The Paralegal Profession
Paralegals or legal assistants are highly skilled paraprofessionals who work with attorneys in all areas of civil and criminal law. The American Bar Association defines this occupation as follows: A legal assistant or 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. Paralegal functions are diverse and wide-ranging, including drafting legal documents, interviewing clients, conducting legal research, and investigating and preparing cases for trial. Paralegals may not provide legal services directly to the public, except as permitted by law.
Paralegal Profession Links
- The California Occupational Guide on Paralegals from the California Employment Development Department
- Occupational Outlook Handbook paralegal entry from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Business & Professions Code § 6450, Legal Malpractice Claims, & You: A Primer for Paralegals (PDF) from the San Francisco Paralegal Association.
Paralegal Employment & Qualifications
Paralegals are employed in private law firms, public interest and legal aid organizations, corporations, banks, and government agencies. Some paralegals work as independent contractors providing their services to lawyers on a contract basis. Others work independently as non-lawyer advocates representing persons before administrative agencies. In large law firms, career paths from document and case clerks to senior paralegals have been developed. Because of the growth in the need for legal training for employees in all sectors of the economy, new avenues of employment are being created on a continuous basis.
The state of California has adopted legislation that defines the titles "paralegal" and "legal assistant" and sets educational criteria and continuing education requirements for paralegals. The San Francisco State University Paralegal Studies certificate program meets the educational requirements of the law by virtue of being offered by an accredited institution and consisting of more than 24 semester units of paralegal coursework. We also offer a series of paralegal continuing education courses to meet the continuing education standards established by the Business and Professional Code Section 6450 et seq.
The statute defines "paralegal/legal assistant" as "a person who contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs substantial legal work under the direction and supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California..." The statute is intended to differentiate paralegals who work under the supervision of an attorney from persons who provide services directly to the public and are required under California law to be registered as legal document assistants.
Paralegals perform a wide variety of tasks, some of which are set forth in the new law. Among these are "case planning, development and management; legal research; interviewing clients; fact gathering and retrieving information; drafting and analyzing legal documents; collecting compiling and utilizing technical information to make an independent decision and recommendation to the supervising attorney; and representing clients before a state or federal administrative agency if that representation is permitted by statute, court rule, or administrative rule or regulation."
Standards are high in the legal profession and most law firms require some college background and formal paralegal education. Large firms usually require a BA degree. Employers also require paralegals to have highly developed oral and written communication skills, plus organizational and computer skills*.
* For a complete description of the California legislation, see Business and Professional Code section 6450.
The Paralegal Profession
by Malka Weintraub
Are you looking for a career that will give you a stable income, predictable hours and a "decent" salary, yet lends itself to flexibility and part-time work too? If so, you may want to consider being a paralegal.
Take this short self-assessment:
1. Can you think logically and learn quickly?
2. Do you have computer word-processing skills?
3. Can you write clearly and understandably?
4. Are you able to get along well with other people?
5. Are you interested in the law?
If you answered yes to these questions, you should definitely take a closer look. A paralegal is essentially an assistant attorney. The attorney sets fees, accepts cases, gives legal advice, appears in court, and takes responsibility for the paralegal's work. The paralegal researches laws and previous cases in the library, often meeting witnesses and interviewing them in the process. The paralegal analyzes the data and prepares reports that the attorney may use to determine how to proceed with the case. The paralegal may also help prepare legal arguments and write drafts of pleadings to be filed in court.
Paralegals work in a variety of settings, besides attorney's offices. Some paralegals work for the government. The Federal Trade Commission, Justice Department, Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Department of Interior, and Social Security Administration are some of the government agencies that hire paralegals. Because many businesses constantly deal with legal regulations, smaller corporations often hire paralegals to handle the day-to-day legal work when they don't necessarily need an attorney. Paralegals work in banks, insurance companies, real estate firms, and corporate legal departments.
Requirements for paralegals vary. Some paralegals start as secretaries and are gradually given more training and responsibility. It is estimated that over 85% of paralegals receive some type of formal education. Formal training ranges from one to three years and is offered at four-year colleges and universities, law schools, community colleges, and business schools. Some paralegal training programs require a college degree, and those who have a college degree have an edge over those who do not.
In California, paralegals must be qualified under Business and Professions Code Section 6450, et seq. California paralegals must meet minimum educational requirements and maintain mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) hours. Effective as of January 1, 2007, four hours of legal ethics and four hours of general law or an area of specialized law are required every two years. The code also sets forth minimum standards as to who may be bestowed the title paralegal; synonymous are the titles "legal assistant," "attorney assistant," "freelance paralegal," "independent paralegal," and "contract paralegal" under Section 6454.
Salaries vary greatly, depending on the size and location of the firm, the education and experience of the paralegal. Robert Half Legal provides an annual Legal Salary Guide, which may be requested at Robert Half Legal - Free Resources.
The paralegal profession is one of the fastest growing professions in the country. One reason is financial. Paralegals make the delivery of services to clients more cost effective. The increasing popularity of legal plans and the public's increasing need for legal services are fueling a growing demand for paralegals in private law firms. Businesses are more likely to pursue litigation when profits are up, and the economy has been good lately.
Our Paralegal Studies graduation ceremony on June 24, 2016 celebrated the 40th year of our Paralegal Studies certificate program. The graduation was held on California Paralegal Day, which was first celebrated on June 24, 1988 when Governor George Deukmejian signed a proclamation declaring the last Friday in June to be known as California Paralegal Day. There are now a dozen other states who have designated a day to be known as Paralegal Day.
There are about 1,000 paralegal programs in operation across the country, and about 300 of them are approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). SF State is the only one in the immediate San Francisco Bay Area and is also the only continuously operating accredited paralegal program in Northern California.
It is interesting to look back at the history of the paralegal profession from its start in the 1960s to the present. Lots of changes and growth. The future holds even more career opportunities for professional paralegals.
- "A Brief History of the Paralegal Profession" (PDF) by Therese Cannon