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The Definition
The American Bar Association definition of a legal assistant/paralegal:

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible. 
(Adopted by the ABA in 1997)

A legal assistant/paralegal cannot give legal advice, represent a client in court, set a fee, or accept a case, which functions are generally considered the practice of law. Working under the supervision of an attorney, the legal assistant's work product is merged with and becomes part of the attorney work product. A legal assistant may perform any function delegated by an attorney..

A paralegal must adhere strictly to the accepted standards of legal ethics and to the general principles of proper conduct. The performance of the duties of the paralegal is governed by specific Canons so that justice will be served and goals of the profession attained. 

Two US Supreme Court cases ruled on the
recoverability of paralegal fees in attorney fee awards:

Missouri v. Jenkins, 1989
This is the first instance in which the US Supreme Court addressed the recoverability of paralegal fees under §1988 of the Civil Rights Attorney's Fee Awards Act of 1976. In this case, the petitioner was seeking the award of attorney and paralegal fees after a lengthy litigation. The Court was asked whether the work of paralegals, law clerks and recent law graduates could be reimbursed at market rates, rather than their cost to attorneys.

The Court recognized that everyone - attorneys, paralegal employees and clients - benefits from the proper utilization of paralegals. In its opinion, the Court stated:

By encouraging the use of lower cost paralegals rather than attorneys wherever possible, permitting market-rate billing of paralegal hours "encourages cost-effective delivery of legal services and, by reducing the spiraling cost of civil rights litigation, furthers the policies underlying civil rights statutes."

Richlin v. Chertoff, 2008
The question before the US Supreme Court in this case is very similar to that in Missouri v Jenkins. However, instead of considering the award of paralegal fees in the Civil Rights Act, this time, the Court was asked to review if paralegal fees could be reimbursed at market rates under the Equal Access to Justice Act. Citing the Court's decision in Missouri v Jenkins, the court again stated paralegal fees may be awarded at market rates. This is a particularly interesting case in that the Supreme Court only accepts a few cases for review each year. 

The importance of these decisions cannot be overstated. Twice, the US Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether paralegal time may be reimbursed at market rates under fee shifting statutes. Twice, the Court has provided an unequivocal "yes." The Court has recognized the value of attorney utilization of paralegal services as a cost efficient way to deliver paralegal services. At the same time, the Court has recognized paralegal time should be billed the same as other professional staff.

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