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Karen R.  George, FRP

By: Karen George, FRP

As many who are on the paralegal blogs know, I am around the blogs.  I read posts, discussions and I comment — a lot.  I also write articles for The Paralegal Society, among others.  As I trolled the blogs over the past couple of weeks, I saw some posts that prompted this article.

Really, what is a paralegal? 

A paralegal is many things and not, many things.   A paralegal is for all intents and purposes the person who handles the mechanics of representing the client.  What does that mean?  A paralegal oversees the cases and insures that nothing is missed; a deadline, a response, a motion, a phone call to follow up on something, and is above all else, a critical thinker.  

I Do This, Not That.  I read so many posts saying “I don’t do legal research” or “I only write motions to compel” or “I write memoranda of law” or “All I do is discovery” or “I haven’t been to a trial” or “I’ve been to trial” or “What about transcription?” or “I do electronic discovery” or “I interview potential clients” or…  Am I making my point?  There is no set “description” for a paralegal.  A firm/attorney hires an individual with certain training and experience to handle the substantive legal work needed by the attorney.   By handling that substantive work, the paralegal frees up the attorney to concentrate more of his time on the practice of law.

The Cube or the Office?  Did I mention; “I have an office,” “I don’t have an office,” or “I deserve the office and the other paralegal doesn’t.”  You will get an office if the firm has enough room to give you an office.  If all the offices are needed for attorneys, you don’t get an office.  Plain and simple.  Certainly the nature of the work paralegals perform would best be executed in a private office, but there are no guarantees.  The private office allows the paralegal the room and privacy to function and concentrate on the work they have been hired to perform.  However, never kid yourself — the office is yours until the day comes when it is needed for an attorney.   Certainly can’t put an attorney in a cubicle while a paralegal sits in an office!

Paralegals Perform Substantive Legal Work.  A paralegal fills the gap the legal secretary is not trained to handle.  Please allow me to give you an example to illustrate the difference between the two categories:

Atty to Legal Secretary:  Here’s the file and the tape.  Thank you.

Atty to Paralegal:  Okay, where are we?  What’s happening?  Do I need to do anything?  Is there anything I need to know?

See the difference here?  The gap is the work that is substantive.  The paralegal has education, training and experience which allow the firm to run smooth and help to ease the burden of an attorney’s work load.  The paralegal makes it possible for the attorney to take on more cases and dedicate himself to the business of practicing law and making more money.  The paralegal handles the business part of the case while the attorney handles the representation of the client’s case.  Again, substantive legal work.

The Discovery Paralegal.  Some paralegals only handle discovery.  That’s what they do all day, they respond to and propound discovery.  These paralegals prepare motions to compel, motions for better answers, and prepare answers and responses, they get extensions and sometimes draft situation specific discovery.  These paralegals are very familiar with the rules of evidence as they apply to the area of law in which they practice, as well as the state and federal rules governing discovery.  These paralegals also delve deeply into case management and e-discovery. 

The Client Liaison.  Some paralegals deal with clients more because they do the initial assessment of a potential client’s case.  The paralegal brings that information to the attorney, so when he ultimately meets the potential new client down the road it has been paved ahead for him.  These paralegals gather a lot of pre-litigation information, deal with insurance companies, deal with insurance adjusters, deal with investigators, deal with witnesses, deal with site inspections, and deal with medical providers. 

A family law paralegal does much of what a civil litigation paralegal does, except family law involves dealing with people who once loved each other enough to get married and today can’t stand the sight of each other.  These family law paralegals also deal with many issues involving children and pets among other unusual situations. 

Each of the scenarios I present above address civil litigation and family law.  I have not worked in family law for over 20 years.  There is a reason I haven’t worked in family law for so many years; the one time I did I thought it was the nastiest, dirtiest, meanest, harshest of situations I had ever been exposed to and decided I would never do it again!  When I saw that people were using their children to hurt each other I said, this is not for me.  Good bye! 

I have worked in litigation almost my entire career.  I have worked in criminal, civil (defense and plaintiff), commercial and personal injury, medical malpractice and legal malpractice, toxic torts, product liability, and family law.  All of my experience is in litigation in one form or another. 

I share my experience with you because I have also read: “How do you change specialties?”   If you are transitioning from commercial litigation to personal injury it’s not a great leap, the same basic rules apply, you just have to learn the intricacies of the particular practice.  However, if you are going from real estate closings to toxic torts, ya got yourself some learning to do and it’s going to be a whole new learning process.

The Paralegal’s Purpose.  The purpose of the paralegal is to handle the mechanics of the representation of the client.  There, I’ve said it again.  For whatever you have been hired, you must know it.  There’s no hedging on this.  You must be familiar with how to do whatever it is you are supposed to do.  You must keep current.  There is no “getting comfortable” in this profession, especially today.  Today, the paralegal profession is changing and the types of things paralegals are being hired for are increasing daily.  Not weekly, but daily.  You must read the blogs, read the articles, attend the webinars, go to seminars, be a member of your local paralegal association, join national paralegal associates, take CLEs, talk with other paralegals, listen to what the attorneys are saying, read the attorney periodicals and the paralegal periodicals, you have to read case law – put yourself on the list to receive the latest cases coming out on the weeklies for your state. 

You have now entered a whole new realm of profession, one that requires you to be aware of everything that is going on in law – not just the area in which you are practicing as a paralegal. 

The Trial Paralegal.  Trial:  Ah the great TRIAL.  “I go to trial,” “I don’t go to trial,” “I want to go to trial.”   Trial is where it all comes together.  Trial is what you have been working toward all this time.  Trial is what the discovery is about, the witness interviews, the depositions, the site inspections, the background checks, the discovery responses on both sides, this is it – Opening Night – is Trial.  You have to have the entire case with you at trial.  One way or another, Ipad, laptop, boxes, notebooks, whatever it takes, you cannot not have something there.  Did I mention mints?  You need to have mints, aspirin and band aids (paper cuts).  Going to trial is having a front row seat to The Big Show.  However, you are not an observer, you are on the stage and in fact, you are the stage director, the electrician, the nurse, the runner, the air traffic (witness) controller, you are the mind reader and set-up person.  You insure everything is set for your attorney(ies).  You observe, you are the extra set of eyes for your attorney as to the jury, as to how the other side is acting and reacting, as to how the judge is acting and reacting, you are also handing over documentation before it is asked for, you make sure there is water and enough glasses at the table and that all the electronics are set up and working correctly.  Something is going to go wrong.  Know it, accept it and do all that you can to insure when it happens that it is not disastrous and quickly corrected.  The attorney is practicing law, you, the paralegal, are insuring that the attorney can concentrate on practicing law and there is no need for him to worry about the mechanics of the trial. 

The Big Picture.  Are you getting a feel for what a paralegal is?  A paralegal is the technician of a case. 

A paralegal cannot give legal opinions.  A paralegal cannot sign a legal document.  Everything a paralegal does must be overseen and approved by an attorney.  This is because we are not trained – no matter how much experience you have – to practice law.  We are good, we are knowledgeable, we are informed, we are trained as paralegals, we have experience, but we are not attorneys.  Plain and simple – we are paralegals.

Go forth and be paralegals.  If you want to practice law, go to school, pass the Bar and get a Bar number – then you can practice law.  Until then, be the best paralegal your attorney has ever seen and be proud of what you bring to the case, as a paralegal.

TPS readers, is there anything you’d like to add regarding this interesting topic of discussion?  If so,  please leave a comment!  We always love to hear from you.  We know our readers do too.