difference between legal secretary and paralegal

The Difference between a Legal Secretary and a Paralegal

While the terms paralegal and legal secretary are often used interchangeably, they represent distinct positions, and the employees who fill them perform distinctly different tasks. Some law firms have legal secretaries, others have paralegals, some have both, and some have no support staff at the moment. Who you hire depends on your needs and budget. 

If you’re not sure whether your firm needs a legal secretary, a paralegal, or both, having a better understanding of these positions and roles can help you make the right determinations for your firm’s optimal growth. A legal business development pro can help.

Legal Secretaries 

The role of legal secretary focuses on clerical and administrative tasks that are common to law firms, including all the following:

  • Handling the firm’s daily schedule
  • Arranging meetings and conferences
  • Answering phones and scheduling appointments with clients
  • Maintaining office inventories
  • Troubleshooting scheduling conflicts
  • Engaging in general correspondence

Tasks that Are Law-Firm Specific

Legal secretaries are also called upon to skillfully tackle tasks that are specific to legal offices, such as all the following:

  • Docketing
  • Assembling and preparing documents, evidence, and other materials for trial
  • Editing legal papers and documents
  • Transcribing legal dictation
  • Creating reports 

There is a lot more to being a skilled legal secretary than fulfilling these specific tasks, however. A good legal secretary can help you address and ably handle all the following:

  • Keeping your firm organized and running smoothly
  • Seamlessly handling problems as they arise
  • Effectively prioritizing tasks and deadlines 
  • Multitasking seamlessly
  • Ensuring their own work and the work they’re responsible for overseeing is accurate
  • Skillfully maintaining each client’s confidentiality
  • Having technical proficiency and the ability to swiftly organize technical support as necessary
  • Employing excellent time management skills

In other words, legal secretaries play a vital role in law firms, and their efforts can prove invaluable. If your office doesn’t operate as fluidly as you’d like and you recognize that there are organizational glitches in the mechanics, it may be time to consider hiring a skilled legal secretary or two. 

Legal Secretaries: A Hierarchy

Legal secretaries function in administrative roles that are specifically designed to keep law firms humming along smoothly. Depending on the size of your firm, you may require more than one legal secretary. For example, you may have one legal secretary with a highly specific focus on docketing and another who handles the phones and correspondence. 

Some firms have one legal secretary in a supervisory position, and this employee delegates the work that the other legal secretaries take on in order to bolster productivity. You may also consider assigning a senior legal secretary in the role of office manager, which involves shouldering greater responsibility regarding how the entire office is run. With the right level of administrative guidance and focused attention, you’ll be better prepared to maximize your firm’s potential.

Paralegals 

There can be overlap between what paralegals and legal secretaries do in a law firm, but there are also primary distinctions. The major difference is that paralegals are employees who are qualified in terms of education, experience, or job training to perform substantive legal work that requires significant legal knowledge under the guidance of a licensed attorney. While a paralegal doesn’t practice law, they can perform important legal functions under required supervision. 

The Paralegal’s Role

Paralegals can work in very generalized roles or in highly specific positions. For example, a paralegal at a small firm that handles both family law and criminal defense cases is likely to perform a wide range of legal services that vary from day to day. These paralegals can have considerable experience performing many complex legal tasks. Paralegals who work for larger firms, however, are often employed to fill more specific roles – depending upon the kind of law practiced or the attorney to whom they’re assigned.

Professional Paralegals Have Unique Skill Sets 

Professional paralegals have unique skill sets that include valuable abilities in all the following areas:

  • A mixture of administrative, analytical, research, and managerial skills
  • The ability to organize complex tasks into manageable steps
  • A keen eye for detail
  • The ability to creatively and independently solve problems
  • Superior time-management skills
  • The ability to skillfully research legal and factual matters
  • The ability to collaborate
  • Excellent communication skills – in terms of both written and verbal expression
  • An easy facility with technology that includes highly specialized legal programs
  • The ability to keep up with evolving laws and to apply this to their work

Paralegals can also be placed in supervisory roles in which they manage other paralegals – whether that means a specific team of paralegals or the entire staff of paralegals. Paralegals with considerable tech savvy are often called upon to train attorneys and other paralegals in relation to new technologies as the firm introduces them.  

Paralegals Provide Attorneys with Direct Aid 

While legal secretaries help the entire office run more smoothly and generally assist everyone in the firm, paralegals provide more direct assistance to the attorneys they serve. 

The level of assistance can take many different forms, and paralegals can perform many – if not most – of the tasks that attorneys do. Before a paralegal’s work product directly affects a client’s case, however, it must be reviewed and signed off on by the attorney overseeing the paralegal. 

Consider the following guidelines shared by the American Bar Association (ABA) regarding the work that can be assigned to paralegals:

  • Paralegals can be assigned most of the tasks that are performed by lawyers as long as their work is appropriately supervised
  • Paralegals can organize and review the files of clients
  • Paralegals can draft pleadings and discovery notices
  • Paralegals can conduct research
  • Paralegals can prepare legal documents for transactions
  • Paralegals can interview both witnesses and clients
  • Paralegals can assist at both trials and closings

What Paralegals Can’t Do 

While paralegals can take on many of the same tasks performed by attorneys, the ABA shares the following matters that cannot be delegated to paralegals:

  • An attorney can’t delegate the responsibility of establishing attorney-client relationships to a paralegal 
  • An attorney can’t delegate the responsibility of establishing fees charged for legal services to a paralegal
  • An attorney can’t delegate the responsibility of providing a client with a legal opinion to a paralegal

Further, attorneys are not allowed to split legal fees with paralegals or to pay them for any referrals they bring in.

How a Paralegal Can Help Your Practice and Your Firm Overall

Hiring a paralegal can help take some of the load off the attorneys at your firm, including yourself, which can lead to better case outcomes, more robust recommendations, and a thriving firm overall. If the attorneys in your firm can’t keep up with the workload they face, the work product is likely to suffer, and a paralegal may be just the answer you’re looking for. Consider all the following benefits:

  • Having a skilled paralegal who is paid a salary or hourly wage to take on important legal tasks can help you reduce the legal fees you charge – or can limit your need to increase your rates. 
  • A paralegal’s billable hours can be invoiced as a separate line item, which can save your clients money. 
  • Having a focused paralegal on your team can help improve your firm’s responsiveness, which – in turn – can improve client satisfaction considerably. 
  • Having one or more paralegals on your team can help you maximize your law firm’s growth potential. 

Do You Need a Legal Secretary or a Paralegal?

When it comes to determining whether you need to hire a legal secretary or a paralegal, it may not be an either-or proposition. If you’re looking for assistance with running your firm more effectively and efficiently overall, a knowledgeable legal secretary can help. If, on the other hand, hiring a paralegal could free up your attorneys to become more productive, it may be the way to go. 

It’s important to note that these two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive. An office that runs smoothly supports productivity, and the greater your productivity, the more organization you’re going to need. If your firm has isolated needs, choosing between a legal secretary and a paralegal can be a straightforward process, but if you’re focusing on overall firm growth, you may want to formulate a plan that includes hiring both a legal secretary and a paralegal.

Discuss Your Best Options with a Savvy Legal Business Development Pro Today

You want your law firm to operate as seamlessly as possible while maximizing your team’s productivity, and hiring a legal secretary, a paralegal, or both could potentially help you achieve these primary goals. The seasoned legal business development pros at Newsroom PR have the insight and experience to help you pinpoint the kind of support your firm lacks and address your hiring needs accordingly. When your firm is well staffed, your growth potential is well supported, and exploring your hiring options is the right place to start. 

To learn more about what we can do to help you, please don’t put off reaching out and contacting or calling us at 213-422-2738 today.