A legal assistant is a trained legal professional who assists lawyers by performing tasks like maintaining files, conducting legal research, and organizing documents.

Essential Career Information
Median Annual Salary $50,940
Employment Growth Forecast from 2018-2028 12%
Number of Jobs, 2018 325,700
Average Entry-Level Education Requirements Associate Degree
Annual Salary of the Highest 10% $82,050
Annual Salary of the Lowest 10% $31,400

Source: BLS

Legal Studies Programs for You

What Is a Legal Assistant?

A legal assistant is a trained legal professional who assists lawyers by maintaining files, conducting legal research, and organizing documents. Paralegals perform many similar tasks, including drafting legal documents, reviewing trial transcripts, and taking affidavits, though they are usually more specialized. Legal assistants and paralegals often need specialized legal training, and some paralegal positions require it.

The median legal assistant salary exceeds $50,000 a year, with much faster-than-average projected job growth between 2018 and 2028. This page explores legal assistant careers, including common job duties, the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal, and education requirements.

Alternate job titles for legal assistants:

  • Assistant Paralegal
  • Legal Aide
  • Paralegal
  • Summer Associate
  • Summer Law Clerk

What Does a Legal Assistant Do?

Legal assistants support lawyers by performing duties like organizing and maintaining documents, gathering evidence, and summarizing reports for lawyers preparing for trial. They may also draft legal documents, take notes during trials, and review trial transcripts.

These assistants need strong research and writing skills. They must research, interpret, and summarize legal documents and may even draft legal documents, like contracts. Legal assistants also draw on organizational skills to catalog documents, organize trial records, and maintain records during the discovery process.

Legal assistants may perform a variety of duties depending on the area of law where they work. Litigation legal assistants coordinate with clients, organize evidence for trials, and draft complaints and settlement agreements. Corporate legal assistants help lawyers monitor government regulations, prepare legal documents like shareholder agreements, and draft annual financial reports.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal

The American Bar Association (ABA) considers paralegals and legal assistants identical jobs. According to the ABA, "A legal assistant or paralegal is a person ... who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."

In practice, many employers distinguish between the responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants. For some employers, legal assistants primarily perform administrative rather than legal duties, like organizing documents and managing calendars. In these roles, legal assistants act more like legal secretaries than paralegals. Additionally, paralegals often receive more specialized legal training and higher salaries than legal assistants.

Become a Legal Assistant

Legal assistants typically need at least an associate degree in legal studies, though some employers accept a certificate in lieu of a degree. Legal assistants can also pursue a paralegal studies degree or certificate, which provides similar training to a legal studies program but is not the same. Legal studies is an umbrella category, with paralegal studies being one path.

During a legal studies program, students gain an understanding of the legal system while focusing on the duties and responsibilities of legal assistants. After completing a certificate or degree, graduates can apply for legal assistant jobs or go on to higher levels of legal education.

Certificate Programs

Legal studies certificate programs include coursework on the legal system, legal terminology, and legal assistant ethics. Students learn how to prepare legal documents, conduct legal research, and interpret the rules of evidence. Many programs also cover topics like legal interviews, the discovery process, and legal research methods.

During a certificate program, students strengthen organizational, analytical, and research skills. They also learn legal writing advocacy techniques and how to properly cite sources. The research training in a paralegal certificate program teaches students how to use legal research tools, navigate a law library, and conduct computerized legal research.

Earning a legal studies certificate generally takes less than one year, depending on the program. Applicants typically only need a high school diploma for admission. Graduates who chose a legal studies program with a paralegal concentration approved by the ABA can sit for the certified paralegal exam to gain professional certification.

Associate Degree Programs

Associate degrees in legal studies, paralegal studies, and legal assisting all train students for legal assistant jobs, but with varying specialties. Courses cover topics like the U.S. legal system, legal analysis, paralegal ethics, and legal investigation. Students also take courses on legal writing and research.

In addition to legal assistant classes, students take general education classes in mathematics, English, and communications. These courses build the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that legal assistants need to conduct legal analyses, draft legal reports, and identify appropriate case laws.

An associate degree in legal studies generally takes two years of full-time study to complete. Graduates can pursue legal assistant jobs or transfer into a four-year college or university to earn bachelor's degrees. Transfer students with an associate degree can often earn bachelor's degrees in two years.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

While an associate degree remains the most common entry-level education requirement, legal assistants with a bachelor's degree stand out in the job market. Many employers prefer or require a bachelor's degree for legal assistant jobs. Since many colleges and universities do not offer legal studies degrees at the bachelor's level, however, prospective legal assistants often pursue a different major during their bachelor's training.

Prospective legal assistants can earn a bachelor's degree in political science, history, economics, or another social science to gain the analytical and critical thinking skills needed for the job. These majors emphasize critical reading, research, and writing skills. A major in business administration provides a background in business decision-making and organizational leadership that also prepares legal assistants for employment. In addition to major coursework, undergraduates in all majors take general education and elective courses.

Bachelor's degrees generally comprise 120 credits and take four years of full-time study to complete. Graduates can enroll in a legal studies or paralegal certificate program to gain legal training.

Professional Certifications

Many legal assistants pursue professional certification to advance their careers and demonstrate their legal training, especially for paralegals, for whom it is often required. For example, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the certified paralegal credential. Candidates must hold a certificate or degree from an ABA-approved paralegal program or significant relevant experience to sit for the two-day qualifying examination. The exam covers federal law and procedures.

Additionally, candidates can earn certification from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations by passing one of two exams: the paralegal CORE competency exam or the paralegal advanced competency exam. Candidates must meet the education and experience requirements to sit for these exams, which test on law and paralegal practice.

Professional certification is voluntary for legal assistants, and organizations generally charge around $200 for certification. Legal assistants must often pay a renewal fee and meet continuing education requirements to maintain their credentials. Professional organizations like the American Alliance of Paralegals can provide additional information for paralegals and legal assistants, as does the ABA page on educational information for paralegals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do you do as a legal assistant?

Legal assistants help lawyers prepare for cases by maintaining files, arranging evidence for trials, and filing briefs.

What is the difference between a legal assistant and paralegal?

Both legal assistants and paralegals assist lawyers, though they may perform different duties depending on the employer. Often, legal assistants provide administrative support to lawyers, while paralegals offer more legal-specific assistance. Paralegals have stricter certification requirements.

Do you need a degree to be a legal assistant?

Most employers prefer to hire legal assistants with at least an associate degree in legal studies.

How long does it take to become a legal assistant?

Legal assistants can earn a legal studies certificate in one year, though most employers prefer legal assistants to hold a two- or four-year degree in legal studies.

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