Legal Assistant Career Profile

A legal assistant, sometimes known as a paralegal, helps lawyers with research, drafts legal documents and prepares documents for meetings, court and delivery to clients. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this career is expected to grow faster than average in the coming years.

Education

A few paralegals are hired by law firms and trained on site. Most legal assistants have either a 2-year associate degree from a recognized institution, or they have an undergraduate degree with a certificate as a legal assistant. It is easier to find another job as a legal assistant if you have a degree from a recognized institution, and law offices do downsize their number of legal assistants or lawyers will retire, so recognized education is probably the best option for long-term job security.

The American Bar Association provides a directory of approved paralegal programs on their website, and over 200 programs are recognized on their directory. College Navigator, a service of the National Center for Education Statistics, lists over 700 legal assisants and paralegal programs nationwide.

There are three different bodies that offer certification to paralegals and legal assistants: the National Association of Legal Assistants, National Federation of Paralegal Associations and the American Alliance of Paralegals. Each one offers courses and examinations at varying levels as well as on-going professional development opportunities.

Job Duties

A legal assistant is responsible for research and preparing draft documents for lawyers to use in meetings, negotiations and court. Though they do not argue legal cases in a courtroom and their documents are usually not the final version presented to a client, a legal assistant's work is instrumental to lawyers and law offices since preparing for legal proceedings can require a great deal of research, usually conducted in legal information databases, and by generating documents.

A legal assistant is expected to be well-organized, detail oriented and able to complete work on time and on task, since all of their work is billable to the client. It is essential that the legal assistant be a good researcher and reader and able to ingest and integrate many types of material into writing for lawyers and their clients. They will also need to keep an accurate record of their research and create organized files, both in print and on the computer, that are easily searchable. The initial work of a legal assistant may provide essential information for a lawyer, or derail a case if their work is less than conscientious.

A legal assistant's work week is usually full-time, 40 hours a week, though they may be asked to work overtime at busy periods. Nationwide, the average hourly wage is $22 an hour.

Different Types of Legal Assistant

There are as many types of legal assistant specialities as there are different types of law: criminal, civil, corporate, health care, international law, immigration, labor law, litigation and environmental law, just to name a few. Though the type of law will vary, many of the basic duties will be the same: searching in legal resources and databases for information, preparing draft documents, submitting organized files and summary documents to the lawyers on staff.

If not employed by a lawyer or with a law firm, legal assistants can find work with non-profits and government agencies that handle legal issues and research. There may also be opportunities for self-employment as the Internet makes it easier for individuals to subscribe to law databases, to research comprehensive legal collections from anywhere in the nation and submit completed documents instantaneously. Law firms and lawyers that are trying to keep staffing costs down may turn to these contractors when necessary or when their work has suddenly increased but they do not wish to acquire additional staff over the long term.