Paralegals and Legal Assistants: What Do They Do?

Paralegals provide invaluable support to the attorney employing them.

Paralegals coordinate the logistical scheduling details of depositions among the various parties involved; they review and summarize depositions; interview witnesses and summarize their testimony; and draft documents such as contracts, wills, trusts, license agreements, deeds, and pleadings.

They draft motions, briefs, and orders. They draft complaints and answers. They draft discovery documents, interrogatories, and production requests. They review answers to discovery received and prepare answers to discovery propounded to the clients of their attorney.

They perform client communication functions, keeping clients up-to-date and informed regarding progress of pending matters. They perform legal research and draft briefs or memorandums of law. They perform fact research confirming the accuracy or inaccuracy of factual matters reported by both clients and adversaries.

They organize files for hearings and trial presentations. They prepare exhibits to be used in court.  They prepare documents such as summons and subpoenas for service. They coordinate activities of process servers and court reporters.  They assist with drafting jury instructions.  They may conduct post-trial interviews of the jurors and other parties and prepare summaries of the interviews.

They take notes during hearings and trials to allow the attorney to maintain intensive focus on the courtroom activities during hearings and trials. They assist with voire dire. They review and abstract transcripts for appeals.

In some cases, the paralegal will delegate and supervise clerical or secretarial work such as word processing and document assembly. A paralegal may even function as a case manager, a growing trend at many firms to help reduce legal fees and make them more affordable while maintaining the profitability the firm needs to stay in business.

A paralegal might maintain the attorney’s time records for billing or prepare bills for submission to clients.

There are numerous duties a paralegal may fill in an attorney’s office.  They will vary among attorneys depending on the needs and policies of a particular law firm or attorney. A paralegal may even take over as case manager, a situation that many firms are considering if they have not already adopted to help keep legal fees lower and affordable.

Above all—a paralegal must be versatile!  A highly skilled and competent paralegal will quickly become indispensable to the attorney for whom he or she works.

When an attorney signs a document prepared by a paralegal, in addition to various other things associated with his or her signature, the attorney is verifying that the paralegal’s work is correct.  When an attorney has a paralegal prepare routine documentation for signature, it’s just as legal and effective, but less expensive for the client.

It is actually simpler to define what a paralegal cannot do than to completely describe all the things they may do. There are five things a paralegal cannot do:

(1) A paralegal cannot give legal advice to a client. Only a licensed attorney is allowed to do that.

(2) A paralegal cannot establish the attorney-client relationship. It just makes sense – the attorney-client relationship should be between those two people, otherwise it would be called the law firm representative-client relationship.

(3) The paralegal cannot sign pleadings on behalf of the client. Only the attorney can actually sign his or her name to legal documents known as pleading which are filed with courts in legal proceedings. 

(4) The paralegal cannot appear to represent a client in court.  While many paralegals could probably do so quite well, it just isn’t legal. A paralegal may accompany the attorney in court to assist but may not address the court as the client’s legal representative.

(5) The paralegal cannot establish or receive legal fees. Only the attorney can do that.  However, the paralegal may perform the strictly clerical function of receiving fees paid to the attorney for deposit to the attorney’s account.

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