The terms paralegal and legal assistant are often used interchangeably since the duties are essentially the same. Many law firms still call their paralegals “legal assistants,” but the growing trend is to use the title of “paralegal” for educated, certified employees who perform substantive legal tasks. A legal secretary functions as a support person to paralegals and lawyers and is not a paralegal or legal assistant.
A legal secretary performs important administrative duties that include general office duties, customer service, transcribing reports, preparing and editing legal documents, filing, and organizing to assist lawyers and paralegals as needed. A legal secretary is viewed as a specialized type of administrative assistant who drafts routine correspondence, files memos, and proofreads legal documents.
While a degree or certificate is usually not required for employment as a legal secretary, the National Association for Legal Secretaries (NALS) offers two certifications for legal secretaries: the ALS (basic certification) and the PLS (advanced certification). Wages for legal secretaries range from $26,450 to $69,360 per year.
Paralegal and legal secretary duties and responsibilities can vary greatly depending on location or jurisdiction, but the main difference between the two positions is the level of administrative work. Legal secretaries usually perform most of the administrative tasks, while the paralegal may conduct the law case research and analysis as well as write the first draft for a lawyer.
A paralegal is directly supervised by a lawyer, has typically completed training programs, and has a certificate or degree. Paralegals research information regarding legal precedents pertinent to cases handled by the firm’s lawyers and may create routine documents for clients subject to attorney review. Many paralegals interview witnesses and clients to secure relevant information. In some law firms, there is often one paralegal for a group of legal secretaries.
Paralegals work more independently than a legal secretary with much less supervision. While the lawyer is focused on the trial or closing, the details are left to the paralegal. Assembling and numbering exhibits, checking budgets to track court dates, and filing deadlines are typical paralegal duties. Close attention to the tasks of cite checking, exhibit management, title searches, and document review is paramount.
Even though paralegals perform many more legal duties than a legal secretary, they are still considered to be a non-attorney and are prohibited from performing certain tasks such as giving legal advice or representing a client in court. A paralegal can assist an attorney in court. Wages for paralegals range from $29,740 to $76,960 per year.
Paralegals and legal secretaries work very closely together and rely on each other while serving very different functions. Both play crucial roles in any law firm.