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What is a Legal Assistant and How Does it Differ from a Paralegal?

Getting into the law field can seem incredibly daunting. It takes years to earn a high-level law degree, and passing the Bar exam is one of the most stressful educational experiences out there. So what if you want to get into the legal field earlier?

What legal assistant do

Legal assistants handle the administrative side of the law; they’re in charge of keeping the lawyers organized. They differ from paralegals in that they don’t need a specific certification.

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Let’s take a look at the specifics of being one.

A legal assistant… well, assists. They’re in charge of doing the grunt work that the lawyers can’t focus on. This means they must be detail-oriented and good at administrative work. The job description might include:

  • Gathering and organize evidence for client cases
  • Drafting and proofreading legal documentation
  • Scheduling conversations and interviews with witnesses and clients
  • Managing billing information

Their exact duties may vary from firm to firm, but it’s generally going to be the legal assistant’s job to keep the lawyers on task and organized.

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What a legal assistant do

Even though the two terms are used interchangeably a lot of the time, there is actually a difference between them. It was officially established in 2004 by the National Association of Legal Assistants.

The official distinction between a legal assistant and a paralegal is that a paralegal has passed their NALA certification exam while an assistant has not. Paralegals are more involved in actual court work and legal proceedings; they need to be fully familiar with their chosen field of law.

The similarities between them are fairly important, though. Both roles can be in charge of billing and scheduling client meetings. They both perform research for lawyers and draft documents for cases. They may also work either as a firm-specific employee or freelance.

To make everything even more confusing, there are also legal secretaries. These are the people who draft correspondence, organize files, transcribe dictation, and delegate phone calls to the appropriate resources. 

paralegal work

Legal secretaries’ jobs are significantly more limited. They don’t need any specific schooling or certification, and they don’t directly handle client cases.

To look at a typical day for an assistant, let’s use an example. We’ll call her Jane, and we’ll say that Jane is working as a legal assistant at the Smith and Jones law firm. Jane’s day starts at the same time that the lawyers’ do. She comes into the office at about eight and gets to work with her daily tasks, starting with calendar organization. 

Jane checks her email for responses from clients about when they’re available, when their bill is due, and the details they can provide about their cases. She puts it all into the lawyers’ calendars and returns the emails with details about meetings and costs.

When she’s done with that, Jane starts drafting legal documentation for that day. Smith requires a witness statement to be transcribed, while Jones needs a full, itemized list of the client’s assets. She sends them to the appropriate email inbox and prints physical copies for her files.

After lunch, Jane begins research on the newest case, pulling up relevant legal resources, articles, and previous files. She gathers a list of sources, keynotes, and witness statements over the phone, and delivers them to Smith. She goes home at five.

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legal assistant

Of course, the actual day-to-day responsibilities of legal assistants are going to change depending on the workload, but it’s safe to say that you’ll spend most of your time behind a desk or in a meeting room.

According to Indeed, the average yearly salary is about $42,500. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is more optimistic, listing the average yearly salary of paralegals and legal assistants alike as nearly $53,000.

Cities tend to pay much higher than rural areas. The top five highest paying cities to work as a legal assistant are:

  • New York, NY
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Tampa, FL

For either job, the exact salary depends on where they’re working, whether they’re freelance or full-time, and the amount of experience and education they have.

lawyers assistant

Becoming a legal assistant is less time-intensive than becoming a paralegal. If you’re just getting started in law, you might try legal assistance while you work toward that certification.

What Degree Do You Need?

You don’t need a particular degree to become a legal assistant. Rasmussen University says that about 41% of legal assistant jobs only require a high-school diploma.

Most legal offices will offer on-the-job training for legal assistants. This works in both of your favor – the law firm gets a worker trained in their specific practices, and you can start right away without doing additional training courses.

How Many Years Does it Take?

Most legal assistant positions, even the ones listed as entry-level, are going to expect some kind of experience. They may list up to two years of experience as their preference.

Our recommendation is to list any administrative experience you have on your resume when applying. Most of those skills, from word processing to calendar scheduling, will transfer over to legal assistance.



Legal assistance is a vital part of the court process. Without them, lawyers wouldn’t be able to dedicate the time they need to preparations for in-court appearances and defense of their position. Clients would be left scrounging for information, and there would be huge delays in legal proceedings.

If you want to get into the law field as soon as possible while still gaining vital experience, becoming a legal assistant is a great place to start. All you need is an organized head on your shoulders.