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Legal Assistants and Their Role in the Law Industry

updated
September 12, 2022
12 min
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HR

Legal assistants are the lifeblood of the legal field. They perform critical administrative duties that keep law offices working at peak efficiency. A legal assistant works hand in hand with lawyers and paralegals to ensure that work in a law office is completed quickly and efficiently.

Where lawyers might be described as the talent at most law offices, legal assistants are best described as the reliable infrastructure. They take on the necessary duties that allow a lawyer to focus their attention on assisting a client.

Legal assistants also usually take on a client-facing role in the legal industry. Clients typically spend more time communicating with legal assistants than with any other person working in the average law firm, including their attorney. This means that legal assistants often represent law firms in the minds of many clients and highlights the importance of having legal assistants who are friendly and sociable.

What Is a Legal Assistant?

A legal assistant performs all office administrative tasks required by the law firm. Some people might incorrectly refer to a legal assistant as a legal secretary, but secretarial work is just a small portion of the work that legal assistants perform. A better description of a legal assistant is a person who performs all manner of administrative support tasks required by an attorney.

Legal assistants have a wide spectrum of organizational skills, document preparation skills, and interpersonal communication skills. They typically perform some of the most time-consuming tasks found in a law office so legal professionals can focus on activities that require their formal education. Legal assistants rarely do substantive legal work, but they may be expected to complete complex work where an attorney or paralegal has already done the legal research.

On any given day, a legal assistant is what an attorney needs them to be. A flexible skill set is extremely important, even if it isn't always being called on.

Difference Between a Legal Assistant and a Paralegal

Educational Requirements

A paralegal has higher education requirements than a legal assistant. In order to become a paralegal, you need either a bachelor's degree or an associate's degree. Conversely, a legal assistant is not required to have a formal education. You can potentially be a legal assistant with nothing but a high school diploma.

However, while those are the minimum requirements, many law firms may require additional certifications for paralegals and legal assistants. You can become a certified paralegal or legal assistant through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Other advanced certificates are available from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), the National Association for Legal Secretaries (NALS), and the American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI).

While education requirements are low for most legal assistants, legal assistants with some legal experience may be given more responsibilities and better pay. It is usually advantageous for a legal assistant to have completed some legal coursework.

Client Contact and Information Access

Both paralegals and legal assistants are not permitted to give legal advice to clients. But they both still interact with clients regularly. Paralegals are expected to use their legal knowledge to explain legal documents and processes to clients. Legal assistants primarily perform more administrative tasks like scheduling meetings, collecting client information, and dealing with any billing issues that come up.

Case Preparation

Both paralegals and legal assistants are involved in preparing documents. Paralegals have the legal background to perform legal research and interview witnesses. With guidance from a licensed attorney, a paralegal can even write significant portions of briefs or legal documents.

Legal assistants are more limited in how they can prepare documents. A legal assistant can organize documents, schedule meetings, and may even assist with proofreading legal documents if they have the skills to do so. But unless they have some form of legal certification or training, they stay away from paralegal duties.

Legal Assistant Duties

Legal assistants work closely with attorneys and paralegals. Their usual tasks include:

  • Proofreading and drafting legal documents
  • Corresponding with clients, witnesses, and other attorneys
  • Managing all aspects of billing, including sending invoices, recording payments, and resolving any billing issues
  • Collecting information requested by lawyers or paralegals
  • Organizing documents for review by lawyers
  • Maintaining both paper and digital records for all important documents
  • Scheduling meetings, depositions, and interviews with clients and witnesses
  • Ordering and maintaining office supplies
  • Completing general administrative tasks, such as arranging travel or maintaining a calendar for everyone in a law firm
  • Directing phone calls, emails, and walk-in clients to the proper attorneys or paralegals

The legal assistant job description changes almost daily, as attorneys constantly need different types of assistance, depending on the specifics of the case they are working on. Legal assistants work on whatever duties are needed at the moment and are expected to be prepared for common responsibilities. Some legal assistants will receive minimal direction and are trusted to determine their priorities and do basic administrative work when they have no other duties. Other legal assistants will receive almost constant direction from the attorneys they work with.

Paralegal Duties

While legal assistants primarily do administrative work, paralegals primarily provide technical support for law firms. Common duties include:

  • Performing legal research
  • Creating invoices for billable hours
  • Interviewing clients and keeping them informed of the progress of their case
  • Drafting documents and pleadings
  • Locating and interviewing witnesses
  • Creating depositions and court exhibits
  • Filing appeals and other court documents
  • Signing documents or correspondence that doesn't include legal advice or opinions
  • Delivering motions to other attorneys
  • Attending legal proceedings and taking notes when necessary

Paralegals can't give legal advice but can complete most other legal activities.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Salaries

Paralegals and legal assistants also have different average salaries. The average salary of a paralegal is higher than that of a legal assistant. According to Indeed, a paralegal averages a salary of approximately $55,400 a year. A legal assistant is usually paid by the hour and averages approximately $18.93 per hour, which is roughly $39,374 per year.

However, the average doesn't tell the entire story. The average salaries of a paralegal or legal assistant are highly dependent on where their law firms are located. Law firms in metropolitan areas with a high cost of living usually pay higher salaries than law firms located in rural areas.

Additionally, paralegals and legal assistants who have earned certifications are likely to make a higher average salary. Certified paralegals and legal assistants earn roughly 15% more than similarly experienced people in the same industry who don't have certification. Additional education is an excellent way to improve your job outlook in these fields.

Considerations When Hiring a Freelance Legal Assistant

Some attorneys don't need a full-time legal assistant. Instead, they hire a freelance legal assistant. This employee isn't constantly available, so they generally act more like a legal secretary. They won't be able to perform the same job responsibilities as a regular worker and should not be treated as administrative assistants.

You can either hire a freelance legal assistant directly or outsource through a freelance agency. The latter is probably more effective but also likely to be more expensive. Either way, you shouldn't expect the person to regularly be in the office.

It is likely they will perform most or all job responsibilities online. In order to facilitate this, you want to have a strong digital document system that incorporates cloud technology. This lets you easily share documents between multiple authors and proofreaders, even if all parties aren't in the office at the same time.

Find an Applicant Yourself

There are numerous ways to hire an applicant yourself. You will probably want to advertise on employment services like Indeed. If you are in charge of the employment process, you will have to vet candidates and make hiring decisions. However, you also won't be limited by the regulations of a third party. This lets you make a work agreement that is specific to the needs of your law office and of your clients.

Work With an Outsourcing Company

The biggest advantage of working with an outsourcing company is that the company has a ready supply of individuals who work in the field. The workers provided by the company have experience with the routine tasks of the legal areas of your firm. However, this administrative assistance is likely to be more expensive than the one you arrange personally.

Ethical Considerations Before Hiring a Freelance Legal Assistant

Lawyers are bound by a lot of ethical rules. And nearly all of the rules that apply to legal professionals also apply to anyone else in a law firm who assists with legal services. Because of these ethical considerations, you need to be quite careful when choosing whether to hire a legal assistant.

If you are working with an outsourcing company, the company likely enforces ethical rules with all of its freelance employees. But rather than assume that, it is safer to require all legal assistants to pass ethical training courses. These courses should focus on the rules outlined in the ABA Model Guidelines for the Utilization of Paralegal Services and the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5.3.

These rules cover general ethical behavior that every legal professional should follow. However, it is important to note that they aren't state-specific. Any ethical training for new hires should also cover state regulations for the state in which your law offices are located.

If you have any reason to believe that a legal assistant may not engage ethically with clients or may not ethically handle legal documents, you should never hire them. Even small ethical violations can have major consequences, and a severe violation of ethical rules could cause you to lose your law license.

Questions to Consider When Looking for a Legal Assistant

Despite how handy they can be, not all lawyers need a legal assistant, and even if you do need a legal assistant, you may only have a limited need for one. When deciding who to hire or even whether you should hire an assistant, you should ask yourself the following questions:

Do I Need a Paralegal or Legal Assistant?

Paralegals and legal assistants provide different types of services, though there is some crossover between them. This crossover means that you might be better off with a paralegal who performs some legal assistant duties than you are hiring a legal assistant.

Do I Need a Full-Time Legal Assistant?

Even if you are confident you need a legal assistant, you may not need them to work full-time. A freelance legal assistant, especially if they provide online support services, may be able to complete all of the work you need without requiring a full-time salary. Depending on your arrangement, a freelance assistant may even act more quickly because they can work unusual hours.

What Experience Do I Need from a Legal Assistant?

If you work in criminal law or family law, it is probably important to find a legal assistant with experience in your area of expertise. Each area of the law has unique difficulties, and an experienced employee will adapt more quickly. You can train a new legal assistant, but it is better if you don't have to.

Skills Required for a Good Legal Assistant

Interpersonal Skills

It is reasonably accurate to state that your legal assistant is the face of your law firm. They are usually the first person a new client will speak to (either in-person or on the phone) and is the person most likely to be representing your law firm in non-legal interactions. Legal assistants regularly speak to lawyers, vendors, coworkers, clients, witnesses, and judges. You want a legal assistant who is friendly, polite, and able to listen. At the same time, they need to be capable of being direct and confident when necessary.

Technical Skills

While it is unfair to say that most attorneys are technically inept, the legal profession often relies on outdated technology. Attorneys and paralegals don't always have time to keep up with advances in technology. A legal assistant should maintain and upgrade the technology and software needs of a law firm. This is important both for efficiency and for dealing with more tech-savvy clients.

Additionally, you want a legal assistant who understands technology well enough to incorporate it into the workflow without others having to understand how it works.

Organizational Skills

Lawyers are extremely busy and produce massive amounts of paperwork every day. A law office can become unmanageable without excellent organizational skills. A legal assistant should process invoices, file written reports, and ensure any other legal documents are readily available when an attorney needs them. If they have the strong technical skills previously mentioned, this organization should mostly be completed digitally.

Understanding of Legal Terminology and Documentation

Even though legal assistants can't provide legal guidance of any sort, they are often called on to create or edit legal documents. This can only be reasonably done if the assistant understands the terminology used in that document. Assistants should understand legal terminology and the most relevant legal concepts. Lawyers can't do substantive legal work if they constantly need to explain the law to assistants.

Multi-Tasking Skills

The average day in the life of a legal assistant is quite chaotic. One or more attorneys are probably asking for the assistant to produce or draft multiple documents, new clients are calling or even walking in the door, and various administrative duties are constantly piling up. Legal support workers need to be able to juggle all of these duties effortlessly.

Writing Skills

Most lawyers couldn't write everything on their own. They are constantly writing notes, emails, briefs, motions, and other documents. Even if legal assistants only proofread and transcribe for a lawyer, those services are critical. And many lawyers ask assistants to write quite a bit more.

Adaptability

Lawyers usually rely on their assistants to make a lot of decisions without input from the lawyer or other coworkers. This is why adaptability is important. Lawyers need an employee who can quickly understand changing situations and make smart decisions with minimal help.

Digital Marketing Makes a Difference

Lawyers have a reputation for being highly educated and hard workers, and this reputation is well deserved. But most workers couldn't do their jobs without the assistance of amazing legal assistants. These workers provide invaluable assistance that keeps an office running efficiently no matter how chaotic any given day gets.

Most lawyers wouldn't have nearly enough hours in the day to get all of their work done if they didn't have experienced paralegals and legal assistants working for them. And every lawyer should choose a legal assistant carefully to meet the specific needs of their firm. This is one of the most important decisions a lawyer can make when setting up their firm.

The best employees want to work closely with the best attorneys and law firms. If you want your firm to stand out from the crowd, contact the high-performance law firm digital marketing agency of Grow Law Firm to improve the image of your firm and attract the best employees.

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