In the 1970's, the use of secretaries and clerks to assist attorneys in their own practice first evolved within the law firm.  In addition to performing basic clerical job
duties, secretaries began assisting their attorneys with basic legal services, such as interviewing clients, docket management and case follow-up. Attorneys promoted
their secretaries to the status of ' legal assistant' as the need for additional help, other than clerical, greatly increased. This widely popular practice led some
universities and colleges throughout the country to initiate pilot “legal assistant” programs.

By the 1980's, “legal assistants” were formally classified by industry standards as “…trained members of the legal community, who are not licensed to practice, law….”  
Over time, legal assistants started conducting advanced legal work such as legal research, drafting pleadings, and briefs, job duties similar to those given to a first
year law student intern.

“The paralegal is considered an advanced legal assistant who is highly skilled and has advanced knowledge of the court system.”  However, to make the definition
consistent and uniform, the American Bar Association's (ABA) Standing Committee on Paralegals, defines the legal assistant or paralegal as:

    “... 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)

The use of paralegals by attorneys in the law firm became not only practical and necessary, but very economical. “Paralegals increased the gross income of law
firms, without raising the cost of delivery of legal services to the public, which in turn increased the public’s ability to afford an attorne when in need of legal
representation services.” However, because of long work hours, underpaid salaries, lack of recognition and/or acceptance by attorneys as professionals in the legal
field, paralegals began to break away from the traditional law firm setting to seek work as independent contractors.

In the mid to late 1980's, numerous paralegals started working on their own as freelance paralegals, conducting the majority of work away from the law office and in
their own home or office.  

For more information about this profession, visit the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics  US DOL Occupational Outlook Handbook

A small number of paralegals own their own businesses and work as freelance legal assistants, contracting their services to attorneys or corporate legal departments.

References: Deborah E. Larbalestrier's,  “Paralegal Practice & Procedure”.
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