The paralegal job description has undergone something of a change in recent years, and that can sometimes lead to confusion among both those wanting to work in the area of law and lawyers starting up their own practice. It is important to remember that a paralegal and a legal assistant are two very different jobs with different responsibilities.
The confusion comes when you realize that the terms paralegal and legal assistant used to be considered synonymous and are defined as such in most court rules, statutes, ethical opinions and other documents. But outdated standards aside, when you look more closely at the two roles you will realize that they are very different indeed.
There are many responsibilities that are included in the paralegal job description. A paralegal has some level of legal training and can handle such tasks as interviewing people involved in a case, preparing legal documents, doing case related research and providing case management. What a paralegal cannot do is represent a client in court or give legal advice as they are not full-fledged attorneys.
In general, there are fewer paralegals employed by a single practice than there are assistants or legal secretaries. For this reason, particularly in smaller offices, there may be some crossover between the two with a paralegal fulfilling some of the responsibilities of a legal assistant. But unlike assistants, paralegals tend to work independently and they take on legal responsibilities that an assistant cannot. Because they do legal work, their services can be billed directly to a client as an attorney’s would, another key difference between the two jobs.
Unlike the paralegal job description, the responsibilities of legal assistants are much more along the lines of administrative work. These individuals will transcribe reports, perform filing and organizing, answer phones, schedule meetings, assist both paralegals and attorneys as needed and perform other general office related tasks.
A legal assistant does not have specific legal training and therefore cannot perform any of the more complex legal duties of the paralegal. Most offices will employ several assistants to keep the office running smoothly, while they may only employ one or two paralegals. Because paralegals can perform legal functions, they tend to make more than legal assistants, another reason why firms tend to hire fewer of them.
Though they perform different tasks and assistants aren’t able to do everything that falls under the paralegal job description, the two often work closely together. Both jobs, while further down the ladder than attorneys, are essential to the effective operation of any law firm and either can be a good segue to a more established legal career.
If you’re considering getting into the law field, you’ll want to think about both of these key positions. If you have the right training, motivation and desire, you might just find that being a paralegal or legal assistant is the right choice for you. It could be your stepping stone to a new and exciting career!
The author of this blog is not an attorney and the information contained in these blogs should not be considered legal advice. The information provided here is based on the experience of the author and some of her clients whose actual names are not mentioned. Do not hesitate to seek the advice of an attorney if you have any legal questions.