What Is a Legal Assistant?

Legal assistants are in considerable demand by both the law and business trades, with good prospects for advancement and potentially good salaries. The need for more legal assistants throughout this decade should also encourage those interested in the field. However, confusion still exists as to exactly what is a legal assistant.

Legal Assistants and Paralegals

In the past, the terms legal assistant and paralegal have been used interchangeably. In recent years, however, attempts have been made to divide the occupations into two distinctive fields. Whereas the name paralegal normally refers to someone who works directly under a lawyer within a law firm, the term legal assistant is more generic and refers to one who performs a much wider range of tasks related to the legal system.
According to U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 70 percent of the nation’s quarter-million legal assistants are employed by law firms or the legal departments of corporations. Another 15 percent work for local, state, or federal government agencies, not including those who are employed in the field of education as teachers or assistants. A small percentage of legal assistants serve in the finance or insurance industries.

The Many Duties of the Legal Assistant

The work of legal assistants is primarily clerical, specifically the organizing and maintaining of information that may be used in legal cases or business transactions, the conducting of research pertaining to laws, legal precedents or regulations and the gathering of material for use in contracts or mortgages. They may spend considerable time at law libraries for the purpose of obtaining information that will be of help to others. Although they usually do not attend trials, legal assistants often work closely with lawyers in the preparation of materials that will be presented in the courtroom. They may also find themselves going out on their own to investigate the facts of a case or to obtain statements from witnesses.
The duties of legal assistants may depend upon the size of the organization that employs them. In smaller firms, they may directly assist lawyers in the writing of documents or even of legal arguments. Legal assistants working in large firms may have the function of dealing with only certain aspects of cases, such as the gathering of medical information, police reports or insurance records. The increasing use of computers in law and business means that legal assistants will spend considerable time in front of computer screens, using this technology to index and organize documents, search databases and prepare written or visual presentations.

An Expanding Occupation

The legal assistant workforce is expected to grow to more than 300,000 by 2020, which represents an increase of nearly 20 percent over the current number. Its expansion may be fueled by the fact that employers are expected to rely more heavily upon legal assistants to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of their operations. More than 1,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. offer formal training for prospective legal assistants, which could entice even more students to enter the field. More information about the tasks, training, and salaries of legal assistants is available from the government website www.bls.gov.