How is the role of legal support staff changing?

In the past, the duties of those who worked in the legal industry were pretty clearly defined. The lawyers represented the clients, the paralegals (sometimes known as legal assistants) assisted the lawyers with their cases, and the legal secretaries answered the phone and did clerical work.

But thanks to the advent of technology, the role of legal support staff is in an almost constant state of flux, with job responsibilities that often overlap and have changed significantly in the last decade or two.

Past expectations of legal support staff

Historically, the job titles “legal assistant” and “paralegal” were used interchangeably to refer to non-lawyer legal staff members who completed education and training that enabled them to perform substantive legal duties (under the supervision of a licensed attorney) that were billable to the client. These responsibilities commonly included:

  • Researching the law by searching through volumes of books in a law library
  • Logging countless hours at the copy machine, duplicating documents in response to discovery requests
  • Managing cases by maintaining paper files filled with documents for each

A legal secretary was traditionally described as a legal support staff member who was mainly responsible for clerical and administration duties, including word processing, dictation, distributing the mail, and answering the telephone. The work performed by legal secretaries was not considered substantive and consequently was not billable to the client.

Fast-forward: how technology is now impacting legal support staff

Although the terms legal assistant and paralegal are still often used interchangeably, the job descriptions for these professionals have changed dramatically. These days, when a legal assistant performs legal research, he or she does so online, utilizing paid services such as Westlaw and Lexis as well as various Internet resources.

Today’s paralegals routinely manage the discovery process, no longer stuffing sheets of paper and spreadsheets into banker boxes, but instead using computer technology, digital scanners, and document management software to store information in electronic format.

Legal assistants now work in tandem with information technology personnel to assist in managing the discovery process, and must be familiar with not only document management software, but also state and federal electronic discovery (e-discovery) rules, and are often asked to work in conjunction with litigation support vendors as well.

Instead of file folders, binders, and accordion files, most legal assistants now manage cases electronically with practice management software that can:

  • Track time
  • Assemble documents
  • Manage contact information
  • Calculate calendar dates
  • Store information about phone calls, emails, and other correspondence
  • Schedule appointments and meetings
  • Create and manage to-do lists
  • Check for conflicts and
  • Keep track of statute of limitations

Technology has transformed the traditional paralegal role into that of the ultimate multi-tasker: a staff member who not only needs to have substantive legal knowledge and top-notch organizational and customer service skills, but who can also function as a legal technology specialist.

Computers, smartphones, tablets, and voice recognition software have replaced the typewriters and dictation equipment of old. More attorneys are drafting their own correspondence and using email rather than having their secretaries transcribe and type letters to be sent through regular mail. Clients are starting to prefer digital documents to a mound of paperwork, and courts themselves are beginning to make eFiling and eServing a priority. All of this has been leading and will continue to lead to a decrease in strictly clerical duties, creating a major change in the role of the legal secretary.

In the interest of cutting costs and downsizing, some law firms are trending towards eliminating legal secretary positions. Those that remain are now supporting multiple attorneys instead of just one or two, as they once did. Some firms have given them a new title – legal assistant – so that they can bill for certain tasks that they perform. Others are creating secretarial teams staffed with legal secretaries who do a variety of work and are not assigned to one particular set of attorneys.

Staying current and moving forward

It’s not just legal organizations that are experiencing changes in technology. Within the grander judiciary structure, technology is finally playing a larger role, too. As more and more courts add eFiling and other digital services to the optional and eventually mandatory practices, legal technology will become not just cutting edge, but an integral part of the industry.

So, what’s next for legal support staff, and how can they keep their jobs and remain relevant in today’s legal environment? To keep up with both internal and external changes, legal professionals must fully embrace technology, be willing to adapt to change, and show a desire for continuing their education and professional development through valuable training opportunities.

If we know one thing for sure, it’s that the role of legal support staff will continue to change as technology evolves, and there will likely be more and more innovations to challenge and transform the way the profession works.

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Do you have insight into the future of legal support staff? Tell us about your experiences and thoughts in the comments!

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