What's the Difference Between Legal Assistant and Legal Secretary?

If you want to work in the legal system without having to attend law school, you may consider working as a legal assistant or legal secretary. The distinctions between a legal assistant and a legal secretary can be seen in the differences in education, training, job responsibilities and salary between the two positions. Schools offering Legal Administrative Assistant degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Legal Assistant and Legal Secretary Compared

Both legal assistants and legal secretaries provide assistance within a law firm to help free up the attorney's time to focus on preparing for court. In neither position are you allowed to give legal advice or carry out any duties that are considered practicing law under state or federal definitions. While the roles are similar, a paralegal tends to have a position of higher authority as compared to a legal secretary and typically receives higher compensation.

Definition of Legal Secretary

If you want to focus more on the clerical side of law, you might want to become a legal secretary. As a legal secretary, you are a specialized administrative assistant who manages office tasks to help a law firm run smoothly. You may complete tasks, such as case research or preparing and sending legal documents, under the supervision of an attorney or paralegal.

Education Required

To learn the legal terminology and research techniques you will need to work as a legal secretary, you may want to pursue a legal secretary certificate or diploma program. You may also learn proper techniques for formatting legal correspondence, office management training and legal ethics. Certification is also available from Legal Secretaries International.

Salary and Employment Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that legal secretaries' median annual wage was $42,170 in May 2012 (www.bls.gov). Job openings for legal secretaries were expected to decline by 3% between 2012 and 2022, per the BLS. You may find job opportunities in many of the same areas of employment for paralegals. You may work to advance to a paralegal position.

Definition of Legal Assistant or Paralegal

A legal assistant, often called a paralegal, may prepare legal documents, contracts and other legal materials for trials under the guidance of a lawyer. Much of your work as a paralegal will require advanced understanding of the law and legal proceedings. You will likely handle the research and administrative work for a lawyer who is preparing to go to court.

Education Required

You may be able to train on-the-job to work as a paralegal. You may start in a legal secretary position and work your way up to paralegal status. However, many employers prefer hiring candidates with some formal education, such as an associate's degree in paralegal studies. Paralegal programs usually combine courses in legal writing, family law, estate law, bankruptcy and other areas of litigation with general course requirements in the liberal arts. If you already hold an associate's or bachelor's degree, some schools offer a paralegal certificate program.

Salary and Employment Outlook

According to the BLS, in May 2012 the median annual wage of paralegals was $46,990. Traditionally, you can find most job opportunities as a paralegal in a law firm, but many opportunities are increasingly available in other settings, such as corporations or banks. The BLS also reported that employment of paralegals was expected to increase by 17% between the years 2012 and 2022.

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