Robbins: What do paralegals do?

My law firm has 40 lawyers, 14 paralegals, and about another 25 or so support personnel, each of whom is critical in his or own way to the smooth humming of a mid-sized law firm.

You’ll note that there are about a third as many paralegals as there are lawyers. Is that because each paralegal can do three times the work of any lawyer? Yeah, pretty much.

A friend asked me the other day what paralegals do. Besides plugging holes in the hull of the Titanic; functioning as friends, confessors, confidants, and counselors; and generally walking on water, I thought a column — perhaps with a more precise description might be helpful.

Well, then … off we go!

To set this up a bit, let me take a moment to explain how may law firms work. Commonly, there are “sections.” My law firm, for example, has an education law section, a health law section, sections for immigration law, trusts and estates, litigation, business and real estate law, compliance and workplace investigations, and family law and divorce.

Each attorney is a member of one or more of the sections. The sections of which I am a member are business and real estate, trusts and estates, litigation and family law and divorce. Much as the lawyers, each of the paralegals focuses on a particular section or sections.

I have one paralegal who assists me in my litigation matters, another who helps with family law and divorce, a third who shares the lifting with real estate and business matters, and yet a fourth whom I rely on for trust and estate practice.

But what, exactly do they do?

Let’s first define it.

Stated broadly, paralegals are professionals trained to assist lawyers in various legal capacities. Paralegal duties entail far more responsibility than clerical tasks and fall into a broad range of substantive legal work. Paralegals conduct factual and legal research, draft legal documents, work with clients, and manage cases.

Critically, paralegals help control the flow of documents and assist attorneys in preparing for trial. Commonly, especially in complex litigation, a paralegal will come to court with the attorney to help facilitate the trial. Even when she is not in court, the attorney will rely heavily on the paralegal during litigation.

You may have noticed that, in the above paragraph, I was gender specific saying “she” instead she, he or they. That was intentional, not out of sexism or genderism but simply out of observation.

For some reason I have never wholly understood, most paralegals are, by far, female. In my 38-year career, in fact, with several different firms in California and Colorado, we have had precisely one male paralegal and only rarely do I encounter a male paralegal employed by any other firm. By contrast, of the 40 attorneys with my firm, nearly half are women and the number is, happily, always rising.

Why are paralegals almost always women? Search me, but maybe it’s because so many women are naturals at multi-tasking? Just my theory anyway.

Just as a lawyer has to have a law degree and pass the bar of whatever state or states in which she or he is practicing, paralegals typically have an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or a related field. Some may also earn a master’s degree in legal studies. Additionally, many pursue national or state-level paralegal certifications.

You’ll notice that the above infers that most paralegals own a paralegal studies degree and certificate, but this is not always true. As but one example, one of the paralegals at my firm, graduated law school, passed the bar, practiced as a lawyer for a couple years, but decided — at least while her children were young — that being a paralegal was a better fit for her.

To be a skilled paralegal, one needs to be thorough and pay attention to detail, have excellent verbal communication skills, have exemplary written communication and administrative skills, be facile in working well with others (including clients), and have detailed knowledge of the law, including court procedures and government regulations.

Experienced and skilled paralegals, with whom I have been privileged to work, are invaluable members of the team that serves our clients and are relied on not only for the important work that they perform but also for their knowledge, insights, and opinions. It is not uncommon when I am co-counseling a litigation matter with another of the attorneys in my firm that we form a three-person team with both attorneys and our litigation paralegal as equal partners in advancing our client’s goals and interests.

As with any skilled professional, good paralegals are always in demand and, once discovered, law firms tend to cling to them tenaciously. Their legal, organizational, and interpersonal skills are invaluable in helping guide legal matters of all kinds to a successful and hopefully rewarding conclusion.

Where would lawyers be without their paralegals?

To be sure, in a sadder and less efficient place.