If you're on the billing end of a family law matter – such as if you've hired a lawyer to help you battle through a divorce – his paralegal is probably your best friend. When she's working on your case, you're charged at paralegal hourly rates, not attorney hourly rates, which are usually significantly higher. You may spend more time with her than with the lawyer, and she can do most – but not all – of what the lawyer does.
Family law covers a lot more than divorce. Parents don’t have to be married to have custody and support issues. Adoption is a family law issue, as is guardianship, paternity, annulment, domestic violence, and child abuse or neglect. All family law firms don't deal with all family law issues, however. Many specialize, handling only divorce and custody situations, or focusing solely on child welfare.
The first time a new client calls a family law office with a problem, the receptionist will probably bump the call to the paralegal. As the paralegal, it's your job to ask the right questions and find out what the client's problem is all about – and to keep the client focused. Family law issues are often emotionally charged, and it's natural for clients to vent, express anger, or even cry. You've got to pull them back without getting rattled yourself. The initial telephone call will allow you to schedule the client to see the attorney when he has suitable time to deal with all the client's issues. Many lawyers will want a written summary of your first conversation with the client to give them an idea of the issues involved in the case. Client contact is an ongoing part of a family law paralegal's function. You'll be pressed into service every time the client has a problem or calls for information and support.
A paralegal keeps client files up to date and orderly. Attorneys involved in a family law matter usually pepper each other with written requests and correspondence, and it's the paralegal's job to open the file and organize all this so anyone in the office can lay their hands on what they need with relative ease. You must keep track of deadlines, and paralegals usually draft court documents as well – although only the attorney can sign them for filing with the court after review.
Family law is a matter of identifying and documenting a million details about each client's life, such as income, expenses, assets, debts, parenting issues and personal history. Your client will bring you a lot of this information – which you'll have to organize in the file – but there will invariably be gaps in it. A paralegal fills in the gaps through discovery methods: subpoenas, interrogatories, notices to produce, sometimes through the use of a private investigator. As a paralegal, it's your job to gather this information for the lawyer to help him present his case, and to field requests for similar information from the other attorney.
An often overlooked and powerful function of a paralegal is her relationship with courthouse staff. Emergency situations tend to crop up in family law, and a good paralegal has an ongoing relationship with each judge's secretary and law clerk so she can help the attorney put fires out expediently. She can cut to the quick to schedule emergency hearings, and she knows which judges are impatient with emotional displays and which usually have a box of tissues on the bench beside them. In most cases, she can't pick and choose the perfect judge for the firm's client – they're randomly assigned – but she can help prep the client to accommodate the assigned judge's disposition.
What a Paralegal Can't Do
A paralegal isn't a lawyer. Her function is hands-on and she's intimately involved with every aspect of a family law case from start to finish, but she can't give legal advice. Outside of practical considerations – such as how to negotiate a deal with the electric company until a soon-to-be ex is ordered to pay support – she can't give advice. She can't accept a case on behalf of the attorney.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.