Q: What is a paralegal?
A: A paralegal is an individual who works under the supervision of an attorney, performing legal work that an attorney would ordinarily perform for a client. Paralegals work in law offices, in corporations and for government agencies. The number of paralegals in the United States has been steadily increasing, and remains a growth occupation.
Q: What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant?
A: There is no difference. The title is a matter of personal preference.
Q: What types of legal work can paralegals perform?
A: Paralegals can interview clients and witnesses; research facts and the law; and draft wills, trust agreements, contracts, pleadings and other legal documents. Paralegals are most extensively used in the litigation area where they take an active role in drafting motions, briefs and interrogatories. Paralegals also assist lawyers in the courtroom by organizing and tracking exhibits and preparing witnesses to testify during the trial.
Q: Can a paralegal perform legal work directly for clients?
A: Paralegals cannot engage in the practice of law. Paralegals may not give legal advice to clients or represent clients in most courts. Because paralegals are not licensed to practice law, performing legal work directly for clients would constitute the unauthorized practice of law in violation of state statute.
Q: Are communications with a paralegal covered by the attorney-client privilege?
A: Yes. As agents of the lawyer, paralegals are required to maintain client confidences. Information provided by a client to a paralegal during the course of representation by the attorney may not be shared with others.
Q: Can a paralegal appear in court on behalf of someone other than himself or herself?
A: A legal assistant cannot represent clients in contested matters in the courtroom. There are some administrative agencies which will allow paralegals to represent individuals at the administrative hearing stage. If the final order of the agency is appealed to a court, however, the individual would need to obtain a lawyer for representation.
Q: How can a person become a paralegal?
A: At the present time, Ohio does not license paralegals. The Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA) offers a voluntary credentialing program for paralegals. An individual meeting the OSBA definition of "paralegal," meeting the eligibility requirements, and passing a written examination will be designated as an "OSBA Certified Paralegal." The two major national paralegal associations, the National Association of Legal Assistants and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, also have a voluntary certification process for paralegals. Although there are no formal educational requirements for paralegals, numerous colleges, universities and proprietary schools throughout Ohio and the nation provide paralegal education programs leading to a paralegal degree or certificate. The American Bar Association (ABA) has an approval process for paralegal education programs whereby a program can gain the ABA's approval if it meets a strict set of quality standards.
Q: What do paralegals do to enhance the legal profession?
A: Attorneys enhance the legal profession's ability to provide legal services to clients at affordable rates when they use paralegals. By delegating work which would have been done by the attorney (whose cost to the client would have been billed at a higher rate), lawyers have made paralegals a vital part of the legal profession.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Laura C. Barnard, an attorney and Director of Paralegal Studies at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland.