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.
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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.
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.
Legal Secretary Job Description
A legal secretary is an administrative assistant trained exclusively in the field of law. Through a comprehensive and specialized training program, legal secretaries are proficient at handling all administrative duties within a law office or legal department setting.
Although the terms legal secretary and paralegal are often interchanged with one another, these two terms describe distinctly different professions. A legal secretary serves in more of an clerical capacity, typing, transcribing and filing, while a paralegal typically assumes more legal responsibility, often writing legal drafts and creating legal correspondence on behalf of the attorney.
However, many legal secretaries go on to become paralegals after obtaining an associate’s degree in paralegal studies and gaining professional certification.
Legal Secretary Job Functions
Employed in a number of settings, including law firms and legal departments within private corporations, insurance companies and real estate firms, legal secretaries may perform a number of daily tasks, including:
- Arranging for the delivery of legal paperwork
- Typing correspondence and legal paperwork
- Transcribing court proceedings and other recorded meetings
- Scheduling, coordinating and confirming court dates, appointments, and meetings
- Conducting research in legal matters
In smaller law firms, it is also not unusual for legal secretaries to also answer phones and greet clients.
Legal secretaries must have excellent phone and computer skills and must be able to effectively perform a number of routine tasks at a moments notice:
- Maintain calendars and schedules for a number of attorneys
- Develop and maintain a comprehensive and organized billing system
- Ensure all billable hours are accurately recorded
- Understand the basics of a number of court documents, such as summons and subpoenas make travel arrangements
- Arrange for the filing of court documents
The Role of the Legal Secretary Within Law Offices and Practice Settings
Similar to lawyers and other law professionals, legal secretaries often specialize in certain areas of law, such as family law, contract law, or will and estates. If a legal secretary specializes in trial law and works for a trial lawyer, accompanying the lawyer to court to take notes for the trial is also commonplace.
Legal secretaries serve as trusted members of a law firm, as they must ensure precision in their work; respect strict confidentiality requirements; organize, classify, and categorize mountains of paperwork associated with complex cases; and navigate the often-complex legal and billing software.
Successful legal secretaries possess many of the same qualities as paralegals and even attorneys do, such as:
- Attention to detail
- Keen observation skills
- Excellent time management skills
- Strong organizational skills
- Impressive communication skills
Further, legal secretaries must possess excellent judgment and make important decisions within the scope of their duties on a daily basis.