While lawyers are ultimately responsible for work in the legal field, they frequently delegate many tasks to paralegals or legal assistants. In some law offices, legal assistants may perform many of the same tasks as attorneys. They are prohibited by law from performing any duties that would be considered practicing law, such as giving legal advice, setting legal fees and presenting cases in court.
Many legal assisting careers are enhanced by earning a degree in a relevant field. Additional training often leads to higher pay and better job opportunities. Check out the programs below which offer free information:
Legal Assistant Job Duties
The most important task of a legal assistant is assisting lawyers prepare for hearings, closings, trials and corporate meetings. They may also investigate case facts to ensure that all relevant information is available for consideration. Other tasks include identifying judicial decisions, appropriate laws, legal articles and other materials that may be relevant. After organizing and analyzing information, legal assistants may also prepare written reports that lawyers may use in determining how to handle cases. Legal assistants may also prepare legal arguments, motions and draft pleadings that will be filed in court as well as obtaining affidavits.
Other job duties of legal assistants may include tracking and organizing files contain important case documents while also making them available to lawyers. Along with preparatory work, legal assistants may also perform other functions including assisting with the drafting of mortgages, contracts and separation agreements. They may also help with preparing trust funds tax returns and assist in planning estates.
Legal assistants often use the Internet and computer software programs for searching legal literature. In addition, they commonly use computer databases for retrieving, indexing and organizing various types of materials. Billing programs may be used for assisting in tracking hours for the purpose of billing clients.
A variety of different organizations employ legal assistants, although most legal assistants are employed by law firms, government offices and corporate legal departments. They may work in a variety of different areas of the law including personal injury, litigation, corporate law, employee benefits, criminal law, labor law, intellectual property, immigration, real estate and family law. Legal assistant work can also be highly specialized due to the complex nature of the law.
The actual tasks of a legal assistant can vary significantly based on the type of organization where they are employed. Corporate legal assistants typically assist with shareholder agreements, employee contracts, employee benefit plans and stock-option plans. They may also assist with preparing and filing loan forms and annual financial reports.
Legal assistants usually work a 40 hour work week and work within an office environment, although they may need to travel in order to gather information, including to law libraries and to meet with clients. Legal assistants that work in law firms may be required to work long hours and may need to meet tight deadlines.
Legal Assistant Training and Education
Most entry-level legal assistants have an associate’s degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor’s degree. In some instances, legal assistants may be trained while on the job. Those who have a bachelor’s degree in another field may choose to earn a certificate in paralegal studies. There are a small number of schools that offer bachelor’s as well as master’s degrees in paralegal studies. Degree programs typically combine paralegal training with other types of courses.
There are approximately 260 paralegal programs that have been approved by the American Bar Association. Graduation from an American Bar Association program is not required by most employers; however, it can improve employment opportunities. The admission requirements of such training programs usually vary. In some schools students are required to have certain courses or even a bachelor’s degree. Other schools will accept applicants as long as they have a high school diploma or some legal experience.
Training programs typically include courses in the legal applications of computers and legal research. Most training programs will also offer an internship, which allows students to gain hands-on experience.
Legal Assistant Salary and Wages
The wages of legal assistants can vary significantly. Salaries often depend on training, education, experience and the size and type of employer. Geographic location can also play a role in earnings. Legal assistants who are employed by large legal firms or who work in larger metropolitan areas will typically earn more than those who are employed in less populated areas or who work for smaller firms. In 2008 the average salary for legal assistants was $46,120. Those employed by the Federal executive branch of government will typically earn higher salaries. Legal assistants may also be able to receive bonuses to compensate for working long hours.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Legal Assistant Certifications
Most employers do not require certifications; however, certification from a national paralegal organization can offer increased employment opportunities. Standards for certification have been established by the National Association of Legal Assistants regarding combinations for experience and education. Candidates who meet the standards are eligible to take a two day examination. Individuals who pass this exam may then use the Certified legal Assistant or Certified Paralegal credential. The certification lasts for five years. 50 hours of continuing education is required to obtain recertification.
Legal Assistant Professional Associations
Professional associations for legal assistants include:
- National Association of Legal Assistants
- American Alliance of Paralegals
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations