Law has always been a team effort, even in the early days where attorneys would commence their practice with an office and a secretary. The secretary would work alongside the attorney helping with research and the gathering of data. These secretaries would often appear in court controlling the flow of paperwork and providing whatever assistance the attorney required. They were in effect the first in what became known as PA’s, or personal assistants.
Today, the law is far more complex and the research required more complex. Legal secretaries are still part of the team and they do often participate in activities that are considered more in the realm of a paralegal. However, legal secretaries lack training in law. They are very good when it comes to the administrative side of law but can find that deep research is beyond their training. Over the past twenty years the role of a dedicated research and legal assistant has arisen – this is the role of a paralegal.
Paralegals are trained and have a much broader understanding of law and the requirements needed when it comes to collating evidence, interviewing witnesses, and researching, especially precedents – a major base for many legal actions. Most legal practices now prefer to employ paralegals that have received training in ABA (American Bar Association) approved training programs. Prior to the formalization of training, many paralegals where those that had either just graduated from law school, were still attending law school, or who had dropped out or not completed their law school training. What was important was their knowledge of law, legal principles, and legal practices.
A legal team may now consist of an attorney, a junior attorney fresh from college, one or more paralegals, and a legal secretary. It the role of the legal secretary to coordinate the activities of all members of the team. He or she will also ensure that all the administrative duties are completed. Most importantly, since there is a team involved in a particular matter, the legal secretary role includes collating all the relevant documents so that, at the end of the day, when a matter is ready for resolving, the attorney has everything at hand.
So, what is the difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal? A paralegal has become a well trained gopher in a way. They collect information either through interviews or research on behalf of an attorney. A legal secretary is trained to be a personal assistant to the attorney, often becoming the bridge between the attorney and the rest of the team. They are not simply administrative roles, their role is that of a manager, managing a team that often includes the attorney themselves. A good legal secretary manages a team in such a way that each feels they are in control of their role, when in fact it is the secretary that is in control. A good paralegal is one that ensures an attorney has all the relevant facts ready to proceed with a legal matter. They are both invaluable to a modern legal practice.