The legal field boasts an array of professionals who handle various complex and important tasks. In addition to attorneys licensed to practice law and representing clients in legal matters, several support roles are necessary for attorneys to excel in their legal practice. Those support roles include paralegals and legal secretaries. It is undisputed that paralegals and legal secretaries play a major part in the legal field, especially in Florida law firms handling complex legal matters and litigation.
Paralegals and legal secretaries are effectively the individuals in the background who are largely responsible for helping attorneys prepare cases, digging through voluminous documents, helping with the filing of court documents, and much more. Let’s dive into the roles and differences between paralegal and legal secretaries.
What do paralegals do?
A paralegal completes a variety of duties, many of which are legal-based in nature. Paralegals’ tasks include researching case law, drafting legal documents, compiling evidence for trial, and other duties. Paralegals work closely with attorneys to help them get ready for trial and perform intensive law-related duties. These individuals can specialize in specific areas of the law, such as criminal law, family law, and personal injury, and tend to become quite well-versed in that particular area.
Paralegals help track cases that are in litigation and ensure important court deadlines are met. The role assists with legal research and organizing the data and files for a specific trial. There is some basic administrative work they help with at the office as well, like travel plans, client contacts, and calendar organization.
What do legal secretaries do?
Legal secretaries have a job role that is more clerical in nature. These professionals may schedule appointments for the attorney, answer phones, perform transcription services, prepare legal documents with information provided by the attorney and paralegal, and take on other tasks as required. The role may also be responsible for keeping the office stocked with supplies and snacks. Legal secretaries help both the attorney and paralegal complete their work-related goals when needed.
Paralegal vs. legal secretary: What are the differences?
Is there a big difference between paralegals and legal secretaries? Yes, quite a bit. Although these professionals sometimes perform similar duties, many tasks are reserved exclusively for one or the other. The following will highlight what each professional does in their daily work environment and their qualifications to make them a perfect fit for their individual roles.
Roles and responsibilities
Paralegals and legal secretaries work to assist attorneys, but their responsibilities differ slightly. The administrative responsibilities typically land in the legal secretary space more often. The legal secretary will do the clerical-based duties, like scheduling and entering billing data. Paralegals are more focused on case-specific tasks that require more legal knowledge. Research and drafting legal documents are common for the paralegal role. This is not to say that a paralegal will not schedule appointments once in a while or that the legal secretary won’t draft legal documents every so often. However, they both have their distinct roles for the most part. Every attorney is different and will assign tasks to their legal team as they see fit to make each case be carried out efficiently.
Qualifications of paralegals and legal secretaries
The qualifications needed to work as a paralegal and legal secretary often differ. A paralegal sometimes needs a college degree in order to be hired as a paralegal, in addition to a paralegal certificate. As for a legal secretary position, someone straight out of high school can often fill this job role with no higher education requirements needed. The exact qualifications will depend on the law firm and attorney who hires the individual as a paralegal or legal secretary.
Paralegal job roles typically require more education than legal secretary roles. There are college programs for paralegal positions that will give you more background information on legal procedures and prepare you to be able to assist attorneys with case research and organization. Some aspiring attorneys may work as paralegals after completing their undergraduate programs before law school. Legal secretaries can often begin work with just a high school degree. Each law firm is requirements differ, so some may require a degree for any position.
Certifications are a great way to gain more knowledge that is relevant to your career path. For legal secretaries, you can become an Accredited Legal Secretary (ALS.) Paralegals have quite a few more options. Six certifications for paralegals are most common:
- Certified Paralegal (CP)
- Advanced Paralegal Certification (APC)
- Professional Paralegal (PP)
- Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) certification
- Professional Legal Secretary/Certified Legal Professional (PLS/CLP) certification
- Legal Document Assistant (LDA) certification
Each one of those focuses on different types of legal cases or parts of the legal process. Studying legal terminology and protocols and getting certified to show that you possess that knowledge when applying to law firms can be helpful and put you ahead of the competition.
The skills of paralegals and legal secretaries are very similar. Attention to detail, time management, and strong organizational skills are important for both roles. Effective communication is also important, especially in understanding basic legal terminology. Other skills that can benefit anyone working at a law firm include research skills, comfort with technology, teamwork, and the ability to handle multiple tasks and prioritize.
The salaries of paralegals and legal secretaries will vary depending on the law firm’s location, size of the law firm, duties of the paralegal or legal secretary, and other factors. In general, paralegals often make more than legal secretaries. As for salary estimates produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2021, a paralegal makes around $56,320 per year, whereas the median annual wage for a legal secretary is $46,360.
Clients may communicate with everyone at a particular law firm when working with them on a case, but the types of contact may vary. Legal secretaries often answer the phones and check emails, so they are the front line of client communication. Secretaries may be the ones organizing calendars and scheduling appointments.
Paralegals may have more detailed communications with clients regarding specific case details. They might help prepare clients for depositions, provide updates on the case, and help answer any questions that the clients may have. They will have more information on the case and its status.
A legal secretary is a great entry-level position at a law firm. If you are interested in legal work but haven’t decided on law school and want to learn more about the routines, working as a legal secretary will give you some insight. Some law firms have office manager positions or administrators that you work towards if you don’t decide to go to law school to become an attorney but want to stay in the legal field.
Paralegals have a similar path if they are interested in managing other paralegals or working in the administration staff of a law firm. Another career growth option is to specialize in one field of law, like criminal, bankruptcy, family, or civil litigation. These specialized experts can be in high demand with larger law firms.
Why paralegals and legal secretaries are essential to a law firm
Legal professionals of all types have very busy jobs. An attorney needs the assistance of paralegals and legal secretaries to help them with a multitude of tasks to ensure that their clients are getting the best possible representation. From family law to real estate law, plentiful documents, extensive research, addressing clients’ needs, filing court documents, and ensuring that all of this is done promptly is a big job. An attorney can’t handle this job alone. It takes the competent assistance of paralegals and legal secretaries to ensure smooth working order of the entire office.
When an attorney has these individuals by their side, they can perform their tasks as an attorney and ensure that the proper documents are ready for court, clients have been contacted on time, research is completed, and the client’s case will be an orderly process from start to finish.
Is it required to have a law degree to be a paralegal?
A law degree is not required for paralegals. Some law firms may require specific certifications or two-year programs for all hired paralegals. Knowing the legal process is important, so the two-year programs are a great start for anyone wanting to become a paralegal.
What skills are important for paralegals and legal secretaries?
Legal secretaries and paralegals need to be organized, excellent at time management, and have strong attention to detail. Teamwork and strong communication skills are also important when working with this legal team.
Are legal secretaries different from secretaries in other industries?
Legal secretaries will need a basic understanding of legal proceedings and often have some additional duties than secretaries in other industries. Confidentiality is also critical in legal offices.
Do paralegals make more money than legal secretaries?
Paralegals are typically paid more than legal secretaries within the same law firm. Paralegals have more specialized tasks that require some additional training and knowledge. They assist more with case research, drafting legal documents, and working directly with the clients to prepare them for deposition and trial.