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What Essentially a Legal Assistant Does

published February 16, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
Published By
( 367 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
Legal assistants usually work long hours as do attorneys, meticulously research and draft pleadings and other documents, handle client inquiries, and are intimately familiar with all aspects of an attorney's caseload. Legal assistants may be referred to as paralegals or legal assistants, depending on their geographical location or employer's preference.
What Essentially a Legal Assistant Does

Legal assistants differ from legal secretaries in their substantive knowledge of the law. After acquiring the requisite training on the job or education at a junior college or vocational school, you can become a paralegal or legal assistant. With five years experience, a legal assistant can make more money than many new attorneys and draft all the same documents that attorneys do.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) defines a paralegal as follows:
  • Person qualified through education, training or work experience, to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, per formed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency, or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work.

Did you take the time to review each word in that definition and its meaning to gain a true insight into what a legal assistant does? If you want to be a legal assistant, you must be able to exercise the time and patience required to understand definitions, legal statutes, and case law. This understanding can be acquired only through training, patience, and careful attention to detail.

The Right Stuff

Legal assistants are empowered with great responsibility to help the attorneys for whom they work complete paper-intensive legal tasks. They should have a keen eye for detail when reviewing stacks of documents and should be able to organize voluminous records and summarize critical issues and facts by referring to those documents. If you have substantive legal knowledge and the ability to perform competent, thorough, and efficient legal research, you will perform well as a legal assistant. Through the continuous review of case law and statutes, you should remain knowledgeable about the ever-changing nature of the law. Legal analysis requires application of facts to the law in each client’s case or a discussion of what facts make the case an exception to a laws application.

Careful attention to policies, rules, and regulations, and the exact wording contained therein, is a must in the legal profession. You should be able to rebut in writing the arguments made by opposing counsel, and support their arguments. Your written communication skills should be excellent. If you like to read and write and are good at research and writing, you are likely to do well. Practical experience, familiarity with legal terminology, and good investigative skills are all advantages.

You should be able to act as a legal liaison between clients and attorneys. If a client is unable to reach the attorney, he or she will try to contact you first for answers to law-related questions. You should be familiar with the attorneys caseload in order to effectively address client concerns and have the judgment and insight to know when you should not, in order to avoid the unauthorized practice of law. Good legal assistants will not try to outshine the attorneys for whom they work and will try to complement the services the attorney provides. Legal assistants should have excellent interpersonal skills and oral communication skills. Productivity is critical. They should exceed billing requirements even if they have had a leave of absence. They should be well-liked, positive people, satisfied with their positions, and confident in their abilities.

Successful legal assistants pay close attention to the quality of their work product, even if they are under a deadline. Your work as a legal assistant should be the best it can be with no grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors and you should be consistently on time.

Annetta Smith, legal assistant, notes that attorneys currently bear the brunt of discipline and responsibility for a legal assistant's work. Attorneys should advise legal assistants of the attorneys’ ethical obligations to which their employees are bound. A successful legal assistant will know what the attorneys’ code of professional responsibility requires and abide by it.

What Legal Assistants Do

Before you learn what people in your prospective profession actually do, you should know the many laws regarding what legal assistants cannot do. Because legal assistants perform so many of the same tasks as attorneys, strict regulations and laws govern their actions. These are increasing. State law and bar associations are committed to preventing the unauthorized practice of law, and many cases and statutes interpret exactly what the unauthorized practice of law is.

Generally, laws preclude legal assistants from giving legal advice, having personal conferences with clients, advertising professional guidance, or advising clients about proper testimony. In addition, legal assistants may not, generally, do the following:
  1. define concepts and legal terms of art to clients
  2. render advice peculiar to a clients situation
  3. use their judgment to determine which client questions to answer themselves and which to refer to the attorney
  4. sign retention letters
  5. add language not dictated by a client or attorney
  6. provide others with documents prepared by an attorney or otherwise published to assist the person in representing himself or herself in a contested matter

Legal assistants are confronted daily with requests to commit the un authorized practice of law from clients, telephone inquiries, and sometimes even unknowing attorneys. It is the attorneys responsibility to supervise all the legal assistant's work to prevent the unauthorized practice of law. An attor ney may delegate tasks to legal assistants, as long as they maintain direct rela tionships with their clients and remain responsible for the work product. Legal assistants should be familiar with their local and state laws regarding what they can and cannot do in order to avoid the unauthorized practice of law.

Legal assistants perform a multitude of functions depending on their employer's preference. These functions may encompass exclusively attorney-related tasks such as drafting pleadings, or they may include other tasks commonly handled by secretarial or other personnel. Docketing and scheduling are very important tasks for legal assistants that require careful attention to detail and knowledge of the legal rules regarding response times. After all, failure to correctly docket deadlines and schedule meetings could result in a legal malpractice suit.


Generally, legal assistants exclusively help attorneys complete all document-related legal tasks. They perform preparatory work to uncover all facts of a case, and they research relevant law. A significant portion of most legal assistants' work involves drafting documents for litigation and memorandum opinions. When they prepare legal memorandum opinions they are assisting attorneys with strategy decisions. The opinion they draft could have to do with any area of the law and may be utilized in future pleadings or client correspondence. Legal assistants, who do not work in a litigation department, may draft other types of legal documents depending on their firm s practice. Other types of documents may include contracts, mortgages, trusts, wills, abstracts, separation agreements, corporate minutes, and articles of incorporation.


The most commonly prepared documents are pleadings for filing with a court clerk. What legal assistants draft will largely depend upon whether the firm or organization represents the plaintiff or defendant in a case or must file a motion or oppose one. Documents for litigation may be based on a firm’s standard forms or created from scratch. Usually, the first pleading drafted for a plaintiff is the petition or complaint. In order to draft an effective petition, legal assistants should determine with the help of their supervising attorney whether the pleading is one that is likely to be subject to a motion to dismiss or is particularly complicated in any regard. If it is, then great detail and time should be invested in the drafting of the petition to avoid the unnecessary expenditure of time required to respond to a motion to dismiss. Legal assistants will need to use all preliminary fact gathering and research to draft such a petition. Other petitions may simply involve the completion of a standardized or sample petition with a new case style and other facts inserted where appropriate.


Once this stage is complete, discovery commences. Written discovery entails the formulation and answering of interrogatories, which are a series of questions that a legal assistant may answer with an attorney and client's assistance. Written discovery also involves the preparation and responses to requests for production that simply require that all evidence or other documents regarding the claims or defenses in litigation be produced. Legal assistants may also need to formulate or answer requests for admission that require a party to admit or deny that certain facts are true. If any interrogatories, requests for production, or requests for admission are not answered, then the litigants must generally prepare correspondence to resolve the issues in good faith. If the parties cannot resolve any written discovery disputes, then motions to compel or subpoenas must be issued.

Exhibits and Witnesses for Deposition and Trial

A legal assistant must identify likely exhibits and witnesses for deposition and trial. The supervising attorney will choose who he or she wants to depose on the opposing party’s side. Once depositions are complete, the legal assistant will prepare deposition summaries and perform any follow-up written discovery requests needed.

Motions for Summary Judgment

Any party to litigation may file a motion for summary judgment based on the evidence. Such a motion simply requests that the court rule in a party’s favor without trial because under no set of facts could a party’s claims or defenses be proven to be true and entitle them to judgment. A motion for summary judgment is generally the most comprehensive brief that addresses the law and all facts of a case. Discovery efforts are often directed at overcoming the summary judgment obstacle before trial.

Every jurisdiction has different requirements for the filing and timing of legal documents. This is meant to be only a general guideline and is not indicative of the law in a particular area.

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published February 16, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 367 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.