You fancy yourself an organizational whiz, you’ve never met a spreadsheet you didn’t like, and you’ve always had a penchant for the inner workings of the legal system.
If this sounds like you, chances are you’ve got what it takes to become a legal assistant.
What is a Legal Assistant?
As the name implies, a legal assistant works in a legal environment, usually under the direction of one or more attorneys or paralegals. Largely considered the administrative pros in a law firm or corporate legal department, legal assistants ensure that office operations remain smooth, efficient, and organized.
The archaic title of legal secretary has given way to the more modern title legal assistant, although you may still hear the term administrative assistant being used in this profession. Whichever title is used, chances are you’ll tackle the same tasks and have similar duties, which are largely administrative in nature.
What Does a Legal Assistant Do?
Answering phones, filing, making and organizing appointments, maintaining the attorney’s calendar, preparing legal documents, and updating client records are all part of your professional duties as a legal assistant.
Your work, of course, is largely behind the scenes; you’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s so that attorneys can focus their efforts on practicing law and paralegals can oversee the legal documentation, research, and composition required to keep the legal process moving along.
A typical day for a legal assistant includes sorting and opening mail, confirming appointments, scheduling meetings, greeting clients, and dictating and drafting attorney correspondence. You’ll be completing the tasks needed to ensure that the office runs smoothly and that all details, however minor, are considered and addressed. The combination of your office skills and your knowledge of the law and the legal system will make you an asset in the legal field.
Where Do Legal Assistants Work?
Legal assistants work in corporate law offices, law firms, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, and more. They may work for attorneys focused on criminal law, immigration law, estate law, and more.
They often work in teams consisting of several legal assistants and paralegals, all of whom coordinate activities throughout the day. Your work as a legal assistant may focus on a specific area or it may include handling any and all tasks and duties as they arise.
What Skills Does a Legal Assistant Need?
To excel in this field, you’ll need to be a stickler for organization and precision. Your keen eye for detail and fastidiousness will be of value in this field, where small mistakes can result in major problems if not addressed.
Good interpersonal communication skills are a must, as you’ll spend much of your time greeting clients and answering phones. You’ll also work alongside other legal secretaries and paralegals, so you’ll need to value teamwork and collaboration.
You’ll be expected to multi-task throughout the day, so prioritizing your duties and managing your time is a must. Patience and composure are necessary in this field, where the environment can get quite stressful when lawyers and paralegals are up against the clock preparing for trial or other legal proceedings.
You’ll also need strong computer skills that include being adept at everything from accessing and updating internal and external databases to building and updating spreadsheets to navigating word processing and internal software programs.
How Much Do Legal Assistants Make?
Although the profession doesn’t always require specific education or training (it all depends on the employer’s hiring requirements), it does demand individuals who come to the table with equal parts enthusiasm, aptitude, and experience. As a result, pay for legal assistants tends to be pretty impressive.
As of May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that legal assistants earn an average salary of $52,750, or about $25.36 an hour.
You can expect to earn about $37,090 as an early career professional just learning the ropes. With extensive experience, you’ll likely earn a salary that’s closer to the profession’s top 10 percent, which is about $82,270.
Legal assistants in law firms earn an average salary of $53,110, according to the BLS, while those working in corporate law earn an average salary of $58,600.
According to the BLS, legal assistants earned top salaries when working in the following industries:
- Scientific Research and Development Services: $68,880
- Real Estate: $67,080
- Telecommunications: $68,030
- Electric Power Generation, Transmission, and Distribution: $66,860
The top-paying states for legal assistants largely reflect areas with higher costs of living and large metro areas that are home to some of the nation’s largest law firms. For example, the highest earning legal assistants were in our nation’s capital, where they earned an average salary of $87,600. Other top-income states for legal assistants include:
- Massachusetts: $63,210
- California: $61,870
- New York: $61,020
- Colorado: $57,830
Is a Legal Assistant the Same as a Paralegal?
Because some of the duties of legal assistants and paralegals overlap, their titles have mistakenly become interchanged. However, there is still a clear distinction between the two professions.
Paralegals are best viewed as lawyer’s assistants, as their job tasks are largely focused on handling the research and paperwork associated with litigation. Learning how to become a paralegal means understanding the ins and outs of conducting research, drafting legal documents, compiling evidence, and filing appeals. Because their efforts are directly related to litigation, they are often able to bill for their time. The use of paralegals is vital to the legal system because it frees up an attorney’s time to focus on the practice of law. If attorneys handled these time-consuming tasks, they would have little time to focus on their practice, and the cost of hiring a lawyer would be astronomical.
Paralegal careers aren’t regulated in the U.S., so specific educational requirements aren’t necessary to enter or advance in the field. However, most lawyers look for paralegals who have completed an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved paralegal program, which is usually an associate’s degree program. Post-degree certificate programs are also widely available for associate- and bachelor-degree holders. Find an ABA approved paralegal program near you.
Many paralegals seek additional education at the bachelor’s level to specialize in a specific area of law (criminal law, real estate law, immigration law, etc.) and elevate their credentials for better professional opportunities and increased pay.
How to Become a Legal Assistant
Step 1. Find a Legal Assistant Certificate Program
You don’t necessarily need to follow a prescribed educational path to become a legal assistant since some law firms train on the job. However, you’ll find a nice selection of certificate programs offered through junior colleges, trade schools, and career schools.
You’ll be expected to have a solid understanding of basic computer programs, office procedures, and legal terminology, so completing a course of study in this field is a smart move.
Many legal assistants also get their foot in the door by securing an internship with a law firm.
Step 2. Earn Professional Certification
Learning how to become a legal assistant also includes enhancing your resume by earning voluntary professional certification through the National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS).
You can pursue the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) designation if you have at least three years of experience in the field or a post-secondary degree.
The PLS exam consists of four parts: 1) written communications, 2) office procedures and technology, 3) ethics and judgment skills, and 4) legal knowledge and skills. You’ll need to pass all sections of the exam to earn the designation.
Step 3. Gain Some Experience
Experience is the name of the game in the legal assistant field, and rising through the ranks to become a senior legal assistant. In a senior role, you could oversee the administrative support activities for an entire legal division. This kind of position is earned through experience and experience alone.