It's one of the most important skills in practicing law: building an effective work team to serve clients in the best possible manner and generate profits. Paralegals can be a key element in that team, especially in fostering cost efficiency. The information in this section is intended to guide you in the effective utilization of paralegals in your practice.
The Paralegal Role in the Legal Profession
1. What is a paralegal?
- 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. (ABA House of Delegates, 2020)
- 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, 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.
2. How are paralegals regulated?
- 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."
3. What is a "certified" paralegal?
- 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.
- NALA: The Paralegal Association awards the designation Certified Paralegal (CP) or Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) to persons who have met its requirements, which include passing a competency exam.
- The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) awards the designation Registered Paralegal (RP) to persons who have met its requirements, which include passing the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE), or the designation of CORE Registered Paralegal (CRP) to persons who pass the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE). NPFA also offers an Assurance of Learning opportunity for paralegal education programs.
- NALS, the association for legal professionals, awards the Accredited Legal Professional (ALP), the Certified Legal Professional (CLP) , and the Professional Paralegal (PP) certification designations, which reflect a proficiency in procedural law, substantive law, and an overall commitment to a higher standard of conduct and professionalism. NALS' Professional Paralegals may distinguish themselves further by earning Specialty Certifications in various substantive law areas.
- The American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI) awards the designation American Alliance Certified Paralegal (AACP).
- The Texas Board of Legal Specialization offers a voluntary specialty certification program in six areas of Texas law. The California Alliance of Paralegal Associations (CAPA) offers a voluntary California Paralegal Certification Program. Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio also have state-specific voluntary certification programs.
- The term "certified" is sometimes mistakenly used when referring to a paralegal who has earned a certificate by completing a course of study.
- The American Bar Association does not certify individual paralegals.
4. How is the American Bar Association involved with the paralegal field?
- The ABA endorsed the use of paralegals in 1967 and established the first committee on paralegals in 1968.
- Since 1975, the ABA has approved paralegal programs that satisfy the rigorous standards of the ABA Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs (PDF).
- The ABA adopted Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Legal Assistant Services in 1991. The ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (PDF) were revised in August 2021. Many states such as Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and state bar associations, such as Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, and North Carolina have adopted these guidelines or their own versions.
Paralegal Work Assignments
5. What can 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. See, Guideline 3 of the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (PDF).
- 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), the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, NALS...the association for paralegal professionals and the International Paralegal Management Association.
6. How would a paralegal improve my practice?
- Your costs would be reduced.
- You would be able to lower your legal fees.
- Your clients would also appreciate increased contact with your practice through your paralegal.
7. How would a paralegal improve my practice's bottom line?
- Paralegal time can be billed out separately to your clients, and at lower rates.
- Paralegals can be paid less than an attorney, yet handle many tasks (under an attorney's supervision) that would otherwise be performed by an attorney.
The paralegal staff can be a profit center for your practice.
- See chapters 2 and 3 in the book Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice, by Arthur G. Greene and Therese A. Cannon.
- Comparative Client Cost of Lawyer Alone and of Lawyer Plus Paralegal (PDF), Figure 2.1 from Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice .
- Shifting Work to Paralegals (PDF), an excerpt from Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice.
- SCOLA Update: Partnering with Paralegals (PDF), a publication of the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals.
8. May I include my paralegal in my firm's pro bono activities?
- Paralegals enhance the ability of law firms to provide more pro bono legal services just as they do paid services.
- Attorneys should facilitate the participation of paralegals in a practice's pro bono activities. See, Guideline 10 of the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (PDF).
- Paralegal associations recognize the value of pro bono activities and encourage their members to provide such services.
9. What are my ethical responsibilities in employing a paralegal?
- Lawyers are ultimately responsible for the work product of paralegals.
- Lawyers are responsible for the ethical conduct of the paralegals whom they employ. Any transgressions by the paralegals may subject the lawyer to professional discipline. See, Rule 5.3 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
- Lawyers who supervise paralegals must develop, implement, and enforce policies to ensure that paralegals understand how their conduct must conform to lawyer's professional obligations. See, Rule 5.3 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
- Many state bar associations have adopted guidelines for the utilization of paralegals. These guidelines often include commentary describing specifically authorized or proscribed local practices. For example, there is a split of opinion on whether paralegals may attend real estate closings unaccompanied by a lawyer.
- See chapter 8 in Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice, by Arthur G. Greene and Therese A. Cannon.
- Unethical conduct by paralegals has a direct impact on a lawyer's practice. See The Paralegal's Guide to Professional Responsibility.
10. What are my paralegal's ethical responsibilities?
11. How do I inform my clients about my paralegal's role?
12. May I screen my paralegal to avoid disqualification of my law firm under conflicts rules?
- Screening of a paralegal who has a conflict with a client's interest was endorsed by the ABA in Informal Opinion 88-1521.
- Imputed disqualification does not apply to nonlawyers, including paralegals, according to the new Comment 4 to Rule 1.10 of the recently revised ABA Model Rules.
- Courts and bar associations that have addressed this issue generally agree with this principle. Only Kansas prohibits the use of screens for both lawyers and nonlawyers.
Fees & Compensation Issues
13. What fee should I charge for my paralegal's work?
- Your 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.
- See chapter 2 (pages 13-17) in Paralegals, Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice, by Arthur G. Greene and Therese A. Cannon.
14. How do I compensate my paralegal?
- Attorneys may compensate paralegals based on the quantity and quality of their work and the value of that work to the law practice. See, Guideline 9 of the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (PDF).
- Paralegals may be paid discretionary bonuses based on the overall success of the law practice. See, Rule 5.4(a)(3) of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
- Paralegal compensation, however, may not be contingent, by advance agreement, on the outcome of particular cases. See, Guideline 9 of the ABA ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services (PDF).
- Attorneys may not split legal fees with paralegals nor pay paralegals for the referral of legal business.
- Paralegals may not be partners or shareholders in a law firm.
15. Do I have to pay my paralegal for overtime?
- This depends on whether your paralegal would be classified as an exempt or nonexempt employee.
- Nonexempt employees are entitled to overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act and similar state laws.
- Paralegals as a group may not be classified as exempt, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, because they are not required to have advanced professional knowledge acquired through prolonged, specialized instruction and study, and are not generally involved in the performance of duties that require the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.
- The Department of Labor's professional exemption provision on overtime pay addresses the status of paralegals in subpart D, §541.301(e)(7).
Recruitment & Education
16. How do I recruit and hire a well-qualified paralegal?
- Determine the appropriate functions and desired qualifications of a paralegal for your practice.
- Contact paralegal education programs. An ABA-approved paralegal program has met the stringent quality Guidelines established by the Standing Committee on Paralegals.
- Contact national and local paralegal associations, such as NALA, NFPA or NALS. Most list jobs at no cost to the employer. Some also maintain resume banks, such as the AAPI Job Bank (available to AAPI members) or the IPMA Job Bank.
- Advertise in newspapers and list openings on web sites.
- Interview carefully, verify credentials, and check references.
- See chapter 6 in Profitability, and the Future of Your Law Practice, by Arthur G. Greene and Therese A. Cannon.
17. What qualities should I look for in hiring a paralegal?
- You want 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.
18. What sort of educational programs would a paralegal have completed?
- Educational programs for paralegals vary. These programs may or may not be approved or accredited.
- Educational programs affiliated with a college or university may offer associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and/or certificates, which may be undergraduate or post-baccalaureate certificates. Proprietary schools generally offer certificate programs.
- Educational programs approved by the American Bar Association must satisfy the stringent requirements of the approval process (PDF) supervised 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.
- The American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE), NALS...the association for legal professionals, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), the National Association of Paralegals (NALA), and the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI) have developed core competencies for paralegals.