Like most professions, paralegals often end up focusing on a particular area of the law and develop a particular area of expertise. Paralegals work in law firms, corporations, non-profits, and government, but what about the courts? Where are paralegals featured in the courts and the court system?
In understanding the role paralegals play, let’s first look at a breakdown of the federal and state courts. Each of the courts is presided over by a judge or panel of judges.
The federal courts
The U.S. Constitution establishes that judicial power resides in the Supreme Court and provides that Congress can establish lower federal courts. The document also details the types of cases that would fall under federal jurisdiction: cases involving U.S. law, multiple states or foreign states or citizens. More specifically, the federal court presides over cases regarding federal constitutionality, appeals on a constitutional basis and bankruptcy.
The state courts
The state courts will hear criminal cases and cases involving probate, contracts, torts (personal injury) and family law. Any interpretation of US laws during the course of the state level case can be appealed to the federal level, but it’s up to the discretion of the federal court as to acceptance of the case for appeal.
So where does the paralegal fit in all this?
Working as support personnel in the system
Paralegals do work for judges in the courts and also in departments that support the court system. Agencies that work closely with the courts employ paralegals. For example, the U.S. Justice Department, county District Attorney and the Attorney General all employ paralegals to assist the attorneys working in those departments. Paralegals are more frequently found in this capacity, as there are not a lot of actual court paralegal positions.
Working as a litigation paralegal
Because a paralegal should always be working under the guidance of an attorney, paralegals are used as litigation support for trials. Depending upon the needs of the trial attorney, the paralegal can be used to help manage witnesses, assist in document production necessary for the trial to keep moving and other support activities. At times, the paralegal can assist the attorney in the courtroom to assist the attorney in managing the multiple elements to keep track of during the course of the trial. Freelance paralegal Lisa Sprinkle provides a good description of assisting an attorney in the courtroom and the duties performed during a trial.
If you are considering a career as a paralegal, determine if you find yourself drawn to the litigation side of the law. Pursuing the path of the litigation paralegal or working on the government side in an agency might be the best path for you.