Legal secretary vs. paralegal: What’s the difference?

Legal Secretary Vs Paralegal Whats The Difference
Find out the key differences between a legal secretary and a paralegal and what the primary responsibilities are of both.

When it comes to a legal secretary vs. a paralegal, it’s crucial to know where responsibilities for each lie in a firm’s daily working processes.

A typical legal team comprises 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 whom, 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.

In this article, we will be taking a look at legal secretaries vs. paralegals, comparing the two positions, and the key differences in responsibilities for both.

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.

Paralegals have a wide range of responsibilities within the legal field. Their tasks can vary depending on the specific practice area, the size of the law firm or legal department, and the jurisdiction in which they work.

When compared with a legal secretary, a paralegal will usually be expected to perform:

  1. Legal research: Paralegals assist attorneys by conducting legal research on cases, statutes, regulations, and legal precedents. They gather relevant information and analyze it to support legal arguments and case strategies.
  2. Drafting legal documents: Paralegals help prepare a variety of legal documents, including pleadings, motions, contracts, briefs, and deposition summaries. They ensure that these documents are accurate, properly formatted, and meet the necessary legal requirements.
  3. Case management: Paralegals play a crucial role in managing and organizing case files. They maintain calendars, track deadlines, and assist with document management, including indexing, organizing, and summarizing legal documents and evidence.
  4. Client communication: Paralegals often have direct contact with clients. They may interview clients to gather information, provide updates on case progress, and answer routine inquiries. Paralegals may also assist in preparing clients for depositions, meetings, or trials.
  5. Trial preparation: Paralegals support attorneys in preparing for trials. They help gather evidence, prepare trial exhibits, and coordinate witness interviews. Paralegals may also assist with developing trial strategies, organizing trial notebooks, and drafting trial-related documents.
  6. Legal administrative tasks: Paralegals handle administrative tasks related to legal matters, such as maintaining legal databases, managing billing and invoices, and preparing expense reports. They may also assist with scheduling meetings, arranging travel, and maintaining attorney calendars.

Paralegals work under the supervision of attorneys and provide essential support to ensure the efficient functioning of legal cases.

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 attorneys. 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.

Paralegal salary

The average annual salary for a paralegal in California stands at $55,000; approximately $26.24 per hour or $4,549 per month.

Salaries range from $32,568 to $87,835, with most paralegal salaries falling between $47,400 (25th percentile) and $67,600 (75th percentile). Top earners (90th percentile) in California make $78,952 annually.

The broad pay range for paralegals, varying up to $20,200, indicates numerous opportunities for advancement and increased compensation based on factors like skill level, location, and experience.

Nationally, California ranks 27th out of 50 states for paralegal salaries.

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.

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 more effectively 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.

Responsibilities of a legal secretary

As we’ve mentioned, legal secretaries provide valuable administrative support within law offices or legal departments.

The responsibilities of a legal secretary vs. a paralegal will typically boil down to the following:

  1. Managing communications: Legal secretaries handle incoming and outgoing communications for attorneys and legal staff. They answer phone calls, take messages, and respond to general inquiries. They also manage email correspondence, draft routine letters, and distribute memos within the office.
  2. Document preparation and management: Legal secretaries assist in the preparation and formatting of various legal documents, such as contracts, briefs, pleadings, and agreements. They proofread and edit documents for accuracy, grammar, and formatting consistency. Additionally, they maintain document filing systems, both electronically and physically, to ensure easy retrieval and organization.
  3. Scheduling and calendar management: Legal secretaries manage attorneys’ calendars and schedules, including coordinating meetings, depositions, court appearances, and other appointments. They may arrange travel accommodations and maintain itineraries for attorneys who need to attend out-of-office events.
  4. Client interaction and support: Legal secretaries often interact with clients and provide support by answering basic inquiries, scheduling appointments, and relaying messages between clients and attorneys. They may also assist with client intake and maintaining client files, ensuring that all necessary information and documentation are accurately recorded and stored.
  5. Billing and financial administration: Legal secretaries assist in preparing invoices, tracking billable hours, and maintaining billing records. They may collaborate with accounting departments to ensure accurate and timely billing to clients. Additionally, they may handle expense reports, reimbursements, and petty cash management.
  6. Administrative tasks: Legal secretaries handle various administrative duties, including photocopying, scanning, and faxing documents. They order office supplies, maintain office equipment, and ensure the office environment is organized and professional. They may also assist with preparing and coordinating materials for meetings, conferences, or presentations.

It’s important to note that the specific responsibilities of a legal secretary may vary depending on the size and type of the law firm or legal department.

Legal secretaries play a vital role in facilitating smooth operations within the office and supporting attorneys and other legal professionals in their work.

Legal secretary salary

How much does a legal secretary make? As of February, 2024, the average yearly compensation for a legal secretary in California is about $49,000. This translates to roughly $23.53 per hour, $941 per week, or $4,078 per month.

The majority of legal secretary salaries fall between $43,400 (25th percentile) and $59,200 (75th percentile), with top earners (90th percentile) earning $75,004 annually in California.

The significant range in legal secretary salaries, varying up to $15,800, suggests numerous opportunities for advancement and increased pay based on factors such as skill level, location, and years of experience.

According to recent job postings on ZipRecruiter, the legal secretary job market in California appears relatively inactive, with few companies currently seeking candidates.

California ranks 25th out of 50 states nationwide in terms of legal secretary salaries.

How to become a legal secretary

To become a legal secretary, consider earning an associate’s degree or certificate in legal studies.

Develop strong organizational, communication, and computer skills through relevant coursework and practical experience in law firms or legal departments; familiarize yourself with legal terminology and procedures to effectively support legal professionals.

While not mandatory, obtaining certification through organizations like the National Association of Legal Secretaries can demonstrate proficiency and commitment.

Finally, consider networking within the legal community by attending events and joining professional associations where positions are commonly advertised.


Regarding a legal secretary vs. a paralegal; both are essential roles within the legal field, but they have distinct responsibilities and qualifications.

Paralegals, also known as legal assistants, have more substantive legal responsibilities. They work closely with attorneys and provide support in various legal tasks.

Legal secretaries, however, primarily focus on administrative tasks within a law office. Their collaboration helps attorneys and legal professionals to focus on their legal work and serve clients and operations effectively.

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