What is the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Legal Secretary?

Sheri Cyprus

Although the responsibilities, as well as many of the duties, in both legal secretary and paralegal jobs can vary greatly depending on the exact jurisdiction or geographical area, the main difference between the positions is the level of administrative work. Typically, a paralegal and a legal secretary handle different aspects of law cases. Whereas legal secretaries usually do most of the administrative tasks, such as typing up the final drafts of documents, paralegals may write the first draft as well as conduct law case research and analysis.

A paralegal might be tasked to do legal research.
A paralegal might be tasked to do legal research.

These employees are also at different job levels. In most cases, a paralegal is directly supervised by a lawyer and often does actual legal work. A legal secretary may be supervised by a paralegal and only prepares or edits law documents.

Employers are more likely to hire paralegals who are certified.
Employers are more likely to hire paralegals who are certified.

In some areas, it's necessary for a paralegal to have had a year or two of experience first as a legal secretary. He or she may need a certificate or degree, while a secretary might not need that for employment. Basically, a legal secretary is considered a specialized type of administrative assistant, while a paralegal handles some of a lawyer's lower-level job duties. Although paralegals often do some of the same tasks a lawyer does, they are always considered a non-lawyer; there are typically limits to the extent of the legal duties this person can be given responsibility to complete.

A legal secretary's work tends to be more administrative than that of paralegal.
A legal secretary's work tends to be more administrative than that of paralegal.

Both secretaries and paralegals may interview clients, depending on the size of a law firm. These jobs also require good communication skills and an ability to treat clients professionally. Both types of legal jobs also demand up-to-date computer skills, and an interest in the law is highly desirable in either job.

In larger law firms especially, there is often one paralegal to a group of legal secretaries. The salaries of the two jobs are often quite different. Paralegals typically make quite a bit more money, but also have increased responsibilities.

In general, paralegals are expected to work more independently and with added expertise and knowledge in law than legal secretaries. Sometimes, due to both changing or overlapping duties in some countries or regions, as well as the term legal assistant used mistakenly, the two positions can be confused. Legal assistants are the same as paralegals, not secretaries. Secretaries who specialize in law may be called legal administrative assistants.

A paralegal is directly supervised by a lawyer and does actual legal work.
A paralegal is directly supervised by a lawyer and does actual legal work.

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