When people ask me (and I'm sure you get this a lot too), "What exactly is a paralegal?" I usually answer: "Well poor ignorant soul, I'm so glad you asked. Allow me to enlighten you. (no, that part's just in my head) I can do just about everything an attorney does - except give advice, sign legal documents for you, or represent you in court," which kind of sums it up - but not entirely. What we do as paralegals and legal assistants is grand fodder for a whole series of blog posts (yay!), so - let's stick to the name and history, and look at some definitions to muddy the waters even more:
Let's start with the prefix from Webster's Dictionary -
a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, most often attached to verbs and verbal derivatives, with the meanings “at or to one side of, beside, side by side” ( parabola; paragraph; parallel; paralysis ), “beyond, past, by” ( paradox; paragogue ); by extension from these senses, this prefix came to designate objects or activities auxiliary to or derivative of that denoted by the base word ( parody; paronomasia ), and hence abnormal or defective ( paranoia ), a sense now common in modern scientific coinages ( parageusia; paralexia ). As an English prefix, para- may have any of these senses; it is also productive in the naming of occupational roles considered ancillary or subsidiary to roles requiring more training, or of a higher status, on such models as paramedical and paraprofessional: paralegal; paralibrarian; parapolice. Blah blah blah...
Ah ha! So we're at least mentioned! That's a good start. Sure, we're spoken of in the same breath as parody, and paranoia, but heck, we're there! Now, how about the actual term?
: of, relating to, or being a paraprofessional who assists a lawyer —compare CLERK 2b —paralegal noun
An adjective? Really? Weird. Well, okay, so we're at least now compared to a clerk. Is that as in 'law clerk?' Hmmm. Kinda. Sorta. Maybe...
Here is what the ABA (American Bar Association) officially defines as a paralegal:
“A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Now this is a definition I can understand, and get behind! Not only are we qualified, either through education or experience, but we do substantive legal work. Finally! So what if it's a tad on the long-winded side - it covers just about everything. The only problem is, how many people see this definition when they look it up? Not many, I'm sure. Maybe Webster's should update their entry too...
Okay. So with that grandiose definition, people kind of have an inkling as to what we do (we hope). Now the question is, when did we start doing this? Most professions have a pretty clear cut history that can be traced, mostly, by technology. When a new contraption or process is made, people are needed to build and use it. With the law however, it's been around for a pretty long time, so finding the exact moment the paralegal came into being is hard to pinpoint.
According to Wikipedia (you know - that source we can never cite), we just kind of came into being magically as we were needed by attorneys to help cut costs to people in need of legal aid. Well, that's kind of exaggerating, but they don't give a precise time-frame for the origin of the profession. Darned Wikipedia...
The ABA's first official definition of the term 'legal assistant' was only back in 1986, even though they endorsed the use of them back in 1967. NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) itself was only founded in 1975. It's not that long ago really, as histories go. So we're only about 40-some years old as a recognized profession. It should be noted (and yeah, I should have said it earlier) that the terms 'legal assistant' and 'paralegal' are interchangeable in most jurisdictions.
There is a very detailed and well researched article written a few years ago by Susan Mae McCabe about the history of the paralegal profession. I highly recommend you read it if you're in the field so you can understand where we started, and how far we've come. In the article McCabe notes that in terms of education programs alone, we've gone from a mere 31 paralegal programs in 1973 to over a 1,000 programs today (also note the article was written in 2007, so the number most likely is higher now). That is some serious growth. I don't know how that stacks up against other professions, but if I were a betting person (and I am), I would bet that there aren't too many others in competition with us.
So the next time someone asks you, "What's a paralegal?" you'll know what to say. Although, I'd recommend shortening it a bit so as not to bore them...
This concludes the Paralegal-