Paralegals

by Susan Waywood

Paralegals play a vital role in the legal system. There is a slow but definitive trend toward the increased use of paralegals in the delivery of legal services.

What is a paralegal?

Paralegals play an important role in the provision of legal services. They carry out a broad variety of work in all areas of the law and are a vital resource to an organisation. Generally paralegals are not admitted to practise law (except for those paralegals who have obtained a law degree). However, because paralegals typically gain a high level of experience in a particular practice area, they can offer a high level of services. Under the supervision of a senior lawyer they can run their own files and conduct work which may have otherwise been undertaken by a junior lawyer.

In addition to engaging in file specific work, paralegals can also help train new employees and thereby ensure consistency within a firm. For instance, paralegals can provide information to new lawyers and staff about research tools, case preparation and protocol in that particular firm.

Do paralegals work in all areas of the law?

Paralegals are involved in the delivery of legal services in a variety of ways. Traditionally a large number of paralegals worked on conveyancing matters. However, there is a role for paralegals in just about every area of the law, including commercial, conveyancing, criminal, debt collection, environmental, family, HR, immigration, insurance, litigation, personal injury, procedural skills, research, wills and estates, and WorkCover.

Each area of the law offers different opportunities for paralegal work. For example, paralegals can function as the point person for large projects, ensuring that the project is properly managed. They can also act as a liaison between lawyers and their clients or witnesses, return phone calls, conduct research or help with case preparation.

Who employs paralegals?

Paralegals typically work for lawyers. Just as lawyers are employed by many different types of organisations, paralegals can also be employed in any organisation that provides legal advice. This includes law firms, governments, courts, or corporations with in-house legal counsel (such as many banks, insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, etc.).

What duties do paralegals perform?

Paralegals generally provide practical, hands-on assistance in relation to all aspects of legal work. The type of work performed by a paralegal will depend both upon the nature of the organisation and the practice area.

Under the supervision of lawyers, paralegals may perform duties such as:

  • acting as an initial contact point for legal inquiries;
  • taking instructions for and drafting wills;
  • engaging in legal research
  • drafting correspondence
  • preparing agreements
  • compiling court documentation
  • providing general assistance in relation to commercial transactions
  • managing a debt recovery practice
  • conveyancing
  • designing and operating databases; and
  • liaising with clients.

What are the benefits of using paralegal services?

Using the services of paralegals offers significant advantages. Paralegals offer a cost effective way of providing legal information and services. Using paralegals to assist in the delivery of legal services increases efficiency and enables lawyers to expand their practices. In addition, some believe that because paralegals are not lawyers, they tend to use plain language and may have a better ability to communicate with some clients.

What is the future of paralegal services?

Both the legal community and the public will need to consider the extent to which non-lawyers should play a role in legal service delivery, the circumstances in which paralegals may be used, their relationship to lawyers, their specialisation and remuneration, the nature of paralegal training, and whether accreditation is considered desirable in the future.

In NSW there is currently a system for licensing conveyancers through the Office of Fair Trading. The province of Ontario in Canada has introduced training and licensing requirements for paralegals, and the Law Society of Upper Canada now regulates legal services provided by paralegals in the province of Ontario. Increased use of paralegal services in Australia may result in the need for similar licensing requirements.



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