A paralegal is a non-attorney who works under the supervision of a lawyer whose work is usually billed to clients. Paralegals have many job duties, including drafting motions and subpoenas, document review, and filing papers with courts. Paralegals have traditionally dealt more with procedural law than with substantive law.
In the United States and Canada, paralegals work independently as freelancers and in private practice as well as directly under the employ of individuals or corporations.
Related jobs which share boundaries which are often not clearly delineated or share synonymous titles are legal secretary and legal assistant . These professionals have been discussing how to define their professions. Recently, the main issue in discussion seems to be whether the terms "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are synonymous and if not, what the definitions of these terms are.
In the United States, paralegals have taken many different paths to their careers. These paths comprise an array of varying levels of education, different certifications, and on-the-job-training. They work in government, for law firms, for corporations, for real estate firms, and for nonprofit organizations. Where they work and what they do often can often depend on what mixture of experience, skills, education, and certification they possess.
In the United States, "paralegal" is not a licensed profession. Certification is voluntary, increases a paralegals skill set or prepares them to enter the profession, often increases the likelihood of a paralegal's hire or promotion, and serves to identify them as a person capable of work that is on par with certain standards. Certification is accomplished by taking and passing one of several privately-administered tests from one of several paralegal associations.
Graduation from a certificate program does not certify a paralegal, only passing an exam is administered by a recognized entity is generally considered to be a "certifying" event.
Advanced certification and continuing legal education
Many paralegals pursue advanced certification through certifying associations or agencies in specialty areas such as business and commercial Law, corporations, criminal law, real estate, tax and probate, estate planning, intellectual property (IP), or even in the legal systems of a specific state.
These certifying entities often require maintenance of certification through continuing legal education(CLE).
Various paralegal certificate programs
There are many certificate programs. Some are "approved" by the American Bar Association (ABA). Some claim to be compliant with the ABA standards for approval but have not sought approval. Others do not seem to be ABA-approved.
At the time of writing, certificates are not required in most states for those who wish to become paralegals. Different states have different requirements for how quickly one can call themselves a "paralegal", and certificates or degree programs with ABA approval often hasten the process. Additionally, certifying entities seem to offer their examinations only to those applicants with certain combinations of education and work experience, and certificates or degree programs are often a factor. Ultimately, a state's laws will often determine who is a "paralegal" and when.
There is no specific educational requirement in most U.S. states for legal assistants or paralegals. Some paralegals have only on the job experience. Many paralegals have completed a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. Others have completed a bachelor's or even a master's degree in another field, and quite of few of these have also completed a regular or post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate. Many have completed a two-year course before working in the profession, and still others have completed certificates.
Paralegal or legal assistant courses of study have long been available in Associate's degree or certificate programs at community colleges. However, similar programs exist at four-year universities and have expanded over the years until recently more and more prestigious universities offer bachelor's degrees and post-baccalaureate certificates in the subject. One guess to the increasing trend might be that as law responds to rapidly changing technology, social, and business environments, the workload of law firms and even their way of doing business changes as well.