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What is a Legal Secretary?

As secretaries are sometimes referred to as administrative assistants, some people make the mistake of thinking that legal assistants are legal secretaries. In actuality, “legal assistant” is another term for “paralegal” according to the American Bar Association, the national professional paralegal associations and even the laws in some states.

In its Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services, the American Bar Association (ABA) notes that the words “paralegal” and “legal assistant” are often used interchangeably. The ABA offers the following definition:

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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.
Paralegal with Files

Many states refer to the ABA’s definition of legal assistants/paralegals when crafting laws to govern professional conduct or training and education requirements for paralegals. The national professional organizations, such as the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the National Association of Legal Secretaries (NALS) affirm the ABA’s definition as well. Whether employees are called a “legal assistant” or a “paralegal” seems to depend on which part of the country the employees live.

Legal Secretaries: Are They Paralegals or Legal Assistants?

A key difference in the role of legal assistants/paralegals and legal secretaries is that legal assistants/paralegals perform substantive legal work. Substantive legal work requires a depth of legal understanding and knowledge of procedural law. It is work that attorneys would have to perform themselves in the absence of their paralegals. According to the NFPA, substantive legal work requires the following: recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.

Such work requires education and training. In some states educational and training standards are formalized with certification requirements that must be met before are person is considered qualified to perform substantive legal work as a legal assistant or paralegal. Paralegals may further their advancement by choosing to specialize within their field, earn national certification and complete advanced degrees.

While legal secretaries are also essential to running law offices, their work is not of substantive legal nature. They are the administrative force behind the practice: managing files, maintaining calendars, scheduling appointments, preparing documents, making travel arrangements, maintaining data bases and taking notes during meetings, among other duties. Legal secretaries are not legally required to meet education or training standards and many have not attended college. Because their jobs do not require the same depth of legal knowledge, legal secretaries earn less than paralegals. However, continuing education and specialization opportunities do exist within the field.

No matter the official definition, some individuals do use the term “legal assistant” to describe their legal secretaries. This makes it important for paralegal job candidates to be sure to clarify the duties and expectations of a position before accepting it.

To learn more about legal secretary job duties and roles, click here.