Clerical or legal? The difference between paralegals and legal secretaries

A typical legal team is made up of a variety of individuals who fill a number of roles, including lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants, legal secretaries, and other staff members. The attorneys have the ultimate responsibility for the cases handled, and the rest of the team members typically have a wide range of duties, depending upon the law firm, area of law, skills, and other considerations.

The most successful law firms work within a clear outline of what needs to be done and when, who is assisting who, and who is qualified to do what. Knowing what paralegals and legal secretaries can and cannot do is vital to the efficiency, compliance, and overall success of any firm.

A paralegal’s responsibilities

According to NALA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility, paralegals are qualified to perform a variety of legal duties under the supervision of a licensed attorney. These include conducting legal research, interacting with clients, drafting legal documents, helping to prepare cases for trial, and more.

These substantive legal tasks require knowledge of legal concepts and procedural law, and are billable to the client, which is important for several reasons:

  • Paralegals who perform substantive legal duties essentially “pay for themselves,” since this time can be billed to the client.
  • A paralegal’s billable rate is typically lower than that of any attorney, making legal services more affordable.
  • A lawyer is able to delegate certain duties to a paralegal, freeing up their time for more complex tasks.

There are also guidelines regarding what duties paralegals are not allowed to perform, which may constitute the unauthorized practice of law.

Here’s an overview of what paralegals aren’t allowed to do:

  • Establish an attorney/client relationship. Although they can screen potential clients and gather information regarding a case, only attorneys can decide whether or not to accept a particular case.
  • Set legal fees. But they can prepare the retainer agreement according to the specifications of their supervising attorney.
  • Represent clients in court. Appearing in court on someone else’s behalf requires the use of an attorney’s judgment and skills.
  • Give legal advice or direct a client regarding how they should proceed in a legal matter. Any communication must be carefully couched as coming from the attorney or simple sharing of facts.
  • Act as an attorney and make unsupervised legal decisions.

Despite being unable to engage in all the same behavior, paralegals are held to the same rules of professional conduct as an attorney. Failure to do so could result in their supervising attorney being sanctioned, disciplined, suspended, or even disbarred.

Paralegals are prohibited from sharing anything learned through the representation of a client with anyone outside the representation. If a paralegal gleans information from the representation of a client, it must be kept confidential.

What about legal secretaries?

Although the terms legal secretary, legal assistant, and paralegal are sometimes used interchangeably, the jobs are distinctly different. Some people think that legal assistants and legal secretaries are one and the same, but in reality, a legal assistant is just another name for a paralegal, according to the American Bar Association (ABA).

Legal secretaries are extremely valuable members of the legal team, but what they can do varies from the type of work that a paralegal is qualified to perform. A legal secretary is an administrative assistant with legal training, but their work is not of a substantive legal nature.

In an interview with during our 2018 virtual conference, former legal secretary and current paralegal Shara Bajurin summed it up nicely: “Paralegals do what an attorney can do; legal secretaries do what an attorney can’t do.” Project management, office administration, clerical work, and more are often the responsibilities of a legal secretary—and everything in between. A key difference is that a client cannot be billed for the time of a legal secretary, or for time spent in administrative tasks, rather than specific legal work.

Legal secretaries have no legal requirement to meet any specific educational or training standards and may or may not have a college degree. They can specialize in certain areas of law and must follow the same client confidentiality requirements as lawyers and paralegals do.

Both paralegals and legal secretaries perform vital functions within a law office. And in many small firms, one person will fulfill both roles. Firms can maximize the power of their legal support staff by better allocating duties according to the skills and capabilities of the members of their team, resulting in a well-rounded firm that can meet the needs of the clients and the office alike.

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Do you know of any other major differences between paralegals and legal secretaries? Activities that they can (and cannot) perform? Tell us about them in the comments!

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About the Author

Jan Hill is a paralegal and a freelance writer who specializes in law and legal technology topics.

4 Comments

  1. Lisa Reply

    In some instances, paralegals may have legal assistants working for them, as legal assistants are sometimes lower on the corporate ladder than paralegals. I always refer to myself as a paralegal.

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