From creating elaborate presentations to navigating ever more complex legal technology, the responsibilities of paralegals and legal support staff have grown significantly since the days when lawyers worked alone with paper and pen.
More than one quarter-million paralegals and legal support staff are currently working throughout the nation, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for such positions to rise an additional 15 percent – much faster than the national average for other occupations – in the next 10 years.
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The accelerated growth of the industry has made paralegals and support staff a vital part of every legal team, with more responsibilities and opportunities than ever before. Learn more about the evolution of legal support and the trends that will continue to emerge over time.
A Quick History
In the 1960s, as the complexity of law and need for additional legal help increased, so did the workload for lawyers. Attorneys began to look for consummate professionals who could be trusted to tackle the tasks needed to resolve cases. From preparing witnesses to gathering evidence, the role of paralegals in the industry went from non-existent to expanding steadily.
Soon, universities began to create associate’s degrees and certificate programs for paralegal training. Today there are more than 1,000 universities and colleges offering a range of courses, from a one-year certification to a master’s degree. Approximately 250 of these programs are also approved by the American Bar Association. While many firms require certificates, others accept in-house training for professionals with a wide berth of experience.
Paralegals still function as self-directed fact experts and keeper of details, but there are many ways that the profession has expanded and evolved in recent years. From paralegal specialisms to tech-savvy support staff, paralegals continue to hone their unique skillsets in order to continue to excel.
Some recent changes and continuing trends include:
Increased responsibilities and freedom
There continues to be discussion regarding paralegals having more leeway in helping people navigate legal matters. It is hoped that this move will help cut down on the number of unrepresented litigants and save time in the court and litigation process.
Some states have approved a new role in the industry known as a “limited paralegal practitioner.” This profession involves more training than a typical paralegal but still less than a lawyer. It was created to aid those who otherwise might not be able to afford the legal help of an attorney.
With extensive knowledge of legal matters, some paralegals work as independent contractors for clients. They are “experts in procedure and legal papers but are barred from dispensing advice,” and must walk a fine line between the two. These independent contractors may help write up briefs, file documents, and sit in the audience during a trial.
In the UK, for instance, paralegals are already permitted to perform certain types of advocacy in front of District Judges in some case types. And a report in Ontario, Canada from earlier this year urged the province to let paralegals appear in family court.
Paralegals are rapidly creating niche careers that make them more marketable for firms and corporate in-house teams. Other firms are adding administration, contract supervision, management and investigation to their job descriptions.
Many tech-savvy and creative paralegals have honed their skills to become what is known as “litigation support specialists.” These specialists use their legal knowledge and technological know-how to design effective presentations for trial using popular tools such as CoralDraw, Microsoft Visio, and Smart Draw.
Today’s legal market favors professionals who are honing their skillsets to become specialists in one area or another, although generalists still remain in demand.
Investing in new tech skills
With the increase in electronic court filing, digital case management systems, and other opportunities to use technology in the legal industry, tech skills are an obvious place for paralegals to look.
Just as litigation support specialists are making the most of their skills, some paralegals are seeking certifications as a Certified Database Administrator through Microsoft and others. Information technology experience will continue to make paralegals even more valuable in the future.
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Through the years, the paralegal industry has grown and evolved rapidly. With today’s increase in caseloads, it is hard to imagine a firm operating without the support of a professional paralegal or legal secretary.
While paralegals must still honor the limitations of the practice, the industry is ever-changing, and professionals should also look to developing new skills to meet the needs of law firms and clients well into the future.
How have you seen the legal support industry change in the past years? Share your experiences in the comments.