To Research & Investigate: The Primary Role of the Paralegal
Written by Jeffrey Hauck JD, CPO, CII, LPI
As with many professions, to simply frame the role of the paralegal as an assistant to a practicing attorney would be a misnomer. Although the breadth of the role can be expansive, make no mistake about it, the primary role of the paralegal is to research and investigate. When I entered law school many of my working adult peers immediately sought employment in the paralegal field in order to obtain a firm grasp on the law, particularly with the procedural aspects. Although the paralegal field is often considered as a good foundation to becoming an attorney it is important to understand that the responsibilities, duties, and skills are quite separate and distinct from one another and should not be viewed as a pipeline to law school, but rather a distinct and proud profession.
Paralegal’s Primary Responsibilities
The paralegal is first and foremost a research professional who is adept and skilled in the current law and all yearly updates and changes to it. While the attorney is skilled at packaging and communicating the points of the law from which to argue his or her case on behalf of clients the bulk of the legal research brought to them is performed by paralegals. Although the seasoned attorney will supervise and provide the final decision on the points of law to be used, the paralegal enjoys a place as a trusted assistant whose ability to perform their work can either make or break a legal case.
The legal research skills employed by paralegals in order to assist their lawyers is conducted primarily, but not limited to, through researching individual case facts, organizing case files, contacting and interviewing witnesses, gathering supporting evidence, and drafting the necessary legal documents for each case. Obviously, the work of the paralegal is critical to a lawyer’s success in the courtroom. An organized case file will provide the lawyer with the materials that he or she needs to present an argument that is both persuasive and ground within the law. Drawing upon strong research skills, a paralegal will become more and more experienced at finding any and all legal precedents, which allow lawyers to successfully argue the legal points necessary to get evidence admitted in a case in order to provide standing which will ultimately support the position of the client.
Today, the current available technology and legal software platforms, which allow paralegals to organize case files, bill clients, and research the law, are powerful and numerous. This technology allows for the ability to store, classify, isolate, and protect case files and legal documents as well as all e-mails coming into the law office. It stands to reason that the paralegal should be quite familiar with computer skills and all aspects of electronic document and spreadsheet preparation so that in addition to research the ability to organize becomes an essential skill. Although law offices will never become paper free, the ability to create, store, and transmit documents electronically is only going to increase. If you find yourself working at a solo, small, or boutique law firm expect to still conduct searches through paper-based filing systems until the office upgrades its’ technology. The paralegal should always be as technologically aware and proficient as possible.
Expanded Role of Paralegals: From State to State
As an expanded responsibility, many paralegals serve as investigators for their employing attorney or partner. This role expands upon merely calling and interviewing clients and known witnesses and allows the paralegal to search for new witnesses, evidence, and facts in a particular case. As a licensed private investigator with experience in three states, I have worked for many attorneys in civil and criminal case preparation to supply the facts and supporting evidence necessary for case preparation, which could only be provided though additional outside investigation. Among other services performed, I have located and interviewed defendants and witnesses, took photographs, provided background information on witnesses and adverse parties, and gathered physical evidence. For one reason or another, there are many attorneys who do not want to or cannot afford the services of a private investigator. This is where the paralegal is essential.
The laws of the various states in our nation are different and each state empowers paralegals to greater or lesser degrees. Some states allow for paralegals to serve as a private investigator would although they are not specifically licensed to do so. In New York State, for example, the New York General Obligations Law Article 7 exempts licensed attorneys and their fulltime employees, to include paralegals, from the requirement of having a state-issued private investigator license that is otherwise required to engage in most forms of investigative conduct within that State. In any state without a private investigators license, or an exemption to it, engaging in any unlicensed investigative conduct, such as defined in New York’s Article 7, may be a criminal offense. Paralegals working within an empowered state such as New York could serve as in-house investigators providing another valuable service to their employers.
In sum, the primary role of the paralegal in today’s legal society is that of researcher and investigator. Through the skills of document organization, legal research, and investigation, the paralegal becomes an indispensable part of a legal team. The paralegal should not equate his or her status to that of an attorney but as part of the necessary support staff which operates and organizes the law office, conducts critical research, and investigates the facts pertinent to each case. This is all done under the distinct and proud role of the modern paralegal profession; a profession that most attorneys are loathe to do without.