What is a paralegal?
The definition of a paralegal is a person trained in legal matters who performs tasks requiring some knowledge of the law and legal procedures. A paralegal, like a lawyer, can be employed by a law office or work freelance at a company or law office. Paralegals are not allowed to offer legal services directly to the public on their own and must perform their legal work under an attorney or law firm (except in Ontario Canada). A paralegal is protected under the conduit theory, which means they are working as an enhancement of an attorney and what he or she does is due to instruction by the attorney and the attorney is ultimately responsible. Usually, paralegals have taken a prescribed series of courses in law and legal processes. Paralegals often analyze and summarize depositions, prepare and answer interrogatories, draft procedural motions and other routine briefs, perform legal research and analysis, draft research memos, and perform case and project management. Additionally, paralegals often handle drafting much of the paper work in probate cases, divorce actions, bankruptcies, and investigations. Consumers of legal services are typically billed for the time paralegals spend on their cases.
The definition of paralegal varies by country. In the United States, they are not authorized by the government or other agency to offer legal services in the same way as lawyers, nor are they officers of the court, nor are they usually subject to government-sanctioned or court-sanctioned rules of conduct. In contrast, in Ontario, Canada, paralegals are licensed and regulated the same way that lawyers are. In Ontario, licensed paralegals provide permitted legal services to the public and appear before certain lower level courts and administrative tribunals.
In Ontario, Canada, paralegals are licensed by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Ontario is the only jurisdiction in the western hemisphere where paralegals are licensed and the profession is regulated as officers of the court. Licensed paralegals operate within a defined scope of practice, representing clients in matters such as provincial offenses (traffic tickets, etc.), immigration, landlord & tenant disputes, labor law, small claims court (under $25,000), and specific criminal matters. They are currently not permitted to represent clients in family court or wills and estates. By virtue of their office, licensed paralegals are Commissioners for Taking Affidavits (swearing oaths).
In the United States, paralegals originated as assistants to lawyers at a time when only lawyers offered legal services. In those jurisdictions where the local legal profession/judiciary is involved in paralegal recognition/accreditation, the profession of paralegal still basically refers to those people working under the direct supervision of a lawyer. The profession of paralegal varies greatly between the states, because some states do require paralegals to be licensed. In other jurisdictions however, such as the United Kingdom, the lack of local legal profession/judiciary oversight means that the definition of paralegal encompasses non-lawyers doing legal work, regardless of whom they do it for. Although most jurisdictions recognize paralegals to a greater or lesser extent, there is no international consistency as to definition, job-role, status, terms and conditions of employment, training, regulation or anything else and so each jurisdiction must be looked at individually.
Differences between a lawyer and a paralegal
The greatest differences between lawyers and paralegals are that lawyers give legal advice, can set fees, appear as counsel of record in court, and sign pleadings (and other court documents) in a representative capacity. A paralegal who attempts to do any of these acts will be in violation of the unauthorized practice of law statutes in most U.S. states. Paralegals are responsible for handling tasks such as legal writing, research, and other forms of documentation for the lawyers for whom they work.
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