What is a Public Defense Paralegal?

Modern law is extraordinarily complex. It’s built upon dysfunctional models like income inequality, sexism, racism, and much more. As society shifts and the need for lawyers to work faster and smarter grows, it becomes increasingly important that lawyers are able to nurture partnerships with freelance paralegals and legal assistants.

Why do these partnerships matter? For one, legal assistants focus solely on administrative work, clearing up time for lawyers to focus on other tasks. They tend to have at least a two-year associate’s degree. On the other hand, paralegals are expected to thoroughly assist the lawyers in preparing for hearings, trials, and other legal engagements.

This requires a baseline understanding of legal proceedings, along with high-level research skills. This means becoming a paralegal is much easier if you’ve graduated with a bachelor’s degree. A program in criminal justice is a common choice because this exposes students at an early stage to a range of law-related subject matter. At the same time, this develops a range of skills needed for them to succeed in public defense.

The duties of a paralegal revolve around three main tasks. Let’s take a closer look below.

A Researcher

One of the primary roles of a paralegal is to assist the lawyer in preparing for trials, hearings, and closings. A large part of this consists of conducting legal research. This includes the processes used to identify the laws and documents that apply to the facts of a specific case, including statutes, regulations, and court opinions.

Fact-finding is a tedious process that requires thorough organization in order to create a written report that the attorney will later use to determine how the case should be handled. Oftentimes, paralegals develop their research skills (alongside other competencies) through formal education and on-the-job training.

Two paralegals sit at a desk with a justice scale and a boom studying what a public defense paralegal is.


An Administration Officer

Unsurprisingly, a large part of a paralegal’s workload is drafting legal documents. This is separate from the task of legal secretaries, wherein the aforementioned deals with specializing in addressing the clerical needs of the office. This means setting appointments, transcribing reports, filing and organizing documents, answering phones, and assisting with day-to-day office duties.

Paralegals’ administrative duties extend into the legal realm. This means that beyond answering telephone calls, organizing reference files, and maintaining the schedule of their attorney, paralegals draft correspondence and pleadings as well. The long list includes complaints, subpoenas, interrogatories, deposition notices, pretrial orders, and legal briefs with various parties. This is why paralegal training in the skill of written communication is essential.


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A Protector

The majority of law enforcement professionals go into the industry in order to protect their clients through the legal process: immigration paralegals help immigrants organize and file various kinds of legal documents (including visa applications and petitions regarding deportation or for political asylum), and as we’ve previously highlighted, litigation paralegals help settle legal disputes in court by embracing conflict resolution.

Public defense paralegals are no different. They work in a fast-paced environment as part of a client-centered defense team. This means that they perform case preparation and investigative and information-gathering tasks, all in order to advocate for the client’s objectives. This allows them to effectively provide counsel.

A Day in the Life

Under the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the expected work week of a public defense paralegal is 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. They are also overtime-eligible, however, with pre-approval from the supervisor. Upon logging in, paralegals are expected to review their inboxes before proceeding with the different tasks to help build the legal case.

Working in public defense means that each day is never the same. Paralegals can meet a client, draft statements, fact-check details, and essentially assist the attorney with whatever needs to be done. Court hearings before lunch are often a common part of the routine as well.

At the end of the day, the work is tedious and laborious. But with passion and determination, a public defense paralegal can overcome these challenges for the better good of society.

Learn the pros and cons of working for plaintiff or defense firms.

A paralegal sitting at her desk with a computer and writing down her five year plan.

Meet the Author

Jodi Bowen is a writer and advocate with a lifelong passion for social justice and community work. When away from her work, Jodi is a caring mother and teacher to two rambunctious children.

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