Although most legal assistants work for law firms, many others are employed in a company's legal department. Some are employed by local, state or federal governments. Legal assistants work in all facets of law, including corporate law, personal injury, litigation, bankruptcy, real estate, labor, family and gaming law.
What Does a Legal Assistant Do?
Legal assistants, also called paralegals, do much of the legwork for lawyers. Legal assistants help attorneys get ready for court cases in a variety of ways, including preparing for:
- Closing statements
- Legal hearings and briefings
- Meetings with corporate clients
Legal assistants also help lawyers by investigating facts and double-checking information. They identify laws, previous judicial decisions and legal articles that an attorney can cite in trial to strengthen his or her case. Paralegals typically prepare information for their employers in reports that help lawyers best decide the manner in which to handle any given case. In addition to writing reports, legal assistants also draft pleadings and legal motions filed in court. They are responsible for assembling and tracking all information about a case and having it at hand for attorney reference. In short, legal assistants make their employers' jobs smoother and help strengthen their position in court.
The scope of job responsibilities varies by specialty. For instance, corporate paralegals might assist attorneys with employee contracts and preparing documents to help a business secure funding. Legal assistants in this specialty may never see the inside of a courtroom. Litigation legal assistants, on the other hand, spend more time analyzing legal matters and conducting research for their employers' cases.
Legal assistants perform a variety of other legal-related functions, including drafting contracts or separation agreements, establishing trust funds or planning estates. Paralegals in management positions may coordinate the efforts of other legal assistants in a law office.
What Are the Steps to Becoming a Legal Assistant?
Legal assistants typically have at least an associate's or bachelor's degree in legal studies and many obtain certification through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). Some paralegals start with basic secretarial duties in a law office and train with other legal assistants and attorneys. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are more than 1,000 colleges, universities, community colleges and vocational schools that offer legal assistant education programs. There are about 260 approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). Graduation from these programs is not mandatory for work as a legal assistant, but job prospects improve with a credential from an ABA-approved school and NALA certification.
Legal assistant programs typically combine legal studies with other subjects, such as communications and English. Paralegals spend a great deal of time writing and discussing information so these courses are helpful. Programs may also include coursework in the following subjects:
- Legal research and writing
- Criminal law
- Property law
- Wills and trusts
- Partnerships and corporations
- Constitutional law
- Ethics for paralegals
Courses can be completed on campus or through online legal assistant programs. Many programs last as long as 900 clock hours. Legal assistant training also provides instruction in computer research and database management, as well as legal billing programs. Legal assistant programs that provide an internship at a law firm, or similar employment, can help advance the skills of new paralegals as well.
How to Become a Great Legal Assistant
Formal education and training can get a career as a legal assistant started, but there are many other skills that make a great paralegal. Since the scope of a legal assistant's duties requires them to work under attorneys and lawyers, legal assistants should be comfortable working as part of a team.
Professional certification, though not mandatory for many employers and states, can help legal assistants advance their careers. Certification typically involves a pre-established amount of work and educational experience, plus continuing education--a must for staying abreast of changes in the profession.
There are several governing bodies that offer certification for paralegals, including:
- National Association of Legal Assistants
- American Alliance of Paralegals
- National Association of Legal Secretaries
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations
Great legal assistants are at ease with complex legal subject matter and terminology. They should have excellent research and investigative skills, as well as be proficient writers. Paralegals also should be comfortable working with the public and in courtroom settings.
Legal Assistant Salary
Legal assistants held nearly a quarter-million jobs in 2009, the BLS reports. Median wages were $46,980, while the top 10 percent earned $75,700 annually. Newcomers to the job often start out with wages nearing $30,000 annually. New York is both the top employing and paying state for legal assistants--more than 25,000 paralegals worked there, making average annual wages exceeding $60,000. Salary typically varies by location, education, responsibility and employer.
BLS reports that job prospects are best for legal assistants who have a specialty, such as real estate, bankruptcy or medical malpractice. From 2008 to 2018, job growth in the field is expected to outpace most occupations, adding 74,100 new positions, an increase of 28 percent.
Resources for Legal Assistants: