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Stuart Kerner

What Is a Paralegal?

In today’s world where terminology is frequently changing, the terms themselves and what is associated with them can often be confusing.

In the legal field, an example of this is the terms paralegal, legal assistant, and legal secretary. While they are all used on a regular basis, they can leave many people wondering what these roles consist of, as well as whether or not there is any significant difference between them.

After you have some of the basic facts, you should not find it all to be so confusing.

A legal secretary is precisely what the term implies.  Up until quite recently, this role was the one which most non-attorneys held in a law office.  Legal secretaries, who were usually female, were not much different from secretaries of any other type, with the exception that a legal secretary often had specialized training in order to be more knowledgeable about matters specific to the legal field, resulting in being more effective and efficient at the job.  While legal secretaries occasionally had a college degree, it was generally more up to the discretion of the employer rather than due to any professional requirements.

In contrast, when legal assistants became an everyday part of most law offices, the entirely different role necessitated more and different qualifications.  In taking a much more active role in the law office, a legal assistant needed to be much more familiar with all aspects of the legal system in general.  While working as a legal assistant was basically a matter of being a helper to an attorney, it was a job which consisted of a decidedly hands-on approach.

These days, the terms legal assistant and paralegal are often used interchangeably.  Although many who work in this field tend to prefer the latter term, there is actually not a difference between the two.  While the duties of a legal secretary consists primarily of a clerical nature, this is not the focus of a paralegal.

The majority of a paralegal’s work consists of legal duties;  although it is usually required that these duties are assigned and carried out under the direction of an attorney, it is generally a matter of the paralegal lightening the attorney’s workload by taking on responsibilities and tasks for which she is qualified.  For example, interviewing witnesses for a court case  is one such duty.  Instead of basic clerical work, a paralegal’s duties often include such examples as researching statistics, case information, and other facts which are vital to the attorney’s ongoing work.

In today’s world, the role of paralegal is often being filled by men.  While there are still more women paralegals, many men have also found this field to be both professionally and personally rewarding.  Although there were very few male legal secretaries in the past, the widening role and opportunities for paralegals have led many men to find this line of work to be quite appealing.

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