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Paralegal Responsibilities & Limitations

by Jim Welte

Many lawyers cannot imagine their professional life without a paralegal by their side. By delegating certain tasks to a paralegal, lawyers are able to concentrate on their higher-level responsibilities. But paralegals are not lawyers, so before you hire one, consider some of the limitations that come with the occupation.

Qualifications

Many employers hire only paralegals who have earned a certificate or an associate’s degree in paralegal studies, while other hire graduates in any field and train them as paralegals. Look for candidates with good interpersonal skills, as paralegals work closely with lawyers, clients and court officials; excellent time-management and organizational abilities; and proficiency on the computer. Paralegals may obtain voluntary certification from associations such as the National Association of Legal Assistants, or NALA.

Responsibilities

Paralegals traditionally worked in law firms, but today, you can find them in many fields. They carry out tasks that support a lawyer, such as preparing and maintaining files, drafting documents and conducting legal research. Paralegals communicate with clients and lawyers outside of your firm to maintain, assign and update files. According to NALA, duties they can fulfill include locating and interviewing witnesses in a case; summarizing depositions; and conducting investigations.

Scope of Work

The work of a paralegal is guided by certain codes, such as the NALA Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility. Paralegals must avoid violating the code or risk losing membership in the association. Ensure that paralegals avoid venturing into legal areas that only lawyers can handle, such as representing a client in court, setting fees, giving legal advice or establishing lawyer-client relationships.

Professionalism

A paralegal must disclose he is a paralegal -- and not a lawyer -- whenever he starts a professional relationship with another lawyer, a client, an administrative agency or a court. Delegate only duties that respect the limitations of a paralegal. As an employer, insist that paralegals act with decorum, and strive to protect your clients’ confidences.

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