Legal professionals include attorneys, legal assistants, secretaries and paralegals. In some jurisdictions, paralegals are allowed to set up their own practices and to conduct legal business on a limited basis. In most instances, though, paralegals work for attorneys.
While many attorneys have solo practices with no secretary or paralegal, many firms would be lost without a paralegal. Clients of these firms often deal primarily with paralegals so that the line between what a litigator does and the role of a paralegal is often blurred, at least in their minds. So, what is the difference between a paralegal and a litigator?
What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is an individual who generally assists an attorney with certain tasks. Many schools offer college degrees in paralegal studies or certificates since numerous law firms seek paralegals who are certified, although this is not required by state law. They do not have to attend law school or take the state bar exam. Certified paralegals do have to pass an exam and have been certified by a national paralegal association.
A paralegal is not allowed to prepare original legal documents and cannot represent clients in court, though paralegals may represent clients in Social Security Disability matters.
What Do Paralegals Do?
Both litigators and non-litigators often rely on paralegals to meet and communicate with clients and offer support services. But unlike attorneys, paralegals are not licensed to practice law and cannot give legal advice. If a client does ask for advice, a paralegal is to defer to the attorney who is representing the client or preface any statements that may appear to be advice by saying that what he/she is commenting on is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.
An experienced and competent paralegal is indispensable to a firm for many of the administrative tasks that must be undertaken. A paralegal’s empathetic and friendly demeanor forms a favorable first impression for a client as is their diligence in responding to client calls and concerns. Outstanding work by a paralegal can only enhance the reputation of a litigator that will attract additional clients and business.
Some of the legal duties that a paralegal may perform include:
- Drafting contracts
- Writing correspondence
- Drafting demand letters
- Meeting with clients and preparing intake forms for various cases
- Data entry
- Preparing complaints for court filing
- Preparing subpoenas
- Drafting interrogatories for submission to defendants in civil matters
- Communicating with clients to complete responses to interrogatories and request for documents
- Summarize deposition transcripts and other documents
- Searching public records
- Preparing exhibits for trial
- Preparing jury instructions
- Requesting medical, police, employment and school records in preparation for litigation
- Keeping clients updated on a case
- Preparing bankruptcy forms
- Calling court clerks to schedule motions and appearances
- Calling attorneys to schedule or re-schedule depositions, arbitrations or asking for continuances on certain matters
- Conducting research for motions, briefs and other legal documents
- Assisting the litigator in court with trial preparations such as keeping evidence organized, handling video presentations, and other duties to ensure a smooth presentation
Arizona is a jurisdiction that permits paralegals to offer certain services on their own but these are limited to:
- Preparing marriage dissolution documents
- Helping complete a bankruptcy petition
- Preparing adoption forms
- Preparing name change forms
- Conduct legal research
As indicated, a paralegal cannot prepare an original legal document such as a motion without an attorney to formally represent the client and have the attorney’s name on the document as the author. A paralegal may not solicit business for a law firm and cannot share fees with an attorney. Further, a paralegal may not disclose a client’s confidential information.
Paralegals, whether in a law firm or not, bill at rates far lower than an attorney. You can expect hourly rates that can range from $35 to $125 per hour for a paralegal as opposed to $300 per hour or higher for many attorneys and litigators. Hourly rates are not applicable in contingency matters such as personal injury cases where the attorney and law firm is paid only if a settlement or verdict results in a monetary award.
What is a Litigator?
Litigators are attorneys. To become an attorney and a litigator, you must attend a certified law school and receive a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree before taking and passing the state’s bar examination that each state administers. There is no national bar examination.
Upon passing the exam, you will be sworn in as an attorney and officer of the court. This allows you to appear in court on behalf of clients, dispense legal advice, and to try criminal and civil cases before juries or judges. Some individuals, however, may only receive a J.D. degree and not take the bar examination. These individuals may be referred to as ‘lawyers’ but are not allowed to represent clients in court, prepare legal documents without a licensed attorney, or to give legal advice since they are not licensed to practice law. Only one state, Wisconsin, allows graduates of its law schools to automatically become licensed attorneys in its state without taking a bar exam. Out-of-state lawyers or attorneys who wish to have a law practice there are required to take that state’s bar exam.
Many people would be surprised to know that most attorneys are not litigators. Litigators are attorneys who handle various types of claims and lawsuits and appear in court to argue motions, enter pleas for criminal clients, and to try cases before a jury or judge. Non-litigators are generally not involved in the discovery or pre-trial machinations where trials are prepared and may or may not appear in court on behalf of clients but do not try cases.
Non-litigators often draft and negotiate contracts and transactions and/or act as legal advisors for clients who request or need to know the law regarding such matters as tax liability, real estate transactions, zoning laws, licensing, patent and copyright laws, immigration, insurance, customs, international law, and others. However, the majority of lawyers never see the inside of a courtroom and if a dispute arises between a client and another party that results in a lawsuit, the matter is referred to a litigator.
What Does a Litigator Do?
Although a litigator can and often does any of the work routinely done by a paralegal, a litigator prepares for trial and tries cases before a jury or judge. Some observers make a distinction between a litigator and a trial attorney, though in most cases these are one and the same. A trial attorney may be an attorney who actually tries the case in court after another attorney has conducted all the necessary discovery and other pre-trial work and then refers to the case to the trial lawyer to try it before a jury or judge. In most cases, however, the litigator is the one who did or was responsible for all the pre-trial work after the case was filed in court and tries the case to its conclusion or settles it.
A litigator usually investigates a case by gathering the facts and conducting the necessary discovery, which is an exchange of pertinent information. Pre-trial litigation consists of submitting interrogatories and request for documents and conducting depositions of various lay and expert witnesses. Some of pre-litigation practice consists of motion practice that generally determines if a cause of action may go forward or if certain documents or evidence is to be allowed should the matter proceed to trial. Examples of such motions include summary judgment, to suppress statements, to force the production of documents, to compel testimony, or to exclude evidence. Often a successful motion will determine the outcome of a case before it goes to trial.
Paralegals and litigators play distinct roles as legal professionals although many of their tasks may overlap. The main difference is the level of education and the licensing requirements as well as the ability to actually dispense legal advice and to represent clients in a court of law.