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‘Paralegal’ or ‘Legal Assistant’ – What's in a Name?

published September 23, 2015

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Summary: What is the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal? Find out what the differences are in this article.

Do you know the difference between a paralegal or a legal assistant?



I used to feel comfortable using the term "paralegal" and "legal assistant" interchangeably, but not so anymore. That is because the term "legal assistant" has been expanded to include any member of the legal team, thereby blurring the important differences between paralegals and others.

Click here to find paralegal jobs on LawCrossing.

In 1968, the American Bar Association endorsed the term "legal assistant," and did a lot to encourage and educate attorneys on legal assistant utilization. At that time, emphasis was placed on delegating routine tasks to the legal assistant in order to free up time for the lawyers to practice "smarter" law.

Over the next three decades, the word, "paralegal" was conspicuously absent in all ABA publications. Beginning in 1997, however, the ABA began to use "legal assistant" and "paralegal" interchangeably.

Instead of feeling grateful that the term "paralegal" has made it back into the lexicon, I am growing more skeptical. In fact, I fear that more harm than good may come of it. Why?

An experienced paralegal is no longer performing just routine legal tasks, but is in fact practicing as a valued specialist in a particular area of law. We are not just dealing with semantics. The increasing ambiguity goes to the heart of paralegal identity and why seasoned paralegal professionals should be concerned. I see education, experience and professional responsibility becoming the significant difference between the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" in the future.

Click here to find legal assistant jobs on LawCrossing.

As a paralegal consultant and recruiter, I have seen the real-word effect of this change in terminology. I regularly see resumes of legal assistants who are applying for paralegal opportunities. Upon initial interview, however, I assess that they are performing legal secretarial functions or clerical and administrative duties.

Evidently, the term "secretary" is losing favor among members of the legal team. Identifying secretaries as "legal assistants" makes them feel like a more meaningful part of the legal team and encourages professional growth.

Click here to find legal secretary jobs on LawCrossing.

While I have no problem with this, the practice as it currently exists comes with consequences. It promotes confusion among members of the paralegal profession, upsets traditional communication between law firms and puts unaware, naive clients at a disadvantage.
 
The Role of the ABA

Part of the blame lies with the ABA for setting low standards for entrance into the para-profession.

For over 30 years now, the ABA has continued to recommend that a satisfactory legal assistant education shall consist of only two years of general college courses inclusive of a 270-hour legal specialty curriculum. No formal degree is required and students coming out of these programs with just an associate's degree are in fact only prepared to obtain a "legal assistant-legal secretary" position.

Perhaps that was sufficient preparation for performing routine tasks in the past, but with the complexity of law and technology today, I believe it is time to raise the bar.

At a minimum, the ABA should recommend that paralegals have a bachelor's degree. Beyond that, paralegal training should be at the post-graduate level for persons who have the aptitude to complete law school, but choose a paralegal career instead.
 
How the Legal Profession Can Help Eliminate Confusion

In the meantime, there are a number of steps that law firms can take to distinguish paralegals from other legal support staff:
 
  • Identify the non-lawyer staff performing substantive legal work as "paralegals" rather than "legal assistants."
  • Classify a bundle of paralegal skills in your legal practice for such a purpose.
  • Recruit four-year college graduates who are bright enough to be law school bound but are choosing, instead, to be career paralegals.
  • Make a commitment to train this person on the job by appointing a one-on-one mentor.
  • Encourage attendance by paralegals at CLE programs specific to procedure and practice which are typically offered to "new lawyers."
 
Preserving Legitimacy

It never ceases to amaze me that the legal profession, which is so fixated on credentials, i.e., alma mater and class standing, leaves the credentialing of paralegals to fate.

The hiring standards for the paralegal profession are at the mercy of each firm's recruiting policies and practices. I agree with the good wisdom of some, which hire four-year college graduates, with or without a certificate in legal assisting.

Today's economy has caused an even more competitive environment for legal team wannabees. Many law school graduates who cannot find associate positions are seeking either permanent or temporary paralegal employment. At the same time, certificate programs are churning out graduates, some with four-year degrees, some not, leaving no consistency for employers to depend on.

I would hate for the legal para-profession to become a blur over distinctions between "legal assistants" and "paralegals." I am committed to enhancing the definition of "paralegal" and expanding the role of the paralegal.

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