How Did the Paralegal Profession Begin?

If you are interested in either hiring or becoming a paralegal, you may also be interested in learning more about the history of the paralegal profession. Paralegals are professionals who assist lawyers in their work. They are trained to do certain types of legal work such as research, fact gathering, report writing, filing court documents and briefs and interviewing legal witnesses. These kinds of tasks were once handled by lawyers, but these days are often handled by paralegals.

A Relatively New Profession

Although there are currently over 256,000 paralegals employed in the U.S., the profession is relatively new. For many years, only wealthy people could obtain legal services with ease. In the wake of World War II, that fact began changing. With more people having access to legal services than before, the workload of lawyers increased. People began to realize that giving ordinary citizens better access to the law meant that the law profession itself would need to change in order to keep up. The American Bar Association (ABA) founded a committee to explore the best ways to train non-lawyers in a better understanding of legal concepts and to find good ways to utilize those workers.

Early on, sometimes these workers already had jobs in law offices in positions such as secretary. With the expanding need for help in law offices, such individuals got more training and became “legal assistants,” a term that was officially adopted by the ABA in 1971. It was around this same period that the ABA began to establish more formal guidelines for how to train such assistants. The definition of “legal assistant” continued to change and develop as the job itself continued to develop. A clear definition, similar to the definition of a paralegal today, emerged around 1986.

The Continued Growth of the Paralegal Profession

Paralegals can work in a variety of settings, essentially wherever you find trained lawyers at work. That means they may work in private or corporate law offices or in government agencies. Sometimes paralegals also work for non-profit groups or courts or even as consultants. Lawyers are accountable for the work that paralegals do under their supervision, but it’s still important that paralegals have good ethical and professional standards. With that in mind, many local professional associations have developed that help lend support to paralegals, particularly in terms of providing opportunities for them to enhance their skills or find continuing education. Some early and mid-career paralegals take the Paralegal Core Competency Exam to assess their competency in the field. One way you can explore professional associations in your area is to contact the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, which was found in 1974.

Although a relatively young profession by many standards, the paralegal field continues to grow and develop in important ways. Careful, accurate paralegals can lessen the workload for lawyers and help expand legal access to more people. It’s a good time become a paralegal or access their services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, looking ahead through 2020, expects the paralegal profession to continue to grow.