Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal: 5 Key Differences [2021 Guide]

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If you’re wanting to participate in the busy work of law firms or legal departments, you may have questioned the difference between a legal secretary vs. paralegal.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal

While both function in the legal world, there are important differences between paralegal and litigation secretary positions.

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These differences may impact the education you choose to pursue, the salary levels available to you, and the type of work you get to perform.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal

paralegal vs legal secretaries

The roles that paralegals and legal secretaries play in the legal field have very important differences.

A paralegal position is focused on supporting lawyers with substantive legal work, and a legal secretary position operates as a legal admin job, performing more clerical and administrative work.

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The work of a paralegal is more closely associated with the work of a lawyer or other legal professionals. Legal secretaries, on the other hand, tend to have more in common with other administrative positions, such as secretaries or administrative assistants.

What Is a Legal Secretary?

Legal secretaries

Legal secretaries are clerical and administrative staff specifically trained to handle projects, tasks, and issues in professional legal settings, such as law firms or government legal departments.

Work performed by legal secretaries may have similarities to other administrative support positions. Their tasks can include answering telephones and emails, scheduling appointments and meetings, and managing incoming and outgoing mail.

Responsibilities that are specific to a legal administrative assistant require an understanding of legal terminology. For instance, they can prepare legal documents, such as summonses and subpoenas, and assist with legal research.

The average annual salary for legal secretaries and administrative assistants, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $48,980 per year.

Legal Secretary Educational Requirements

Legal Secretary Educational Requirements

A high school diploma is a common entry-level requirement for many secretarial positions, but a legal secretary certificate is often required in order to secure positions as a legal secretary.

Course topics in legal secretaries training may include:

  • Legal terminology
  • Legal transcription
  • Introduction to legal technology
  • Law office management

In some cases, legal secretary certificate programs can be completed in as little as 6 months.

What Is a Paralegal?

What Is a Paralegal

Paralegals and legal assistants directly support lawyers in the execution and performance of substantive legal work. When it comes to comparing a paralegal vs. legal assistant, a paralegal’s duties are often more specialized.

Paralegals may investigate the facts of a case, perform research on laws and regulations that impact a case, and write summary reports to help lawyers prepare for trial, among other duties.

Additional tasks can include managing paper and digital filing systems, drafting legal documents, and preparing exhibits, briefs, and appeals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for paralegals and legal assistants is $52,920 per year.

Paralegal Educational Requirements

Paralegal Educational Requirements

For paralegal positions, the minimum educational requirement is often an associate’s degree. Some employers, though, may prefer job candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree in any field along with a paralegal professional certificate.

Course topics in a paralegal studies associate degree program may include:

  • Introduction to law
  • Legal research and writing
  • Litigation: evidence, discovery, trial, and appeal
  • Legal computer applications
  • Family law practice
  • Real estate practice

Typically, paralegal associate degree programs take 2 years to complete. But some colleges offer accelerated paralegal degrees that may help you complete your program more quickly.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Certifications

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Certifications

In order to become a legal secretary, it can be helpful to complete a legal secretary certificate program that teaches the skills and terminology required to be successful in the field.

Legal secretary professionals may then choose to pursue professional certification, such as the Professional Legal Secretary designation through NALS, the association for legal professionals. A professional certification can verify your skill set to employers.

Paralegals, on the other hand, are required to hold at least an associates degree in paralegal studies.

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In some cases, employers prefer hiring paralegals who hold a bachelors. You may have a bachelors in any subject and then earn a certificate program in paralegal studies. A certificate program can allow you to gain the legal-specific knowledge and skills required in the profession.

It is not a mandatory requirement for paralegals to become certified with a regulatory body, but obtaining professional certification may help improve your employability and job earnings.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Roles and Responsibilities

There are important differences between the roles and responsibilities of paralegals and legal secretaries.

Legal Secretary Paralegal
  • Clerical and administrative focus
  • Handles basic office tasks, such as managing incoming calls and office visitors
  • Requires understanding of basic legal terminology
  • Assists lawyers and paralegals with basic clerical tasks
  • Legal focus
  • Participates in substantive legal work, such as legal research and drafting documents
  • Requires understanding of legal terminology, legal procedures, and laws
  • Assists lawyers with legal work

Paralegals can assist lawyers with legal work, including preparing documents for court, obtaining affidavits, and reviewing court case transcripts. In comparison, legal secretaries can assist both paralegals and lawyers with administrative tasks, such as organizing client meetings, scheduling travel, and scheduling court dates and depositions.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Careers

When it comes to legal secretary and paralegal careers, there are key differences in terms of the average annual earnings and job growth predictions expected for each position.

Legal Secretary Careers

Legal Secretary Careers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for legal secretaries and administrative assistants is $48,980 per year.

This is higher than the average earnings for all administrative assistant roles, which sits at $40,990 per year. Additionally, those in executive secretary and executive administrative assistant roles tend to earn more, bringing in an average of $63,110 per year.

New technology has decreased the demand for legal secretaries, but there are still job opportunities, especially for those who can navigate office software.

Paralegal Careers

Paralegal Careers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for paralegals and legal assistants is $52,920 per year. The annual earnings vary greatly depending on the industry where work is performed.

For example, paralegals employed for the federal government earn an average salary of $69,490 per year while those working for the state government earn less at an average of $48,070 per year.

As a career, the profession of paralegal is predicted to experience 10% job growth over the next several years, which is well above the average for all occupations.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Skills

Both legal secretaries and paralegals are required to possess a variety of skills in order to appropriately support their employer and complete their work-related responsibilities.

Legal Secretary Paralegal
  • Effective computer skills
  • Familiar with basic legal terminology
  • Keen organizational skills
  • Advanced interpersonal skills to work with clients and other law firms
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Effective research skills
  • In-depth understanding of legal terminology, laws, and legal processes
  • Skilled at information management
  • Ability to use various computer software to perform work
  • Ability to write clear and concise documents

In many cases, soft skills—such as working under pressure, organizational skills, and decision-making capacity—are relevant to both paralegal and legal secretary roles.

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Case Preparation and Client Contact

Legal Secretary vs. Paralegal Case Preparation

Although both legal secretaries and paralegals play an important part in case preparation and client contact, they have distinct roles. Legal secretaries are often responsible for organizing files that are needed for court and for scheduling the court dates on behalf of lawyers and paralegals.

Paralegals, on the other hand, have a much more involved role in case preparation, such as performing in-depth, case-based research. They may also interview witnesses or clients in relation to a particular case.

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The interaction between a legal secretary and client is confined to a more administrative and clerical function, such as scheduling meetings between the client and a paralegal or lawyer.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

Paralegals support lawyers and attorneys in the execution of legal work. As part of their role, they can perform research on specific cases, gather information on relevant laws and legal decisions to support a case, and provide case summaries to help attorneys prepare for court.

Paralegals can also manage digital or paper-based filing systems, help attorneys during the trial with exhibit documents or transcription review, and draft various legal documents. Paralegals may have the opportunity to specialize in certain areas of law, such as family, criminal, employment, bankruptcy, or real estate law.

What Does a Legal Secretary Do?

Legal secretaries careers

Legal secretaries help manage the day-to-day administrative and clerical functions of a law office or legal department.

This can include standard administrative responsibilities, such as welcoming visitors, responding to telephone calls or emails, scheduling meetings, and drafting general business correspondence.

Other functions that are more specific to legal secretaries include drafting legal documents, scheduling court dates, and assisting paralegals or attorneys with legal research.

Is a Paralegal a Legal Professional?

Legal Professional

Yes, a paralegal is a legal professional who plays an integral role in the operation of a law office or legal department.

Paralegals support attorneys and lawyers in the execution of substantive legal work. This may include completing legal work on behalf of and under the supervision of a lawyer. While paralegals are not mandated to obtain a professional certificate designation, they are  considered to be legal professionals.

Can a Paralegal Give Legal Advice?

Paralegals and legal professionals

Paralegals are considered legal professionals, but they are not permitted to give legal advice directly to a client.

Working under the supervision of a lawyer, paralegals can help with case preparation. They may conduct research, manage files and documents relating to a case, and provide lawyers with case summaries to help them prepare for court.

While paralegals can help in the legal process in a number of ways, providing legal advice is a function that is reserved for licensed attorneys.

What Can a Paralegal Do Without an Attorney?

Paralegals legal advice

Paralegals are not permitted to give legal advice to clients, take on cases independently, or act as a representative in court. But, there are a number of other key legal functions they are allowed to perform.

Paralegals are able to execute a variety of functions in a law firm or legal department that help reduce the workload of licensed attorneys. Their duties often include performing research on laws, legal decisions, and regulations relating to a case. They may also prepare legal documents and interview witnesses and clients.

Is Legal Secretary a Good Career?

Yes, a legal secretary is a good career for many professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, secretary and administrative assistant positions pay a median salary of $40,990 per year. Legal secretary and administrative assistant positions specifically earn more, with an average income of $48,980 per year.

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As a legal secretary, you may have the opportunity to work in various industries, including professional and scientific services, government, educational services, and healthcare. With an administrative background, you may find flexibility in your career and the ability to transition between different types of administrative roles.

Do Paralegals Make More Money Than Legal Secretaries?

On average, paralegals may earn more than legal secretaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for paralegals and legal assistants is $52,920 per year, with top salaries reaching $85,160.

Legal secretaries and administrative assistants, on the other hand, earn a median salary of $48,980 per year, with top salaries reaching $82,270 per year. Different factors, including years of experience, industry, employer, and level of education can all impact annual earnings for both professions.

Paralegal vs. Legal Secretary – Which Is Right for You?

Paralegal vs. Legal Secretary Careers

Just as when deciding between legal assistant vs. legal secretary career paths, if you’re deciding between a career as a paralegal vs. legal secretary, there are a number of factors to consider. These factors can include the type of work you’d like to perform, your skill set, and the earnings you’re wanting from a career.

Completing legal secretarial training and obtaining a legal secretaries certificate may take less time and come with less cost than becoming a paralegal. On the other hand, the earnings and job growth associated with the profession of paralegal are generally higher than those of a legal secretary.

If you’re ready to start training for the legal field, you can explore legal secretary or paralegal training programs from accredited institutions to find the one that best suits your career goals and skills.

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Brenda Pyzik
WRITTEN BY
Brenda Pyzik
Brenda has a bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Waterloo, with a minor in legal studies. She obtained a graduate certificate in human resource management from Georgian College. Brenda focuses on employment, business, and training and development.