What is a paralegal?

  • Last updated 11-Jul-2017 14:06:14
  • By James O’Connell, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, and Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw

Paralegals are not lawyers. Indeed, their whole raison d'être is that they are not lawyers. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a crossover.

Answering the question "what do paralegals do?" is tricky because "paralegal" is a default, catch-all term describing many different legal roles.

Broadly speaking, however, the paralegal job differs from the job of a lawyer in that it is a "doing" job.

What tasks does a paralegal perform?

One could describe a lawyer’s responsibility as that of considering a matter from all angles, working out implications, consequences, issues, liability, important gaps in knowledge and strategy.

In contrast, the paralegal’s job is typically to carry out the course of action suggested by the lawyer: interview that witness; research that question; incorporate that company; complete and file that legal document.

Where do paralegals and lawyers cross over?

However, the above distinction is gradually being eroded in many practice areas as ever more complex work is being delegated to paralegals working in solicitors' firms.

In those areas of practice where many cases are very similar in nature (e.g. conveyancing or probate) or follow a simplified process-driven route (e.g. debt recovery and small claims cases), paralegals are increasingly handling cases from start to finish.

It is still the case that lawyers will continue to deal with the more complex matters, or matters where large sums of money are at stake (e.g. mergers and acquisitions work; murder trials; aircraft financing deals, celebrity divorces etc). Paralegals' involvement in these instances tends to be of a peripheral basis.

That said, the growing number of paralegal law firms (commercial entities offering legal services to the public and business without any lawyer involvement) means that we may find that paralegals will be doing the more complex work eventually – although it probably won't be any time soon.

Examples of paralegal work:

- Working on/handling probate and family law (divorce etc) cases in a solicitors' firm

- Involvement in purchasing land and selling finished properties for a property development company

- Registering and defending trademarks for a food company

- Prosecuting people have been cruel to animals as part of the RSPCA prosecutions team

- Giving immigration law advice to clients when working for a paralegal law firm

- Advising on consumer law protection as part of a local authority trading standards department

- Helping members of the public on a wide variety of issues (e.g. employment/housing) as a Citizens Advice volunteer adviser

- Working for the Crown Prosecution Service

- Incorporating companies and doing other company secretarial work for a solicitors’ firm, accountancy firm or company formation practice.

As you can see, this list is extensive, and by no means exclusive. The truth is, a paralegal's role is likely to differ from firm to firm, based on what is required of them. So if you're adaptable and you like juggling a diverse range of jobs, it might be a good idea to think about becoming a paralegal. And hey - with a new Trailblazer apprenticeship that will train you to do just that, you really have no excuse! 

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