When looking through job listings, you will sometimes see postings asking for a legal secretary or a legal assistant. Paralegals are sometimes referred to as legal assistants, which can be confusing to someone who is just starting out. After all, our general definition of a secretary is that of an assistant.

Legal Secretaries and How to Become One

While there may be some confusion among the various terms “paralegal, “legal assistant, and “legal secretary”, the professional lines that divide them are relatively clear. To clear up the paralegal vs legal secretary vs legal assistant debate, read on.

So what’s the difference?

First of all, certified paralegals are legal professionals who are not lawyers, but who have passed the standardized testing given by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). On the other hand, legal assistants, often referred to as paralegals by the law firms that employ them, typically have the same responsibilities and duties, but have yet to pass the NALA exam. Larger law firms typically have both on staff; uncertified legal assistants may be working towards their certification while being employed at the firm.

On the other hand, legal secretaries serve functions that are quite different from either legal assistants or paralegals. Their duties are typically more clerical in nature, and include keeping a lawyer’s calendar, booking appointments with clients, and taking messages and questions in case the lawyer is unavailable.

Assisting the Lawyer

It is true that the responsibilities of a paralegal and a legal secretary intersect. They both provide assistance to the lawyer that they work for. Generally speaking however, a paralegal usually holds a higher position than that of a legal secretary.

Paralegals typically have a higher level of educational attainment. They may hold a college degree and may have several certifications, such as the ones offered here at CSL. On the other hand, a legal secretary may only need a high school diploma and some on-the-job training. Paralegals typically have a more in-depth knowledge of the law than secretaries do.

Paralegals are more Involved

Paralegals typically are more involved in various tasks around the law firm. Whenever a lawyer prepares for a case, a paralegal will likely have to perform research and gather information from witnesses. On the other hand, a secretary will be more focused on completing clerical work, such as organizing work files and scheduling appointments.

A typical paralegal has a good understanding of legal doctrines, statutes, and regulations that a secretary generally lacks. As such, paralegals may also be allowed to draft documents and to explain its contents to the client. They cannot however, provide legal advice or appear in court, as this is work limited to board certified lawyers.

Someone who is a certified paralegal can choose to apply for a legal secretary position if they wish to do so. The main downside is that legal secretaries often earn less than paralegals do, as the job generally requires fewer skills.

Paralegal vs Legal Assistant: Skills Needed

Given that their responsibilities are largely the same, paralegals and uncertified legal assistants should have largely the same skill set as well. A good paralegal has a keen eye for research, and at least a cursory knowledge of the field of law he or she practices in. Competencies in business and technical writing, proofreading, and composition will also be helpful, as paralegals will frequently find themselves drafting court documents or contracts. Basic proficiency with common office software applications will be required as well.

Legal secretaries, on the other hand, may need to encode dictation or oral proceedings, so proficiency in typistry may be necessary. Some legal secretaries will also be responsible for billing clients, so a knowledge of the fundamentals of bookkeeping may be helpful. Finally, lawyers rely on legal secretaries to be organized at all times, ensuring that court dates and client briefings don’t interfere with one another.

Education Required

To become a paralegal or a legal assistant, multiple educational paths exist. Traditional educational paths include two- and four-year courses at universities or community colleges. After this, graduates can either take the NALA exam to become certified paralegals, or work as uncertified legal assistants. However, nontraditional educational opportunities have become available as well. Certificate courses in paralegal studies now exist, and are even available online, to be taken at the learner’s convenience. These can be completed in as little as six weeks, and while these do not certify the learner as a paralegal yet, they could be the stepping stone needed to boost their career.

Legal secretaries, meanwhile, can take a vocational secretarial course, usually lasting about six months to a year. On the other hand, they may wish to customize their own skill sets with short courses in typistry, filing, or anything they may consider relevant.

Compensation

In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median salary for a paralegal was around $49,500. Uncertified legal assistants can probably expect slightly less than this in terms of annual compensation, owing to their lack of certification. Legal secretaries, on the other hand, reported annual earnings of legal secretaries were at $44,180 in the same year.

Both paralegals and legal secretaries can expect more job security and other opportunities to continue to appear, even as firms look to cut costs and streamline operations. Paralegals can typically perform the same functions as newly barred attorneys, but at a lower rate. A survey in 2008 estimated that the number of employment opportunities for paralegals would rise by 28% by 2018.

Duties and Responsibilities

Paralegals and uncertified legal assistants are attorneys’ allies, frequently entrusted with case-sensitive tasks, including research into relevant jurisprudence, drafting of official documents, and compiling evidence for court. Eventually, they can specialize in particular fields of law, just like the attorneys they work with: there are paralegals for litigation, corporate law, family law, and so on.

Legal secretaries provide a more supporting role to the lawyers with whom they work. They typically keep lawyers’ calendars, scheduling court dates, client meetings, depositions, and other activities that lawyers have to be physically present for. They could be requested to digitize or encode documents or proceedings, though they may or may not be physically present during meetings or hearings themselves.