When it comes to legal services, there are certain things that a paralegal can and can’t handle in lieu of the attorney or attorneys on file. Legal assistants play an important role in a law firm because they can perform a variety of tasks that move cases along without charging clients significant fees. While some legal assistants handle administrative tasks such as filing and clerical work, the role of a legal assistant is to support the attorney through direct case management and client contact. Legally, however, there are some things that a legal assistant cannot do.
Appropriate Legal Services
According to the National Association of Legal Assistants or NALA, legal assistants “are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services.” The American Bar Association shares a similar definition. Legal support staff members can and do:
- Interview clients and witnesses
- Draft legal pleadings, including discovery documents
- Handle legal research
- Attend various court proceedings
As long as the task doesn’t involve a legal opinion or advice, legal assistants can typically take care of it. In many smaller firms, legal assistants take on more comprehensive roles, combining elements of a legal secretary with that of a paralegal. It’s important to note that the term “legal secretary” and “legal assistant” are not technically interchangeable because legal assistants earn a separate degree for their designation. Legal secretaries, on the other hand, may or may not have attended a specific program.
Unlawful Legal Services
Each state regulates its own guidelines when it comes to the legality of a legal assistant’s role, but in general, paralegals cannot set legal fees for services, represent clients on their own, represent a client in court, or give legal advice. For legal assistants, these activities fall under “unauthorized practice of law” or UPL. In some states, the list of what a legal assistant can’t do may be much longer than it is in other states, but these four basic tasks are generally accepted to be unlawful for a legal assistant to perform. In essence, the unlawful services provision can be summed up as follows: paralegals can’t offer legal services to the public. Instead, they can use their skills, knowledge and education to support an attorney or firm.
Becoming a Legal Assistant
Designated legal assistants actually hold a degree in the subject. Many two-year, trade and technical schools offer a legal studies certification or degree program specifically designed to prepare legal assistants for entering the profession. Earning a degree sets paralegals apart from other legal support staff because the degree signifies knowledge in applicable local, state and federal law. Legal assistants can also specialize in different areas of law such as elder care, discrimination, corporate business or real estate. Attorneys rely on legal assistants with specialized knowledge to help them manage specific cases or conduct relevant, in-depth research. As a result, paralegals typically earn a much higher income than legal secretaries do.
A legal assistant’s knowledge and education make him or her crucial to the support of a law firm, but the flexibility in role allows paralegals to offer more personalized support to clients as well. Before seeking guidance from a legal assistant directly, however, potential clients should understand that there are certain law-related services that a paralegal cannot perform.