A paralegal or legal assistant is a trained person, often with certification from state or government agencies, who performs a variety of support jobs for supervising lawyers. The paralegal cannot give legal advice, represent people in court, or sign any legal documents, except in the capacity of a notary if the person has been certified. Most people train to become a paralegal through either two-year or four year degrees at the college level, and they must be gifted at secretarial work, legal research and writing in order to perform their jobs proficiently.
There are many things that a legal assistant might do as employed by a lawyer or law firm. They can draft contracts, and most other legal documents, which are then reviewed by lawyers to be certain they conform specifically to the requirements of the client and the law. They also perform legal research, and may in the defense or prosecution of a person, do much of the research that will help support arguments in the court setting or in legal briefs.
The legal assistant may also perform preliminary interviews of clients, and/or witnesses. One employed in the real estate field may be present at the closing of real estate sales. Since there are so many branches of law, a person in this position may be particularly versed in different branches. Through training, they come into the field ready to work in just about any area, but their own interests may further help assistants specialize in certain kinds of law.
For example, a legal assistant who specialized in marriage and family law would, with work experience, become very familiar with drafting various legal documents pertaining to adoptions, divorces, custody agreements, and prenuptial agreements. Conversely, someone working as an assistant in criminal law would have experience researching cases, drafting briefs and legal memos, and perhaps assisting lawyers with maintaining files on any current cases. In other instances, legal assistants in corporate law might become most experienced at drawing up contracts, filing articles of incorporation, or drafting partnership agreements.
Some legal assistants are not formally trained, but are nevertheless so experienced in the law that they make for valuable assets to individual lawyers or law firms. Other lawyers prefer to hire paralegals with formal training and demonstrated skill. When first beginning a career of this type, it is much easier to get hired if you have training or certification.
Qualities needed for a good legal assistant include the following:
- Excellent writing and research skills
- Eye for detail and ability to edit carefully
- Good customer service skills, since client interaction is usually involved
- Knowledge of the law, especially in the area you plan to work
- Excellent organizational skills
- Computer skills
- General office and secretarial skills