Paralegals assist lawyers in the delivery of legal services. The career began to develop in the late 1960's when law firms and individual practitioners sought ways to improve the efficient and cost effective delivery of legal services. Utilization of paralegals in a law firm ultimately reduces the cost to the client and frees time for attorneys.
Paralegals are qualified by education, training or work experience and are employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity to perform specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. In a law firm setting, paralegal's time spent on substantive legal work is billed to clients at market rates, similar to other professional staff, but often at a lower rate. This distinguishes paralegals from other non-lawyer staff members. As a general rule, paralegal time spent on administrative or clerical functions is not billable.
Only licensed attorneys may give legal advice to consumers of legal services, and paralegals are prohibited from doing so. The work product of the paralegal becomes the attorney's work product. Paralegals also are prohibited from accepting a case, setting a fee, or representing a client in court (unless authorized by the court). All states require attorneys to be licensed and most have statutes imposing penalties for those found to be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Private law firms are the largest employers of paralegals. Businesses, corporations and government are also large employers of paralegals. Paralegals work in a variety of legal practice areas, ranging from litigation and trial practice to tax, real estate transactions, and estate planning.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 8 percent from 2014 to 2024, as fast as average for all occupations. The terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are used interchangeably, much like the terms attorney and lawyer.