The duties of a legal assistant, also called a paralegal, have changed dramatically in the last twenty years. A career as a legal assistant has transformed from a secretarial position to one of great trust and a heavy obligation to complete complex legal tasks accurately under, sometimes, stressful circumstances.
Law firms employ approximately 70 percent of legal assistants and paralegals, with the remaining 30 percent working for corporations or government agencies.
There are numerous areas of law, including:
As technology advances, other areas of law are likely to emerge.
Most legal assistants and paralegals are specialized. For instance, a legal assistant’s job description may concentrate solely on Civil Litigation. He or she needs expertise in this area of law to provide an attorney with skilled assistance.
Small to medium sized law firms likely require a more generalized skill set, while large firms seek legal assistants with specific abilities.
A legal assistant or paralegal must be proficient in:
The job description for a legal assistant or paralegal highlights the necessity for the above capabilities.
A legal case, from commencement to conclusion, involves diverse tasks for the legal assistant or paralegal. He or she performs several duties that were once the exclusive domain of an attorney, but are now delegated to the legal assistant.
The primary obligation of a legal assistant or paralegal to a barrister attorney (an attorney who primarily handles lawsuits) is to assist with investigation, document preparation (briefs, pleadings and appeals), negotiations, settlement or hearing of a case. Most legal cases are settled prior to a court hearing; however, some lawsuits do proceed to trial.
The legal assistant or paralegal who works with a solicitor attorney (an attorney who deals exclusively with non-lawsuit files, such as contracts, wills, real estate closings, etc.), is involved in research, document preparation (wills, contracts, probate applications, property conveyances), client interviews and interaction with other professionals.
A legal assistant and paralegal must have in-depth knowledge of pertinent law. Research capabilities are paramount, as is the ability to distinguish information relevant to the issue at hand.
Oftentimes, a legal assistant or paralegal may be requested to draft reports and summarize proceedings. He or she must utilize critical thinking to emphasize both positive and negative aspects of the case.
Accuracy and attention to detail are vital. A case can be lost based on an inaccuracy in documents or failure to file a particular document within the specific time limit.
The legal assistant monitors numerous files simultaneously and ensures the files are up to date via a diary system. Computer competency is crucial to all aspects of a legal assistant’s job.
A career as a legal assistant or paralegal is challenging within a high pressure environment, yet intensely rewarding.