Independent or a Freelance Paralegal, Is There a Difference?

Independent or a Freelance Paralegal

Independent or a Freelance Paralegal

Legally, there is no difference between an Independent Paralegal and a Freelance Paralegal, as the laws governing the Paralegal, or Legal Assistant, profession make no distinction between job titles, and treat all non-attorney paralegals the same. However, those in the legal profession use the two terms to describe two very different jobs.

Independent Paralegals

An independent paralegal is a non-attorney who provides legal document preparation services to the public, and may be  referred to as a legal document preparer or forms practitioner. Independent paralegals help their clients save money on legal document preparation when they already know what they want and simply need someone experienced with the Courts and filing pleadings to help them locate the correct forms, fill them out properly, and follow the right procedure for filing or recording the documents. Independent paralegals may prepare bankruptcy petitions, uncontested divorce forms, powers of attorney, deeds, or estate planning and probate documents.

Laws governing Independent Paralegals

Because an independent paralegal does not work under the supervision of an attorney, there are limitations on what services he or she is allowed to provide. Independent paralegals need to be very careful to avoid practicing law by preparing pleadings that require providing facts that are not common knowledge or not considered basic information. They must also be careful to only provide information about legal topics and procedures and not legal advice.

Education and Certification

Currently, only one state, Arizona, requires licensing for paralegals working without the supervision of an attorney.  Several states however offer voluntary licensing for those who wish to call themselves a paralegal. While only the state of California defines educational requirements for paralegals, most Independent Paralegals have obtain an Associate or Bachelor degree in Paralegal Studies or Political Science. Many may also have obtained one of the certifications offered by a nationally recognized paralegal association, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”), or by one of the few states that offers voluntary certification.

Marketing your Services as an Independent Paralegal

As an Independent Paralegal, your target audience is much larger than that of a Freelance Paralegal, who only provides services to attorneys. Your marketing strategy should therefore be quite different. Ads placed on the internet, in newspapers, and on social media websites, can be inexpensive and quite effective in reaching an Independent Paralegal’s target audience. When creating advertisements, an Independent Paralegal must take care to ensure that the ads comply with state laws in the state where her or she resides or provides his or her services. In every state, this means being very clear about the fact that you are a paralegal and not an attorney. In some states, it also means ensuring that you qualify under state law to call yourself a paralegal.

Benefits and Challenges

The benefits of running your own Independent Paralegal service can be great. You get to set your own hours and decide what work you will perform and when you will perform it. The job provides a flexible schedule as well as flexibility in who you take on as a client. There are many challenges however, to being an Independent Paralegal. Running a business is hard work, and it is not for everyone. It requires self-discipline, motivation, and a certain amount of understanding of all aspects of owning and running a business, such as taxes, invoicing, accounting, and marketing. It can also be very challenging to complete legal documents and provide general legal information to the public without crossing the line into practicing law. Independent Paralegals should stay up to date on what is considered the practice of law in their state, and put procedures in place that help ensure they and their employees do not engage in the unauthorized practice of law.

Freelance Paralegals

A freelance paralegal provides services to attorneys, and may be called a contract paralegal or freelance legal assistant. Freelance paralegals may prepare any legal document that an attorney could prepare. Experienced freelancers commonly prepare briefs and memorandum of law for the Courts, as well as every day documents such as divorce, adoption, guardianship, or probate pleadings. Many freelance paralegals specialize in just a few areas of the law, and work only for attorneys who practice in those areas.

Laws Governing Freelance Paralegals

Freelance paralegals are governed by the same laws as paralegals who are employed by an attorney or law firm; namely the unauthorized practice of law statutes and case law which require that legal professionals who are not licensed members of the bar avoid giving legal advice or engaging in any other activity that might be considered practicing law. Freelance Paralegals in the state of California are also subject to certain educational requirements.

Education and Certification

While only the state of California imposes educational requirements on freelance paralegals, most have obtained Associate or Bachelor degrees in Paralegal Studies or Political Science.

Freelance Paralegals may also be certified by one of the nationally recognized paralegal associations or one of several states offering certification, which, while not required by any of the states, lends the freelancer credibility in the legal community, and may lead to more work and a higher hourly wage.  

Marketing your Services as a Freelance Paralegal

Freelance Paralegals’ target audience is attorneys, and while each freelancer may further define his or her audience by geographic or practice area, attorneys are easy to find, and therefore marketing your services as a Freelance Paralegal is quite different than marketing them as an Independent service provider. Many Freelance Paralegals use mass mailed flyers or brochures as their main marketing tool. This can be quite effective when the advertisements are mailed to every law office in a specific county. Freelance Paralegals, just as Independent Paralegals, should familiarize themselves with their state laws governing the use of the term paralegal before calling themselves a paralegal in their marketing materials.

Benefits and Challenges

The main benefit of being a Freelance Paralegal is that you run your own business and get to decide whom to work for and when to perform that work. Being a Freelance Paralegal, as opposed to an Independent Paralegal, also offers the advantage of being allowed to prepare complicated legal documents such as responsive pleadings, briefs, and memorandum of law, and to perform more substantive legal work, such as interpreting a contract or a set of laws or giving an independent legal opinion. Freelance Paralegal work does come with some challenges, however. Running any business is hard work, and when working for attorneys, part of a paralegals job is to help them run their business, so a Freelance Paralegal you may find yourself having to concentrate more on running the businesses of your clients than on running your own. With a little patience, and a lot of hard work, however, you, like many Freelance Paralegals, may find the career to be quite rewarding and profitable.

Additional Resources

You can review a summary of the laws governing paralegals in each state at Paralegal Today’s Paralegal Regulation in the United States.

More information about licensing of legal document preparers in the state of Arizona can be found on the Arizona Supreme Court’s website’s Certification and Licensing page.

For more information about the educational requirements of a paralegal in the state of California, see California Business and Professions Code 6450-6456.

About Shelley Riseden

Shelley M. Riseden is a freelance paralegal providing research, document preparation, and writing services to both attorneys and non-attorneys. She is an expert at conducting legal research and has a natural ability to grasp complex legal issues.Phone: 765.667.5139, E-mail: smriseden@earthlink.net or shelley@virtuallylegal.net, Skype: shelley.riseden, Yahoo: Virtually_Legal

Comments

  1. Kerry Spence says:

    The new vision emerging in the paralegal world is the paralegal profession expanding into the public market – the Consumer Paralegal. It makes sense to have a professional working with consumers that is trained in working for attorneys. Of course many of the legal document assistants (LDA) and legal technicians are paralegals as well.

    The paralegal working for the attorneys would be called Attorney Paralegal.

  2. Grant Keller says:

    Consumer Paralegal is an idea that resonates with the times. The middle class litigant is opting out of the attorney paradigm in growing numbers. Self represented litigants need help with the process and can’t take time off of work for rapidly vanishing legal help services. The Consumer Paralegal is a vital resource who’s time has come.

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