Legal Assistants - Where Do They Fit In?

Are the professional titles of legal assistants and paralegals interchangeable? Some say “yes” but others disagree. The American Bar Association defined the responsibilities of Legal Assistants and Paralegals in 1986 and then again in 1997.  According to the National Association of Legal Assistants (“NALA”), both definitions recognize the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" as identical terms.

According to NALA, Legal Assistants:  
 

1)    Specialized in training through education or years of experience
2)    Work under the supervision and direction of an attorney
3)    Perform non-clerical, legal work in assisting an attorney
 

Regardless of written statements by both NALA and the American Bar Association, however, many law firms and legal employers do make distinctions between legal assistants and paralegals. Individuals who are legal assistants sometimes play different professional roles than paralegals do.

Some of the most common duties that legal assistants complete on a regular basis include:

•    Setting dates for hearings
•    Preparing court documents
•    Helping attorneys prepare for trials
•    Conducting legal research
•    Interviewing clients and witnesses
•    Drafting legal documents
•    Managing attorneys’ schedules

 

Many legal assistants, like paralegals, attend paralegal school and obtain either a paralegal certificate or a paralegal degree. While it is not always required by employers, some choose to become certified.

Just as paralegals are restricted by law from completing certain legal tasks, legal assistants are not allowed to provide clients with legal advice, they cannot set legal fees, they cannot sign legal documents (except as a notary), and they cannot represent clients in court in place of an attorney.

In law firms or offices that do distinguish between legal assistants and paralegals, legal assistants are often viewed as legal secretaries and are responsible for more of the office’s administrative duties than are paralegals. For example, legal assistants may be responsible for ordering office supplies, putting away files, answering phones, and working in the office reception area.

However, in offices where there is no difference between the title of “legal assistant” and “paralegal”, the two have the same responsibilities and are required to handle work of similar complexity.

As with paralegals, legal assistants must be highly organized, have excellent computer skills, be detail oriented, be able to conduct legal research, and have an above average ability to write. Also, they must have excellent customer service skills because legal assistants often have direct contact with clients.

Legal assistants are vital members of the legal industry, and attorneys rely on their expertise for help with the day-to-day operations of a law firm or a legal department. Legal assistants are smart, knowledgeable, competent, and well-versed in the law.

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