FAQ

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What is a Paralegal?

What is a Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal?

Why should an attorney hire a paralegal?

How will attorneys charge for the work paralegals perform?

If an attorney bills the paralegal’s services on a hourly basis, could this concept cut into a firm’s total billings?

Could attorneys use a law student or a young lawyer to do the work attorneys would delegate to a paralegal?

Do clients object to being served by a paralegal?

What is the role of attorneys utilizing paralegals in the law practice?

Where can attorneys find information on ways of utilizing paralegals.

How can a law firm develop a paralegal department?

How can attorneys find a qualified paralegal?

What is CAPA’s Position on Education for entry level paralegals/legal assistants ?

What is American Bar Association (ABA) Approval?

Where can I find an intern?

What duties can be delegated to a paralegal?

What is a California Advanced Specialists (CAS)

How do I know what a paralegal can really do?

What type of educational background should I look for in an applicant?

Are California paralegals/legal assistants required to satisfy continuing legal education?

Can a paralegal work for the public performing dissolution of marriages, etc.

What things can a paralegal NOT DO?

Can I put the paralegal’s name on a business card or letterhead?

How should my paralegal sign letters on behalf of the firm?

Who regulates my paralegal?

What are the mechanisms for regulation:

What is a contract or freelance paralegal?

How can I find a contract or freelance paralegal?

If I hire a contract paralegal, are there requirements to withhold income and social security taxes so that I do not run into problems with the IRS?

How do I choose a paralegal program?

How much do paralegals earn?

How do I know which are the best courses to take while in paralegal school?

Where is the job market the best?

Will I be expected to perform secretarial and/or clerical duties?

How important is ABA approval?


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Under California law, a paralegal has been defined as a non lawyer who performs substantive legal work under the supervision or direction of an attorney, meets defined educational requirements, and participates in Mandatory Continuing Legal Education as required by law.

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A certified legal assistant/paralegal is a paralegal/legal assistant (the term 'paralegal' is synonymous with the term 'legal assistant') who has successfully completed the voluntary comprehensive two-day Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Examination (CLA/CP) offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), OR who has successfully completed the voluntary comprehensive Registered Paralegal Examination (RP) offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Those who have successfully completed a paralegal program are “certificated” not “certified.”

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  • Frees up attorney time to handle more complex cases and serve more clients.
  • Allows the attorney to accept a large volume of cases thereby increasing revenue.
  • Paralegals can perform quality legal services to the client at a lower cost to the client.
  • Allows the attorney to market his or her legal services as being progressive and efficient.
  • The paralegal is generally available to meet with the clients when the attorney is unavailable or when the attorney’s presence is not necessary.
  • Allows more time for the attorney to meet mandatory continuing education requirements and to keep abreast of new or repealed laws and reported cases.
  • Allows the attorney to accept pro bono cases or represent clients or to represent clients in noteworthy cases.

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Most attorneys bill paralegal time directly to the client on a hourly basis.

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A paralegal’s contributions substantially increase the firm’s bottom line when properly utilized and billed at a competitive rate for preparation of substantive legal work

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Yes. However, the firm risks the law student or young lawyer becoming dissatisfied. Using a law student or young lawyer to do work which can be
delegated to a paralegal is a short-term approach. Paralegals have more education and training in procedural aspects than law students or young lawyers. In addition, the firm risks having its fees reduced by case law if the work is not delegated to a person with the lowest billing rate, and the law student and young associate will move on, leaving a gap in the case knowledge.

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No. In fact, in many instances, clients prefer working with a paralegal because the paralegal is usually available when needed and billed at a lower rate.

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Refer to the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Guidelines and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) Model Guidelines, which set forth the attorney’s role in utilizing paralegals/legal assistants.

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Refer to the California Alliance of Paralegal Association (CAPA) Handbook on Paralegal Utilization at CAPA’s website at www.CAparalegal.org.

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  • The firm must structure, organize and systematize the law practice so that substantial portions can be delegated to legal assistants with appropriate supervision and review.
  • There must be an understanding of benefits of utilizing paralegals, i.e, economy, efficiency and better work product.
  • Designate a group of lawyers committed to the concept of paralegal utilization.
  • Implement the paralegal program in a way that the paralegals are kept highly productive. Legal assistants billing rate should cover their salary, office space, secretarial help, use of office services, and a profit for the firm.
    Rates can be raised with experience.
  • Educate others who are not committed to utilization of paralegals.
  • Prepare job description for each practice area (serves as a list of tasks and responsibilities) a paralegal may perform.  Obtain a copy of the CAPA Handbook on Paralegal Utilization. A paralegal’s responsibilities and skills should grow with experience.
  • Monitor and maintain the continuing education requirements for paralegals as specified under under the law.

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Determine the area of practice and the needs of the attorney, and then decide:

  • Will the position be full-time or part-time?
  • Will the position be for a permanent employee or can the services of a freelance paralegal be utilized on a case-needed basis?
  • Can the need be met by upgrading the skills of current employees through a paralegal certificate program?
  • What skills, experience and education are required?
  • Do you need an entry level, experienced or specialized paralegal?

Develop a Profile of the Perfect Paralegal Candidate

  • Is a strong, non-legal background in a related field required (i.e. real estate, medical, water rights, etc.)?
  • What is the minimum level of education required and are specialty degrees required (i.e., engineering degree, accounting, English, etc.)?
  • Is a paralegal degree or certificate from a paralegal program necessary? Does the program need to be ABA approved or does the paralegal program attended meet core requirements as a paralegal program?
  • Is a bilingual paralegal required?
  • Is the knowledge of computer software programs essential and, if so, what programs does the paralegal need to be proficient in?
  • Are legal research skills needed?

Develop Interviewing Questions for the Paralegal Candidate

  • What are the paralegal’s long-term goals? Enables the attorney to obtain information about the individual’s professional commitment and career planning.
  • How does the paralegal handle stressful situations? Helps determine whether the individual can work under pressure to meet important deadlines.
  • Ascertain what the paralegal does to maintain his or her skills and what continuing education classes have been attended or will be considered.
  • Determine whether the individual is willing to increase his or her skills and knowledge and acquire networking contacts.
  • Inquire about the paralegal’s work habits. Permits speculation about whether the individual works independently and is self-motivated or needs constant supervision and hand-holding.
  • Ask whether the paralegal is creative and/or analytical. May help determine if the individual would be better suited for legal issues and substantive work or factual issues working with witnesses, documents and preparing exhibits.
  • Ask about the paralegal’s previous employment including work experiences and interaction between other office staff and attorneys. Enables the attorney to evaluate the individual’s personality and ability to work with others and how the paralegal handled positive and negative situations.

Search for Key Characteristics to Aid in Identifying a Successful Paralegal:

  • Professionalism (i.e., dress, poise, presentation, etc.)
  • Above-average intelligence
  • Ability to think logically
  • High level of writing ability
  • Ability and willingness to communicate
  • Able to assume responsibility
  • Ability to work independently with minimal guidance
  • Excellent organizational skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Understanding of the ethical and confidentiality requirements
  • Self confident with a positive attitude
  • Takes personal pride in upgrading skills and knowledge by continuing education

Sources for Locating a Paralegal:

  • Advertisements in the classified section of a local newspaper
  • Employment agencies specializing in legal staff
  • Local paralegal association job bank
  • Advertise in local paralegal newsletter
  • “Word-of-mouth” through other paralegals and attorneys

(Excerpts taken by permission from Diane Petropulos’ article “How to Hire a Perfect Paralegal“, published by State Bar of California Law Practice Management Section, August, 1992.

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CAPA’s position is that paralegals entering the profession should possess a degree and a paralegal certificate from an accredited school.

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The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants adopted certain criteria that must be met for a paralegal program to meet ABA approval. ABA approval is voluntary. If a school seeks ABA approval, two important standards must be met:

The school offering a paralegal program must be a part of an accredited educational institution.

The school must offer at least 60 semester or 90 quarter units with general education. At least 18 semester units or 27 quarter units must satisfy legal specialty courses.

Many paralegal schools are in compliance with the ABA guidelines for approval but some schools chose not to seek the ABA approval because of the expense.

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Many legal assistant education programs include an internship as part of the curriculum. Contact the local paralegal associations or local college for your area or county about the internships available from local schools. The internship enables a student to utilize skills acquired in the program in combination with practical on-the-job experience. Private law firms, public defender or attorney general offices, banks, corporate legal departments, legal aide programs and governmental agencies offer internships.

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The duties which can be delegated to a paralegal vary greatly and depend upon the areas of legal specialization a paralegal/legal assistant is performing.  The tasks which may be performed by paralegals may include but are not limited to, case planning, development and management; legal research; interviewing clients; fact gathering and retrieving information; drafting and analyzing legal documents; collecting, compiling, and utilizing technical information to make an independent decision and recommendation to the supervising attorney

The CAPA Handbook on Paralegal Utilization describes the various tasks a paralegal can perform for each field of law.

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A California Advanced Specialists (CAS) is a paralegal/legal assistant who has successfully completed the comprehensive two-day voluntary Certified Legal Assistant/Certified Paralegal (CLA/CP) examination and the four-hour California Advanced Specialty (CAS) examination offered by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).

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Review the applicant’s resume for educational background, prior law-related experience, request references and work samples.  In preparation for the interview, you may want to develop a list of questions designed to assess the applicant’s knowledge, skills and abilities and the process used in preparing legal documents.

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Paralegals typically have education falling into one of the following categories:

A bachelor degree in paralegal studies from a university.

Most commonly, paralegals are educated at community colleges which offer an American Bar Association approved paralegal certificate or an Associate of Science Degree in law-related courses, or a certificate or Associate of Science Degree in law-related courses from a non-ABA approved postsecondary institution.

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Yes, there are three separate requirements for continuing legal education:

First, Certified Legal Assistants (CLAs) are required to submit proof of completion of 50 hours of continuing legal education every five years to the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) to maintain a valid Certified Legal Assistant Credential.

Second, every two years, a paralegal /legal assistant must certify completion of four hours of mandatory continuing education in either general law or in specialized areas of law (Business & Professions Code §6450(d)).

Third, every two years, a paralegal/legal assistant employed must certify completion of four hours of mandatory continuing legal education (MCLE) in legal ethics (Business & Professions Code §6450(d).

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No. Under Business & Professions Code §6450, paralegals work under the direction and supervision of active members of the State Bar of California or attorneys practicing in federal courts of California.

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  • Provide legal advice.
  • Represent a client in court.
  • Select, explain, draft, or recommend the use of any legal document to or for any person other than the attorney who directs and supervises the paralegal.
  • Act as a runner or capper, as defined in Sections 6151 and 6152.
  • Engage in conduct that constitutes the unlawful practice of law.
  • Contract with, or be employed by, a natural person other than an attorney to perform paralegal services.
  • Induce a person to make an investment, purchase a financial product or service, or enter a transaction from which income or profit, or both, purportedly may be derived.
  • Establish the fees to charge a client.

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Absolutely. There is no law, rule or regulation which prohibits the lawyers from including their paralegals’ names on letterhead or allowing paralegals to carry business cards as long as the paralegal’s title is clearly indicated.

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A paralegal should sign his or her name with title underneath.

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No one. Under Business and Professions Code §6450, et seq., no state agency was created to regulate paralegals. However, paralegals should maintain their educational certificates in their firm’s personnel file with a duplicate file in their possession.  Paralegals should also make sure their credentials are in the organization’s personnel file.

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Certification

A voluntary form of regulation. A process by which a non-governmental agency or association grants recognition to an individual who has met certain predetermined qualifications specified by that agency or association which usually involves passing an examination drawn up by the organization or certifying agency.

Presently, neither the institutional paralegal programs offered in California, nor the State Bar of California, nor the American Bar Association (ABA) certify paralegals. Once a paralegal successfully completes a paralegal program in California, that paralegal is “certificated.”  CAPA is developing its own voluntary California Certified Paralegal "CCP" exam.  The CCP exam is above and beyond what Business and Professions Code §6450 requires.

The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Certified Legal Assistant/Paralegal Program which is nationwide and the California Advanced Specialty Examination which is state specific. In order to sit for the CAS, one must pass NALA's Certified Paralegal/Legal Assistant exam "CP/CLA".  If a passing score is earned after taking these examinations, a paralegal can use the designations “CP" or "CLA", and/or "CAS".

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers the Registered Paralegal and CORE Paralegal program which is a nationwide and focused on Federal laws.  If a passing score is earned after taking this exam, a paralegal can use the designation "RP".

Licensure:

A mandatory form of regulation. A process by which an agency of a state government grants permission to persons meeting predetermined qualifications to engage in a given occupation and/or use a particular title or grants permission to institutions to perform specific functions. The primary purpose of licensing is to demonstrate proficiency for entry into a profession with minimal competency defined by the legislature. Licensing is a mechanism for public consumer protection.

Registration:

A less rigid form of regulation and involves the filing of specific identified information with a governmental body for purposes of monitoring, control and recourse. Registration may be either voluntary or mandatory. The purpose of registration is to provide identification of members in a given profession. Certain qualifications are minimal and are often defined within the registration process. Registration lends itself to identification of members of a profession and less to the efficiency or professional achievement.

Technically, the paralegal does not fall into any of these three categories. However, Business and Professions Code §6450 does set forth educational requirements which California paralegals must satisfy.

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A contract or freelance paralegal is someone who performs substantive legal work for law firms or corporations, or other entities but is self-employed. This person contracts with law firms to handle overflow tasks and can perform any assignment that could be delegated to a paralegal employee. The contracting or freelance paralegal’s work is reviewed by the contracting attorney who is ultimately responsible for the work performed.

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The best way is by word of mouth. You can ask for referrals from your paralegal employees, colleagues, or the paralegal association in your area. Often times, freelance paralegals post their business cards at the local courthouse or law libraries or may advertise in the local bar association newsletters. Another source is through legal temporary placement agencies. You may also check the references that the paralegal will provide upon request.

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Generally not. However, you should determine the business status of the contract paralegal. In other words, does the contract paralegal satisfy the requirement to qualify as an independent contractor? In determining whether a paralegal is an independent contractor, the IRS looks at whether the contract paralegal has more than one client; pays his or her own business expenses; is allowed to prioritize his or her work assignments; works at your office or at home; sets his or her own hours, and whether you provide training for the contract paralegal to accomplish assignments.

If the contract paralegal you hire does not meet the requirements for an independent contractor, you may be deemed to be his or her employer and may be assessed penalties for failure to withhold income and social security taxes. It may be advisable to enter into a written agreement which states that the paralegal is responsible for paying his or her own income taxes and that the firm will not provide workers compensation or unemployment insurance.

(Responses to the last three, were taken by permission from an article by Stacey Hunt, CLA, entitled “Freelance Paralegals: A Valuable Source of Help for the Small Office,” which appeared in Volume 21, No. 4 of the Bottom Line, the official publication of the State Bar of California Law Practice Management and Technology Section).

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The leading national professional and educational organizations involved with the paralegal profession have developed a guide to assist in helping you choose a paralegal program. The guide is titled “How to Choose a Paralegal Program” and can be found on the American Bar Association’s website of by following the link in this paragraph. In addition the American Bar Association Subcommittee on Legal Assistants has a list of Paralegal Programs which have been approved by the American Bar Association. Follow this link for the List of Approved Programs.

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The pay scale for paralegals varies widely depending on several factors including what area of the country the paralegal practices in, the size of the employer, the area of law in which the paralegal specializes and how many years of experience the paralegal has. The best source of information is local information, i.e. information about paralegal salaries gathered by a paralegal school or local professional organization. Schools often survey their alumni to gather information about work experiences, including pay. Paralegal associations sometimes survey their members about many things besides salaries, including benefits, billable hours and other matters of interest to paralegals. If you do not have access to either of these sources of information, your next best bet is to check with either of the two national associations, the National Association of Legal Assistants or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations. They may have salary survey available on their web sites. If you are not a member, there may be a charge for the information. Another source of regional data is the salary survey published annually by Legal Assistant Today magazine.
 

One of the important things when comparing salaries is to make sure you are comparing apples with apples and oranges with oranges. One salary may seem higher, but you may not get paid for overtime, or there may be less fringe benefits and perks. Employers vary on whether they pay overtime or not, so be sure to check! Make sure you are analyzing the entire compensation package including sick pay, holiday pay and how much vacation time you can earn.

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There are several factors to consider when answering this question, some which are practical and some which are more personal. First of all, you need to think about what area or areas of the law interest you. Sometimes it’s easier to approach this task by ruling out the areas you are absolutely NOT interested in. For example, if you truly hate stress, litigation may not be for you. If you are not a good “hand-holder” you may want to avoid family law. Your next task, which is more on the practical side, is to do some research on a breakdown of the practice specialties of the paralegals in the area in which you plan to live and work. If you will be employed in a large city, you are more apt to find positions in intellectual property or corporate work than if you lived in a very small town, where many attorneys are still general practitioners. To be as marketable as possible, you should try to take the courses offered by your school in which you will most likely be hired. Keep in mind that it is possible to over-specialize. One of the purposes of your schooling is obtain a broad base of knowledge from which you can draw from. Since many areas of the law overlap each other, the learning you do will probably never be wasted. For instance, some knowledge of bankruptcy laws will serve you well in litigation, when a defendant you are chasing down for unpaid bills becomes insolvent. Familiarity with tax law may come in handy in dividing up assets in a marital dissolution. Remember, if there is an practice area that your school does not offer, you will able to take continuing education classes through paralegal conferences and training programs in the specialties that interest you.

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This, as with salaries, depends on geographic considerations and practice areas. Timing is also an issue: specialties that were booming a few years ago can cool off. To get the most current information on this topic, check the trade periodicals. Legal placement agencies are also a good source of information on where the employment markets are hot.

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How much clerical work you will be required to do, if at all, usually depends on the size of the office in which you work. Large offices usually have ample support staff to provide paralegals with at least a shared secretary, plus have the personnel necessary to do copying, answer the phones, file documents, run errands and the other myriad tasks generated each day in a law firm. Of course, having people who are paid a lesser salary than a paralegal to do this sort of work makes good economic sense because it frees the paralegal up to perform billable work that bring revenues into the firm. However, smaller offices simply may not have the cash flow to provide support to their paralegals. In fact, some small offices consist of just a paralegal and an attorney and it falls upon the paralegal to answer the phones, type, get out the bills AND perform his or her paralegal tasks. You will have to do some soul searching to find out just how much clerical work you can stand and then choose your employer accordingly. Large and small offices each have their pluses and minuses. One thing to remember is that to get along best with others, you may need to exhibit flexibility in times of rushes or other office emergencies. If your secretary is busy helping someone else, you should be prepared to type and file your own letter. If the office copy person is out sick for the day, know how to operate the copier so you can get the job done yourself.

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ABA approval was once the final word on the quality of a paralegal program. The reason for this is attorneys, who were the ones most likely doing the hiring, were familiar with the concept. The ABA (American Bar Association) is also in the business of approving law schools. The three letters have become synonymous with attorneys for a good quality educational program, whether it be for paralegals or attorneys. However, over the years a few things have changed. The quality of paralegal programs, with the assistance of organizations such as the American Association for Paralegal Education (Aafpe), has improved dramatically. Secondly, the administrators in charge of hiring have become more sophisticated. They now know what to look for in a quality paralegal program and its graduates. In some areas the “ABA approved” requirement is gradually giving way to a paralegal certificate from any respected school plus either a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree, however many of the large firms found in metropolitan areas still require a certificate from an ABA approved paralegal program plus a Bachelor’s degree. The best bet is to check with your local paralegal association for insight on how important ABA Approval is in your area.