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A person, working under the supervision of a lawyer, qualified through education, training, or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer; also known as a paralegal.
Legal assistants, or paralegals, help attorneys deliver legal services. Although they assist attorneys in very technical areas of the law, they are prohibited from practicing law without a license. Legal assistants cannot represent a client or give legal advice. All work performed by legal assistants must be done under the supervision of an attorney, who is subject to disciplinary procedures for ethical violations committed by the legal assistant.
The legal assistant profession emerged in the 1960s, as law firms hired persons, usually women, to help lawyers prepare complex or highly detailed cases. These persons typically worked in specialties such as Bankruptcy, probate and estate planning, real estate, and civil litigation, where they organized documents, completed forms, and prepared cases for trial.
In 1968 the American Bar Association (ABA) created the Special Committee on Lay Assistants for Lawyers. The committee worked to develop the training of nonlawyer assistants, and the utilization of their services to enable lawyers to perform their professional duties more effectively and efficiently. In 1973 the ABA approved the Guidelines for the Approval of Legal Assistant Education Programs, and in 1975 it approved the first eight legal assistant training programs under those guidelines. In 1996 there were 206 ABA-approved education programs in the United States.A drive for professional standing led to the establishment of two legal assistant organizations. The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) was founded in 1974. The NFPA is a federation of sixty member associations that works to improve the educational and professional standing of legal assistants. In 1975 the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) was formed.
Both the NFPA and the NALA have worked to increase the educational requirements for becoming a legal assistant. In the 1960s legal assistants learned on the job. In the 1970s a variety of educational options became available: certificate programs, two-year associate of arts degrees in paralegal studies, and four-year bachelor of arts degrees in paralegal studies. In the 1990s postbaccalaureate programs started to appear.
The demand for legal assistants has continued to grow since the 1960s. It is estimated that by the year 2000 there will be one hundred thousand paralegals in the United States, most of them women. A 1995 survey by the NFPA revealed that 94 percent of all legal assistants were women. Besides working for law firms, legal assistants are now employed by corporations, banks, government agencies, and insurance companies. The demand for legal assistants is highest in large cities.
The profession has continued to explore ways to improve its status. For example, the NALA offers a certified legal assistant credential. This credential is based on a two-day examination that includes legal research, legal terminology, ethics, communications, and four areas of Substantive Law chosen by the candidate. It must be renewed every five years by attending continuing education programs. The NALA also offers specialty examinations to those with advanced knowledge in substantive areas of the law.
The regulation of legal assistants has been addressed by numerous state legislatures, state bar association committees, and state supreme court task forces. None of these entities have implemented regulation, whether it be registration, licensure, or certification.
Kligerman, Susan D. 1996. "Perspectives on the Paralegal Tradition." National Federation of Paralegal Associations site. Available online at <www.paralegals.org> (accessed November 21, 2003).
National Association of Legal Assistants site. Available online at <www.nala.org> (accessed November 21, 2003).