Paralegals are not lawyers. Indeed, their whole raison d'être is that they are not lawyers. However, that does not mean that there is no crossover. Answering the question "what do paralegals do?" is tricky because "paralegal" is a default, catch-all term describing many different legal roles. Broadly speaking, however, the paralegal job differs from the job of a lawyer in that it is a "doing" job.
What tasks does a paralegal perform?
One could describe a lawyer’s responsibility as that of considering a matter from all angles, working out implications, consequences, issues, liability, important gaps in knowledge and strategy.
In contrast, the paralegal’s role is typically to carry out a course of action suggested by the lawyer. They can interview witnesses, take statements, research elements of the law, and question, study and incorporate relevant documents into disclosure including completing, filing and serving legal documents. That said, the above distinction is gradually being eroded, as in many legal practices paralegals are becoming more and more specialised after years of dealing with particularised aspects of law. On some occasions paralegals have more of a grasp on issues than solicitors who do not deal with that particular aspect of the law. In some cases, and when dealing with more complex legal work in a specialist case, consumers may find the lawyer will seek the advice of a paralegal who is competent, who has studied the law surrounding the product and the selling of that product and more importantly who has attained a licence.
In those specialist areas of legal practice, where many cases are very similar in nature (e.g. timeshare, leisure credits and long-term holiday products) using a specialist is a simplified process-driven route and paralegals are increasingly handling cases from start to finish having proven to be the bedrock of understanding particular contractual disputes.
It is still the case that lawyers will continue to deal with other complex matters, where large sums of money are at stake e.g. mergers and acquisitions or where one liberty is at stake, like murder trials. In those cases, the involvement of a paralegal tends to be of a peripheral basis.
In view of the growing number of paralegal law firms (commercial entities offering legal services to the public and businesses, without any lawyer involvement) means that we may find that paralegals will be doing the more complex work eventually – although it probably will not be anytime soon.