The terms “legal secretary”, “legal assistant”, and “paralegal” are sometimes used interchangeably. While most people believe that these legal support roles are very similar, there are actually many differences between the jobs— including what it takes to become one.
Because the terms are often misused, it is important to know the one that correctly defines your line of work, to make sure you are compliant with the California legal requirements, and to clarify the duties and expectations of a position before accepting it.
Legal secretaries are essential to running law offices. They are the administrative force behind the practice: managing files, maintaining calendars, scheduling appointments, preparing documents, making travel arrangements, maintaining databases and taking notes during meetings.
Legal assistant is just an alternative name for a paralegal, according to the American Bar Association: “A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
California Business and Professions Code § 6450 states the following: “’Paralegal’ means a person who holds himself or herself out to be a paralegal, who is qualified by education, training, or work experience, who either contracts with or is employed by an attorney, law firm, corporation, governmental agency, or other entity, and who performs substantial legal work under the direction and supervision of an active member of the State Bar of California, as defined in Section 6060, or an attorney practicing law in the federal courts of this state, that has been specifically delegated by the attorney to him or her.”
A key difference between the roles listed above is that only paralegals provide “substantial legal work,” which is work that attorneys would otherwise have to perform themselves and which requires a depth of legal understanding and knowledge of procedural law.
“Tasks performed by a paralegal include, but are not limited to, case planning, development, and management; legal research; interviewing clients; fact gathering and retrieving information; drafting and analyzing legal documents; collecting, compiling, and utilizing technical information to make an independent decision and recommendation to the supervising attorney; and representing clients before a state or federal administrative agency if that representation is permitted by statute, court rule, or administrative rule or regulation.” Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 6450(d).
Paralegals, however, cannot give legal advice or guide clients toward one course of action or another.
Another difference is that there are continuing educational requirements to be a paralegal. Every two years, California requires paralegals to complete four hours of CLEs in legal ethics and four hours in either general law or a specialized area of law.
Currently, legal secretaries have no legal requirement to meet any specific educational or training standards.
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