What is a Legal Assistant? Their Roles and Duties Explained

By The MyCase Team

A lawyer’s day-to-day tasks outside of case work, from billing and invoicing to managing payments,  are often time-consuming. As a result, many law firms seek out legal assistants to keep everything running smoothly and boost their productivity.

Most successful law firms employ support teams with a mix of paralegals and legal assistants, however, the duties of a legal assistant can vary a great deal depending on who you ask. In this article, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about legal assistants, including:

  • What is a legal assistant 
  • Legal assistant duties
  • How assistants compare to paralegals 
  • What to look for when hiring a legal assistant
  • How technology is making legal assistants more effective  

Regardless of your specific needs, a legal assistant bolstered by the right technology is a vital part of making your law firm more efficient so you can increase your caseload, generate more revenue, and better serve your clients.

What is a Legal Assistant?

The duties of a legal assistant include help with admin and research tasks.

Put simply, a legal assistant works in a supportive role that does various tasks, most often administrative work, on a lawyer’s behalf. The American Bar Association updated the definition of legal assistant in 2020 as:A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

As stated in the ABA’s definition, there is often some overlap between legal assistants and paralegals. Legal assistants with the right qualifications might help an attorney with legal research and writing tasks.

What is the Difference Between a Legal Assistant and a Paralegal?

“Legal assistant” and “paralegal” are sometimes used interchangeably but in practice are not always considered the same. These varying definitions can be confusing when looking to fill a support role. To better understand what’s out there, let’s run down the general types of support roles found at a law office:

Legal Secretary—Mostly Administrative Work

A legal secretary is someone whose primary focus is handling non-legal, administrative tasks for a law firm so lawyers have more time to spend on billable hours. Because they aren’t required to have any education or background in law, they don’t assist a lawyer with specific legal tasks. 

Paralegal—Mostly Legal Work

Unlike a legal secretary, paralegals are typically hired primarily to help with legal tasks instead of the administrative side of the business. Paralegals often help lawyers with more complicated, billable tasks but at a significantly lower cost to the firm than hiring another lawyer. While a paralegal can’t give legal advice to clients or take cases, they can help lawyers with things such as:

  • Doing legal or factual research
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Interviewing clients or witnesses
  • Helping attorneys prepare for trial

Legal Assistant—A Mix of Both

Unlike the more clearly defined roles of a paralegal and legal secretary, a legal assistant’s duties often fall somewhere in between the two. One key difference between a legal assistant and a secretary, however, is that legal assistants are usually expected to have higher education level or more legal experience than a legal secretary. 

On an average employment website, you’ll often find that job descriptions for a legal assistant are not as consistent, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many successful law firms find legal assistants valuable exactly because of that flexibility. 

A legal assistant will often help with administrative tasks while also doing basic legal research, proofreading, and more. However, because the role of a legal assistant is more nebulous, it’s important to understand and clearly communicate your law firm’s unique needs in order to find the right support.

What Level of Education is Required to be a Legal Assistant?

Most law firms will only consider a legal assistant candidate that has at a minimum a bachelor’s degree. In addition, outside of their degree, many people choose to gain skills specific to the job through a paralegal or legal assistant certificate program.

What is the Typical Pay Rate for a Legal Assistant?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage of a legal assistant is around $30 an hour or just over $62,000 annually. However, this can vary based on location, the assistant’s level of expertise, and what duties they’re asked to perform. If a legal assistant’s role is closer to a paralegal than a legal secretary, they typically earn more.

What are a Legal Assistant’s Duties?

Specific duties of a legal assistant include calendaring and scheduling, client service, billing, and general admin.

While we’ve gone over the basic definition of a legal assistant and how it differs from a paralegal, that still leaves the burning question, “what does a legal assistant do?” To give you a better idea of the specifics, here are a few of the common day-to-day duties of a legal assistant: 

Scheduling and Calendar Management

Legal assistants ensure lawyers don’t miss any deadlines and they smooth out the intake process by scheduling meetings, interviews, and other key appointments. Combined with calendaring software, legal assistants also get a unified view of the firm’s entire caseload, which can be invaluable for business planning and goal setting.

Client Communication and Customer Service

Lawyers can get bogged down with substantive work, which makes it easy to neglect customer service and client communication. A legal assistant can make sure that prospects and clients get prompt replies by answering phone calls, replying to emails, or even chatting through a client portal. They can also add a layer of organization and responsiveness by ensuring all communications and documents are up to date.

Accounting and Billing

Having a smooth payments and billing process is key to maintaining positive cash flow and growth. Since many lawyers use software for time tracking, legal assistants can easily prepare accurate invoices faster than ever. They can also help with online payments by checking for invoicing errors, walking clients through the billing and payments process, and promptly resolving any payment issues that arise.

Basic Legal Research and Writing

Legal assistants with the right education or experience may be asked to assist with researching and analyzing case law, statutes, or other legal information on a lawyer’s behalf. Additionally, they can assist with drafting legal briefs, contracts, letters, and other legal documents. 

Administrative and Document Support

Legal assistants often ensure that important documents are properly organized and client records are maintained within the firm’s case management systems. They may also be tasked with gathering evidence or other documents a lawyer needs for a case.

Traits of a Good Legal Assistant

What makes a good legal assistant? It’s a difficult question to answer because it really depends on what your law firm needs. Regardless, there are a few traits that many effective legal assistants share:

  • Strong communication skills: Since a legal assistant will likely handle client communication, their ability to converse well both over the phone and in writing is essential for maintaining your firm’s reputation.
  • Technology and computer skills: As more law firms use case management software or billing software to help with their day-to-day, it’s vital that your legal assistants work effectively within those systems.
  • Organization skills: One of the most valuable things a legal assistant can help with is maintaining client files and other important documents. If their organizational style doesn’t make sense to you or fit within your existing systems, then you’ll struggle to create an efficient document library and find files when you need them.
  • Familiarity with legal practice: Prior knowledge of law or your practice area isn’t essential for every type of legal assistant. However, if you require them to proofread and draft legal documents, at least a basic understanding of legal process and research is a must. Additionally, having some familiarity with the day-to-day of a legal practice can go a long way toward making sure they settle in quickly.

Should Your Firm Hire a Legal Assistant?

While almost every firm needs some help in areas that overlap with a legal assistant’s duties, not every firm needs a full-time legal assistant. Before starting the hiring process for a legal assistant, you should first ask yourself a few key questions:

  • What kind of tasks do we need help with? Communication? Research? 
  • Do we need assistance on a daily basis, or could someone address our needs on a part-time schedule? Would a freelance or virtual assistant work best for us? 
  • Do we need a legal assistant or a paralegal? 
  • How much of the assistant’s work could be helped or fully handled by legal technology?

At the end of the day, hiring a legal assistant is a big business decision, so don’t rush. Take the time to understand your law firm’s strengths and weaknesses, options for assistance, and financial situation.

How Software Assists Today’s Legal Assistants

Modern case and client management software is revolutionizing how law firms run, including the ability to automate many labor-intensive tasks. This has led some people to believe that software can replace the role of a legal assistant entirely.

In truth, legal software is most effective when it supplements the work of a dedicated support team, which can ultimately lead to higher caseloads and more billable hours for the firm. Features supporting case management also ensure legal assistants have greater visibility over every case, allowing them to focus their time in the areas that are most crucial to the firm. 

Regardless of how you use technology, there will always be areas like communication and lead management where a human touch isn’t just preferred, but absolutely necessary to maintaining high client satisfaction. 

Getting the Assistance you Need with Leading Legal Technology 

In the past, only the biggest firms could afford to have a dedicated support team to handle all of the non-billable (but vital) day-to-day operations like accounting, scheduling, lead management, and more. Further, hiring additional paralegals was often the only way to get help with important legal tasks without disrupting a firm’s daily operations.

The flexibility of legal assistants combined with advances in technology have changed all of that for the better. Whether it’s for a single attorney or a growing firm, dedicated legal case management software like MyCase gives legal assistants the specialized tools they need to be more effective. 

With capabilities supporting better case management, client communication, and billing and payments, MyCase helps firms of all sizes do more with less. It also allows legal assistants to focus on the areas that are most important to your business.

Sign up for a 10-day free trial or schedule a MyCase demo today to learn more.