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July 6, 2021

Compare the Duties of Legal Assistants and Paralegals

paralegal legal assistant working in office

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Legal Assistant vs. Paralegals

The titles “legal assistant” and “paralegal” were once synonymous. In fact, the terms are defined as meaning the same thing in court rules, statutes, ethical opinions, bar association guidelines, and similar documents.

Both legal assistants and paralegals help attorneys conduct legal research, draft contracts and business agreements, conduct investigations, and prepare for trial. In private law offices, a paralegal’s work is charged to the client just as a lawyer’s time would be. But in paralegal vs. legal assistant, are there any real differences?

Legal Assistants and Legal Secretaries

In recent years, particularly in private law firms, there has been a trend toward calling legal secretaries by the title “legal assistant.”

Professional paralegal organizations have recently taken steps to clarify the situation. In 2006, Legal Assistant Today published a survey in which 94% of its readers preferred the title paralegal to that of legal assistant. Many respondents felt that the paralegal title denoted a more professional and independent image than that of legal assistant. Many also echoed the confusion caused by too many legal secretaries and administrative assistants using the legal assistant title.

Legal secretaries perform a variety of administrative tasks:

  • Word processing
  • Filing and record-keeping
  • Taking phone messages
  • Preparing client bills
  • Assembling filings for the courts

Except on rare occasions, their time is not billed to clients.

Legal Assistant and Paralegal Certification

In 2004, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) added the certification category Certified Paralegal (CP) to the Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) certification it established in 1976. It did so in response to the preferences of its members, as well as because term usage varied depending on geographic region. Since making the change, paralegals who pass NALA’s certification exam and meet other certification requirements can use either distinction, although most prefer to call themselves certified paralegals.

So if you are unsure whether a training program or potential job is for paralegals or legal assistants, look more carefully at the program or job description.

If either concentrates on administrative tasks, it is most likely for legal secretaries and not paralegals. However, if conducting legal research or drafting legal documents is mentioned, you can be sure that the school or employer is targeting paralegals.