and/or local paralegal associations are required to follow the ethical codes of those associations, such as the AAPI Code of Ethics, the NALA Guidelines, the NFPA Guidelines, or the NALS Guidelines.

What fee should a lawyer charge for a paralegal’s work?

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  • A paralegal's substantive legal work (i.e., not clerical work) may be billed directly to the client just as an attorney's work is billed, or considered in setting a flat fee      just as an attorney's work would be.
  • A profitable paralegal generates more revenue than it costs to maintain the paralegal.
  • A financial analysis should take into account the paralegal's direct and indirect contributions (both revenues from paralegal hours and the benefits from shifting routine work to a paralegal and leaving more complex work to an attorney).
  • A quick test of profitability is the "Rule of Three": the paralegal generates revenue three times his or her salary.

What qualities does a lawyer look for in hiring a paralegal?

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  • A lawyer wants a person with excellent organizational skills, who is detail minded and able to multi-task.
  • Good communication skills, both oral and written, are essential.
  • A paralegal with a genuine interest in law and empathy with clients' problems will be a valuable member of the legal team.
Last Modified: 8/11/16