Paralegal, Legal Assistant, Legal Secretary: What is the Difference?

Paralegal, Legal Assistant, Legal Secretary: What is the Difference?

Shakespeare said that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  Still, calling a tulip a rose does not make it into one.  In perusing job postings in the legal field, job seekers see ads for paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries and wonder “ Is a legal assistant the same as a paralegal?  or “ What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant? ” This article will address those terms so readers can decide which field is for them.

What Does a Legal Secretary Do?

This question is far easier to answer than “ Is a legal assistant the same as a paralegal?  or “ What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant? ”.  A legal secretary types, files and answers the phone.  The legal secretary job description universally involves typing, or at least formatting and finalizing, other people’s work.  A legal secretary may draft routine pleadings like motions for extension of time or may prepare enclosure letters or routine correspondence, but those things are almost always signed by someone else.  While some law firms have clerks to do all the filing, in most offices filing is the province of the legal secretary.

A legal secretary usually works for one to three attorneys.  She generally sits in a cubicle or open desk near the office of the most senior attorney for whom she works.  Depending on office protocol, the legal secretary may answer the attorney’s phone and decide whether to handle the call herself, send the caller to voicemail or put the caller through to the attorney.  She is responsible for knowing where the attorney is and how to contact him or her.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

Paralegals draft simple documents, review and analyze records, perform factual research and perform other duties as assigned by the attorney in charge of the case.  While a more complete description of paralegal duties can be found here, the biggest difference between a paralegal and a legal secretary is that the secretary completes other people’s work (i.e. types a letter someone else dictated) paralegals do their own work, and, in some firms, may have some secretarial assistance available to them.

Is a Legal Assistant the Same as a Paralegal?

This section of the article will hopefully make the difference between paralegal and legal assistant clear. The term legal assistant is used to refer to paralegals, legal secretaries and to people whose job includes aspects of both jobs.  Which term is used often depends on the area of the country or the type of law firm.  At one time one of the major national paralegal organizations was the National Association of Legal Assistants. Today it goes by NALA–The Paralegal Association.  In general, paralegals are moving away from using the term “legal assistant” and legal secretaries are adopting it, but that is not true everywhere.

Many plaintiff firms or family law firms are small, with one or two attorneys and needed staff.  One person may both type for the attorney and interface with the client, review medical records and assist at trial.  Since these people are clients’ main contact with the firm, the term “legal assistant” is used to sound better to clients than just “secretary”.  Whether the legal assistant job description more closely mirrors that of a paralegal or a legal secretary depends on the person and the firm.  Since these firms often work on a contingency fee basis or a flat fee basis, the title used by the paralegal or legal assistant makes no difference in the bill.

Insurance companies and corporate clients are always looking for ways to reduce legal fees.  Attorneys, of course, would like to maximize earnings and minimize overhead.  Secretaries are overhead; firms are generally not allowed to bill clients for clerical work.  Paralegals do bill their time to clients.  While there are no laws stating the qualifications necessary to be a “paralegal”, clients sometimes do require proof that people billing as paralegals have met certain minimum educational standards or have a certain amount of experience.   Things that are considered legal assistant duties in a plaintiff firm may be considered billable paralegal tasks in a defense firm, or other things could be considered non-billable clerical tasks.  Clients prefer that paralegals do work that attorneys would otherwise do; law firms want to bill as many tasks as possible to reduce overhead.  Since clients use the term “paralegal” in billing guidelines, defense firms tend to use the term legal assistant to refer to legal secretaries.

Legal Assistant Salary, Paralegal Salary, Legal Secretary Salary:  Does It Make a Difference?

While some people are attached to titles and consider one to be more prestigious than another, the reality is that most people go to work to earn a living and will willingly trade a title for more money.  Does it make any difference what the legal support person is called when it comes to salary?  The U.S. Government considers the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” to be synonyms.  The median national legal assistant salary or paralegal salary,  according to data published in May, 2015 is $48,810.   The median national salary for legal secretaries was $43,200.  As with any other field, there is a lot of variability between firms.  Larger firms tend to pay better but have more formal rules and procedures.  Smaller firms may give employees more flexibility, as long as the work gets done.  Some attorneys have secretaries who have been with them almost their entire careers and who they do not wish to lose–and who pay them accordingly.   While there are a few paralegals/legal assistants who make enough money and whose jobs are considered supervisory such that they are exempt from overtime pay, most paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries must be paid time and a half for all hours over forty in a week.

Is there a difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant?  If you are looking for a job, pay more attention to the legal assistant job description than to the title “legal assistant”.  Find out what the legal assistant duties are, whether it seems more like a paralegal job description or a legal secretary job description and whether the legal assistant salary is in the range you are seeking.