Legal assistants are trained professionals, responsible for assisting lawyers — through a variety of responsibilities — to provide legal services. Although they are not qualified or licensed to provide legal advice, legal assistants do undergo legal training and education which helps them develop expertise of both the legal system at-large as well as procedural law.
The role and responsibilities of legal assistants may cause confusion with the term "paralegal," which seem to share similarities. Ultimately, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Legal Assistants do not recognize a difference between the two terms. Legal assistant or paralegal are often used synonymously and often only vary by geographic location. In short, legal assistants or paralegals are qualified through training, experience and education to handle legal work under the supervision of a lawyer.
What Does a Legal Assistant do?
First, legal assistants may not provide legal advice to clients, serve as a client representative in a courtroom, set legal fees or accept cases from prospective clients. Each of those items are considered to fall under the practice of law and litigation.
However, legal assistants may handle a range of tasks delegated by a supervising attorney or lawyer. Some of those example tasks may include the following, according to the National Association of Legal Assistants:
- Conducting client interviews
- Perform legal research
- Summarize testimonies or legal dispositions
- Draft and prepare legal correspondence or documents
- Attend depositions, hearings or trials with an attorney
- Conduct investigative research
- File legal documents with court clerks
- Organize legal exhibits for trial
Where do Legal Assistants Work?
Legal assistants most commonly work within the larger legal services industry, which represented nearly 18 percent of all legal assistant positions nationally in 2013. Legal services is a diversified industry that spans two major specialty areas of practice: civil law and criminal law. Within civil law, paralegals may work for practices that handle real estate law, labor and employment law, civil negligence, private business organizations and more.
Employment opportunities can be found at both small and corporate law offices, government agencies, individual contracts, nonprofit organizations and more. Some of the major, recognized firms include DLA Piper, Baker & McKenzie, Clifford Chance and more.
Broadly speaking, employment information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals the following were the top employing industries for legal assistants nationally in 2013:
- Legal services: 202,930
- Local government: 15,960
- Feral government including USPS: 13,370
- Federal Executive Branch: 13,310
- State government including schools and hospitals: 10,080
- Finance and insurance companies: 8,430
- Waste management and remediation services: 4,810
Salary and career outlook for legal assistants
More than 270,000 individuals were employed as legal assistants or paralegals in the US in 2013. The national average salary for that group was $51,710, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. However, as education, business sector, location and training may impact earnings, salaries ranged from approximately $29,000 to at least $76,000 for the top 10 percent of earners.
Geographically speaking, the top five paying locations in 2013 included the District of Columbia ($73,040), California ($60,060), Alaska ($60,020), New Jersey ($58,830) and Oregon ($56,760).
Overall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 17 percent job growth at the national level between 2012 and 2022. While the District of Columbia and California top the highest paying list, Tennessee and Washington are project to experience the most employment growth for legal assistants between 2012 and 2022. The top five states with the largest projected career growth during that time include:
- Tennessee: 48.7%
- Washington: 32.6%
- Florida: 32.1%
- Utah: 30.9%
- Colorado: 29.9%
In fact, 29 states are projecting faster-than-national average growth during that decade, meaning graduates of legal assistant programs should have solid job opportunities well into the future.