Legal Assistant

The term legal assistant refers to an employee performing legal tasks under the supervision of an attorney or attorneys. Since the onset of the legal assistant profession during the 1960's, the number of paralegals has grown to over 200,000 in the U.S.

Legal Assistant Roles

While legal assistants cannot give legal advice, they can draft certain legal documents and do legal research. Many legal assistants in the U.S. and Canada work as freelancers; many work for single attorneys, while others work in government and/or large corporations. These professionals are termed legal assistants, paralegals, and occasionally, legal technicians. Some legal assistants also serve as Notary Publics and some act as nurse paralegals, offering their medical expertise to attorneys.

In the United States, four professional associations: the American Bar, the National Association of Legal Assistants, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and the American Association for Paralegal Education act as resources, education, and support, and have helped to establish the field as a bona fide profession.

Legal Assistant Education

While there are no strict educational requirements to become a legal assistant, a great number of those working in the field have at least a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies, and even master's degrees in other fields. A number of these professionals have undertaken a two-year program through a community college, and some have been certified as paralegals. As the field is expanding rapidly, a number of colleges and universities are beginning to offer four-year programs with BA degrees, and post-BA certification.

The early legal assistants received no formal academic training, but rather on-the-job-training (OJT). Though the field is not a licensed profession, voluntary certification can show that the professional is capable of doing the work. The various legal assistant and paralegal associations assist people with continuing education and certification. Whether or not a legal assistant is sufficiently educated and trained to do the work is left up to the states. The Internet offers resources for legal assistants, complete with information about paralegal studies, and directories of schools that offer paralegal studies.

Economic Benefits

Under U.S. law, only attorneys can fulfill the following functions:
  • Establish an attorney-client relationship

  • Give legal advice

  • Sign legal documents

  • Appear in court

  • Set and charge fees for services rendered.

  • Legal work has many aspects other than these five functions and therefore, persons other than attorneys are free to fulfill those functions. While the attorney is the supervisor and has full responsibility for the work produced, the legal assistant can reduce the attorney's workload by performing many of the mundane, time-consuming tasks involved in any legal proceeding. While attorneys' fees are very expensive, use of legal assistants for these auxiliary services has and can cut the total cost dramatically, and allows the attorneys the time to do what they are supposed to do.

    Employment Outlook

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegals and legal assistants will continue to be more in demand than the average occupation through 2014, due to the fact that employers are trying to reduce their overall legal costs. Job opportunities will be prevalent in large corporations' legal departments, insurance companies, and private law firms. There will also be a high demand for legal assistants in the public sector for example, with community legal-service programs, which provide help for those who cannot the afford high-priced legal services of attorneys. Demand for legal assistants will be mitigated (as with other professions) by business trends, and during recession may suffer lay-offs though those offering similar legal services to those of attorneys at lower cost may fare better during economic downturns.

    By Eve Visconti           

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