What’s the difference between Paralegals, Legal Assistants and Legal Secretaries?

Our highly experienced recruitment team specialise in Paralegal & Legal Assistant recruitment, as well as Legal Secretary jobs and we are often asked this question. So, we decided to break it down for you in some detail to help with your future career choices.

Legal Secretaries serve quite different functions from Legal Assistants and Paralegals – do you know the difference? A Legal Secretaries duties are typically more administrative and coordination based including; maintaining a Lawyer’s calendar, arranging appointments with clients and meetings with other external and internal stakeholders, typing and filing documentation, liaising with parties and taking detailed messages and questions if the Lawyer is unavailable.

Whereas a Paralegal assists Solicitors, Lawyers and Barristers in delivering legal services. Even though they are trained in law they cannot provide legal advice, but can liaise with clients and answer questions under the supervision of a Lawyer. Paralegals also conduct a lot of research and help prepare detailed legal documentation among other tasks.

A Legal Assistant is another title that is utilised by some firms. Generally here in Australia, a Legal Assistant title goes to a Senior Legal Secretary who is highly capable across all of their secretarial and administrative support functions, who also assists with things like research, coordinating some legal document work and working across the practice team to ensure it runs smoothly. Taking a bit of a leadership role in some cases. A Legal Assistant is someone who might strive to be a Paralegal or at least work in this capacity as a part of their role, whereas a Legal Secretary would be working toward becoming a PA or EA.  

How do I choose which one is right for me?

Our advice is to think about the kind of everyday tasks that you enjoy in your current role, as well as the ones that you don’t.

A Paralegal role is great for someone who enjoys working directly with clients, conducting extensive research and working on detail documentation. It is also a great grounding if you are keen to explore what it would be like to be a Lawyer yourself one day. Being a Paralegal also means completing studies, so you need to contemplate whether that is something you will be motivated to do.

A Legal Secretary role is for someone who likes to be the ‘right hand person’, ensuring that everything is coordinated ‘to a T’ and that meetings and deadlines are met by the individual they are supporting. They need to be a strong ‘brand ambassador’ and gatekeeper always thinking about ways to make the day of the individual they are supporting run as seamlessly as possible.

Legal Secretary roles can differ in each practice area and in each firm, for example a Legal Secretary in a property practice would have quite a heavy administrative load. Whereas a Legal Secretary in a litigation practice would spend a large proportion of their time compiling briefs for counsel.

A Legal Assistant role is for someone who enjoys the admin and coordination piece that a Legal Secretary is responsible for and excels in ploughing through this work with great time management, allowing them to take on additional responsibilities in their role. Often they become a ‘lead’ or go to person in a practice, managing upwards and taking responsibility for the flow of admin work across the team. They are also often assigned research and documentation work that is more interesting and challenging than most typical Secretarial work. So this role is for someone who wants to utilise their well developed secretarial skills, whilst being challenged with additional responsibilities.

Its super important to ensure that you ask for a job description for each role you are applying for and to gain clarification around the content and what you would spend the majority of your time doing in the role. Ask questions and seek clarification as to what the role is all about.

How do I become a Paralegal?

Some individuals discover that they want to be a Paralegal whilst working as a legal Administrative Assistant or Legal Secretary and continue to build upon their development and experience whilst working under the supervision and guidance of Lawyers. For those wanting to open up greater opportunity to get really involved and be given more challenging work, you can gain a Certificate IV in Legal Services from a TAFE or RTO after obtaining some experience in the sector.

Or for those wanting to really go for it, you can complete a Bachelor of Law at University which will take around 4 years full time and longer on a part time basis. Many Paralegals do this part time whilst working full time, gaining valuable experience along the journey and being more valuable at the end of it to an employer.

How do I become a Legal Secretary?

A Certificate III in Business Administration (Legal) can help you to prepare for performing administrative tasks in a legal environment. A Certificate IV in Legal Services can prepare you for a range of roles providing support to legal services. If you are not looking to study, becoming a Receptionist within a legal environment and proving your commitment to gaining knowledge and remaining loyal to the firm can see you progress when an opportunity arises. If you are fining it difficult to get in to the legal environment without experience, working within an industry that operates similarly to legal can help you gain the knowledge that will see you as a stronger consideration going forward. Other professional service environments that can be well regarded by legal include Accounting firms and Management consulting firms, as they operate in a similar style with practices and Partnerships.

How do I become a Legal Assistant?

You will first need to gain knowledge, skills and strong capability as a Legal Secretary before becoming a Legal Assistant. By this stage you will understand the difference between Paralegals and Legal Secretaries and you will be able to decide whether you want to take a step out of secretarial work in in to a Paralegal role. Or if you want to elevate yourself as a strong and capable Legal Secretary who wants to do more in your role. Sticking your hand up and asking for more from your Partner, HR team or Practice Coordinator with the intention of moving up in to a Legal Assistant role is a good step. Once the firm knows your intention of wanting to move up in to a more responsible or varied role they (and you) can keep an eye out for Legal Assistant roles amongst the firm, potentially within other practice areas, if not available in your current one.

Need more help deciding what to do with your legal support career? If you want to chat about  Paralegal recruitment, Legal Secretary jobs or Legal Assistant roles please contact our specialist legal team on 02 8042 1840. With over 15 years experience specialising in legal support recruitment they will no doubt be able to help guide you and open up new opportunities for you to explore.

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