What is a legal assistant?
A legal assistant, often called a paralegal, is a professional who supports lawyers in a legal setting. They hold a significant position in the field of law, particularly in the smooth running of legal proceedings. This support role involves preparing, researching, and managing documents, liaising with clients, and handling administrative tasks for the lead attorney or legal team.
They provide integral assistance, ensuring that attorneys can focus on the critical aspects of cases, negotiations, and courtroom proceedings. These assistants primarily help lawyers prepare for trials, hearings, and meetings. They are often the backbone of legal processes, performing behind-the-scenes work that allows the lawyer to concentrate on high-stakes tasks. They are invaluable to law firms, businesses, government agencies, and any organization requiring legal services.
Duties and responsibilities
Legal assistants are typically tasked with a wide range of responsibilities. This may include conducting legal research by investigating facts or laws related to a case, as well as preparing legal documents such as contracts, affidavits, and pleadings. They also organize and maintain files and coordinate law office activities like meetings and hearings. Often, they are involved with drafting correspondence and papers for the attorney they are assisting.
Administrative tasks such as managing phone calls, scheduling appointments, and preserving an organized documentation system also fall under their scope. It’s also common for them to interact directly with clients by providing basic information or gathering necessary materials for the case. Their exact duties can vary significantly depending on the size and nature of the law firm or organization they work for and the type of law practiced therein.
The work environment of a legal assistant largely depends on the nature and size of the organization they work for. They usually work in offices within law firms, corporate legal departments, or government agencies. The setting is typically professional and can sometimes be high-stress due to the nature of legal work. These assistants often work closely with lawyers, other legal staff, clients, and courthouse personnel.
While most of their work is done behind a desk on a computer, they may also visit libraries for research or courthouses for filing purposes. They may also be involved in meetings with clients, attorneys, and other professionals. These professionals need to be capable of handling sensitive information, as they will often be privy to confidential client data.
Typical work hours
Legal assistants typically work standard office hours, usually 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday. However, these hours can be extended with impending court dates or deadlines. Working overtime during busy periods or when important cases are in progress is not uncommon. Some assistants might also partake in part-time employment, working a few hours per day or a few days per week, but this largely depends on the employer’s requirements.
How to become a legal assistant
This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a legal assistant. The key steps to this profession involve acquiring relevant education, gaining necessary legal experience and knowledge, and developing strong administrative and interpersonal skills.
Step 1: Receive a high school diploma
The first step is typically completing high school or obtaining an equivalent qualification. In high school, favor courses that improve your reading, writing, communication, and organizational skills. They form a crucial skill set for this profession.
Step 2: Obtain post-secondary education
While not always required, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree can make you more competitive in the job market. Consider majoring in legal studies or a related field. Courses usually cover legal terminology, legal document preparation, and ethics in the legal profession.
Step 3: Get certified
After obtaining a post-secondary degree, consider getting certified. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Certified Paralegal (CP) credential, which requires passing an exam and completing continuing education to maintain the certification.
Step 4: Gain relevant work experience
Acquiring on-the-job experience is essential. You can start as an intern or entry-level worker at a law firm or legal department. This experience familiarizes you with an assistant’s day-to-day activities and responsibilities, enhancing your competencies and employability.
Step 5: Improve essential skills
Develop strong administrative, communication, research, and writing skills. Master using legal software and enhance your multitasking, teamwork, and interpersonal skills. Part of the role involves dealing with clients, so customer service skills are also important.
Step 6: Keep up with changes in the legal field
Keep current with changes in the legal field, especially those relevant to your area of employment. This can be done through ongoing education sessions, professional development courses, seminars, or legal publications. Staying updated enhances your value to employers and promotes career growth.
Step 7: Look for job opportunities
Start your job search by looking at various legal sectors such as corporate firms, real estate, family law, or criminal law. Leverage job boards, networking events, and social media platforms for job leads. Make sure your resume and cover letter showcase your skills, certifications, and relevant experience to enhance your chances of landing the desired position.
How much do legal assistants make?
Legal assistant salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Additionally, certifications like the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Advanced Certified Paralegal (ACP) can significantly boost income potential.
Highest paying industries
- Electrical Power Generation – $68,540
- Natural Gas Distribution – $64,860
- Motion Picture and Video Industries – $64,820
- Securities and Commodity Exchanges – $64,310
- Cable and Other Subscription Programming – $62,950
Highest paying states
- California – $65,970
- New York – $62,270
- Massachusetts – $61,260
- Connecticut – $60,710
- Alaska – $59,460
Types of legal assistants
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for legal assistants. This section presents a detailed overview of the different paths one can take within this professional field.
Corporate legal assistant
A corporate legal assistant focuses on supporting corporate attorneys in their day-to-day functions. Their responsibilities may include managing contracts, assisting with corporate filings, and helping to ensure regulatory compliance. They often work in the legal departments of corporations or at law firms specializing in corporate law.
Litigation legal assistant
Specializing in the litigation process, these individuals support litigation attorneys in bringing cases to trial. They assist in all phases of the litigation process, from the first client meeting through the final resolution of the case. Documentation, research, and court preparation are key parts of a litigation legal assistant’s job.
Real estate legal assistant
Working with real estate attorneys, these legal assistants handle matters related to property transactions. They work on tasks like preparing and reviewing property documents, conducting due diligence for real estate transactions, and assisting with closings.
Family law legal assistant
Family law legal assistants support attorneys in cases related to family matters, such as divorce, child custody, and adoption procedures. Drafting documents, coordinating mediations or hearings, and assisting clients are among their tasks.
Legal research assistant
This specialized role involves providing the legal team with information and insights from thorough research on case law, legal articles, and other sources. The findings are used to prepare attorneys for trials, identify legal precedents, and provide the basis for legal strategies.
Patent legal assistant
Patent legal assistants assist attorneys with patent application filings, conduct patent searches, and handle correspondence with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. They also help monitor patent portfolios and coordinate the prosecution of international patents. This role usually requires an understanding of the law and a specialized area of technology or science.
Top skills for legal assistants
This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as a legal assistant.
As someone who consistently juggles various tasks, being organized plays a factor in improving time and workflow. Sorting and managing legal documents, scheduling meetings, and keeping track of court dates require strong organization and attention to detail.
Effective verbal and written communication is important in any legal setting. Part of the role involves liaising between lawyers, clients, and court personnel, as well as drafting legal documents and correspondence. Having a confident and clear communication style can greatly enrich this position.
Becoming an expert at conducting detailed legal research is one of the cornerstones of this profession. This includes knowing how to use legal databases and law libraries, as well as how to analyze and interpret complex legal documents. These activities demand strong research proficiency.
The use of technology is prevalent in the legal sector; hence, competence in various software and platforms is a must. This includes legal research software, document management systems, and common office software like spreadsheets and word processors. The ability to adapt to new technologies will also be beneficial as the industry continues to evolve.
Working within a highly sensitive field means preserving the confidentiality of all client information. Understanding legal ethics and maintaining a high level of professional integrity is essential. This quality is held in high regard, as it underpins the trust clients place in the legal system.
Legal assistant career path options
If you’re currently working as a legal assistant, you can take various avenues to further your career. Initially, you may consider taking on more challenging tasks within your legal team to demonstrate your growing competency with legal tasks and procedures.
Senior assistant or paralegal
One of the most common next steps is to move into a senior legal assistant or a paralegal role. These positions involve a more in-depth analysis of legal cases and often require a higher level of autonomy. You may also consider pursuing additional education to be more competitive for these roles.
Considering law school is another option that can significantly advance your career. Having experience as an assistant can be advantageous for entry into law school as it provides practical knowledge of the workings of a law firm, which can complement theoretical learning. After graduating from law school, there are endless possibilities, including becoming a practicing attorney or working in public service or academia.
Legal administration or operations
Another potential next step could be moving into an administrative or operations role within a law firm. Legal administration and operations often involve a mix of management and legal knowledge. With your knowledge and background, you could be managing teams, departments, or entire firms, depending on the specific role and size of the organization.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook for legal assistants
In the legal world, the role of legal assistants continues to evolve. Recent trends have expanded their responsibilities substantially, evolving beyond traditional administrative tasks to perform more substantive legal work. This is largely due to advancements in legal technology, which have enabled the automation of routine administrative tasks, freeing up these professionals to perform more complex tasks requiring a deeper understanding of legal procedures and principles.
The advent of remote work has also influenced trends in this profession. These assistants are increasingly required to be tech-savvy, managing virtual databases, using legal research software, and understanding e-filing procedures. Remote work has also necessitated strong communication and organization skills, as the role often involves coordinating various legal processes and acting as a link between lawyers, clients, and court systems.
Continuing education is another trend in this profession. As the legal landscape becomes more complex, there’s a growing emphasis on the need for assistants to continuously upgrade their knowledge and skills. Many are opting to pursue advanced certifications and further training to stay updated with their dynamically evolving roles.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupation of legal assistants is expected to grow 14 percent through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for legal support staff is expected to increase as law firms and other organizations seek to reduce costs by assigning tasks previously done by lawyers.
Legal assistant career tips
Understand the legal industry
It is important to understand the legal principles and laws but also the overall landscape of the legal industry. This can involve staying informed about updates in laws, regulations, and unique legal cases. By doing so, you can support attorneys effectively in their legal proceedings and consultations.
The role involves dealing with sensitive information. Maintaining confidentiality is a must. Any breach of confidentiality can lead to serious legal repercussions and compromise the trust between you, your employer, and your clients.
Improve your technical skills
Proficiency in using computers is useful in this profession. Sharpen your skills in Microsoft Office Suite, particularly in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. There are also several legal software tools, such as case management software, e-discovery software, and time tracking software, which can make your work more efficient.
Build a professional network
Networking aids career growth. Consider joining professional legal assistant groups and participating in networking events or online forums. Here are some of the associations you may want to consider:
- National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA)
- Association for Legal Professionals (NALS)
- American Association for Paralegal Education (AAPE)
In an ever-changing legal environment, continuous learning is beneficial. To ensure that you are updated with new laws and regulations, consider the following:
- Taking part in free or paid legal webinars
- Participating in seminars held by legal associations
- Completing advanced certification courses
- Subscribing to legal newsletters
Consider obtaining additional certifications
Several certifications can help you stand out as a legal assistant. The CLA and CP certifications, for example, can demonstrate to prospective employers that you have a specific level of professional competency. These are managed by the National Association of Legal Assistants.
Where the legal assistant jobs are
- Morgan & Morgan
- Law Offices of Daniel R. Rosen
- Morgan Watson & Oakley
- Rogers & Bruno
- Natoli Brown Law Group
- New York
Top job sites
What is the role of technology in a legal assistant’s job?
Technology is significant in their day-to-day tasks. They frequently use specialized software to organize and manage case files, perform legal research, schedule appointments, meet deadlines, and prepare legal documents. Familiarity with technology is an essential skill in this field.
What type of legal cases might a legal assistant work on?
They may work on a wide range of cases, including but not limited to corporate law, family law, criminal law, intellectual property, bankruptcy law, real estate law, or immigration law, depending on the type of law their employer practices. They might assist with drafting documents, research, and organizing case files for these cases.
What skills are important for a legal assistant to possess?
Key skills include excellent communication, strong organizational skills, and high attention to detail. They should be proficient with the technologies used in legal practices, including document management software and databases. Understanding legal jargon and laws relevant to their field of operation is also essential.
Can legal assistants specialize further in their career?
Yes, with further training and experience, they can specialize in specific areas of law. This could be anything from corporate or environmental to family or criminal law. Specialization can make an assistant more valuable to specific types of law firms or companies.
What is the difference between a legal secretary and a legal assistant?
The roles of legal secretary and legal assistant are sometimes conflated. Legal secretaries often focus on administrative tasks such as scheduling, phone handling, meeting coordination, and filing. In contrast, legal assistants are often more responsible for casework, such as drafting legal documents, conducting research, and interacting with clients. Both positions require strong organizational skills and attention to detail.
Is there potential for career advancement for legal assistants?
Many, through experience and additional training or education, can move into paralegal positions or even become lawyers themselves. Typically, a significant amount of time in the field, high-level expertise, and further education are necessary for such advancements.
What’s the work environment for a legal assistant?
Most work in law firms, corporate legal departments, or government offices. Work environments are typically office settings, with considerable time spent at a desk using a computer. It can be a high-stress position at times, particularly when preparing for court proceedings or meeting deadlines.
What are the educational requirements for becoming a legal assistant?
Most positions require a minimum of an associate degree, but some positions may require a bachelor’s degree, often with an emphasis on legal studies or a related field. Some firms also prefer candidates who have attended a legal assistant certification program. Completing continual legal education courses is often required to maintain certification or licensure.