It’s that time of year again! Yes, the time of year when your loved ones and distant relatives ask you irritating questions about the legal world while handing you the stuffing.
Of course, whether you actually have the desire to answer these queries is entirely up to you, but in the spirit of the upcoming festivities, I thought I’d take a jab at listing some of the zingers I’ve had in the past.
Here are some of the questions legal professionals might find themselves fielding this holiday season. While we’re at it, let’s answer them!
Q: What does a paralegal actually do?
A: Well, paralegals are qualified to do “substantive legal work,” which means things an attorney could do but is able to delegate. This includes projects such as interviewing clients and witnesses, conducting legal research, drafting legal documents, summarizing depositions, and attending hearings and trials with them.
But I also do my fair share of answering the phone, making copies, filing, and data entry – our office believes in the team approach, and everyone is encouraged to pitch in.
Q: Is a paralegal the same thing as a legal secretary? If not, what’s the difference?
A: No, a paralegal is sometimes called a legal assistant, and those terms are interchangeable, but a legal secretary is a totally different position.
While a paralegal can perform certain legal duties under the supervision of an attorney, and their time can be billed to clients, a legal secretary is an administrative assistant with legal training, but their work is of a clerical nature, and clients cannot be billed for their time.
Q: You work in personal injury — do you get to go to court all the time?
A: Actually, no. Paralegals aren’t allowed to represent clients in court, and most cases don’t end up going to trial anyway — about 96% of all personal injury cases settle before trial.
Even when a case ends up going to trial, usually only the attorney attends the hearings leading up to trial and even the trial itself, unless someone is needed to operate trial presentation software during the case.
Q: Is what people say about attorneys — that they’re really hard to work for — is that really true?
A: While some attorneys can be demanding and difficult, they’re not all like that. This is why any paralegal should do their homework before deciding which one to work for. Some traits I think are important in a supervising attorney include good communication skills, knowledge of technology, and a fair amount of experience.
Q: Are you just working as a paralegal until you go to law school?
A: No, I enjoy being a paralegal — did you know it’s one of the fastest-growing occupations right now? Although being an attorney can be extremely rewarding, as a paralegal, I earn a competitive salary, have a better work-life balance than most of the attorneys I work with, and don’t have a huge amount of student loan debt — law school can cost $150,000 or more. At this point, why would I want to become an attorney?
Q: If someone gets pulled over for a DUI, should they refuse to take a breathalyzer test?
A: Paralegals are bound by certain ethical standards. One of those is that because I’m not an attorney, I’m not allowed to give legal advice, even to a family member or a friend. Even though what you’re presenting sounds like a hypothetical situation, I really can’t advise you. You’ll need to contact an attorney.
Q: Can you help me fill out some legal forms so that I don’t have to pay an attorney?
A: I might be able to help, but only under certain circumstances. I can’t tell you what to put on the forms because that would be considered engaging in something called the unauthorized practice of law, and there are strict penalties for doing that.
Q: Isn’t it really stressful working in a law firm?
A: It can be at times, especially when a trial is coming up, we’re shorthanded due to people being on leave or when we’re working on a particularly difficult case. But there are lots of techniques for dealing with stress and staying positive.
Humor is one way the people I work with diffuse negative situations, and I always choose to be around positive people who know how to laugh.