An important part of using legal support services is understanding the services provided by different professional legal assistants. Although there is no licensing criteria for legal support specialists in most states, and several professional associations, like the National Association of Legal Assistants, offer certification exams and registration. Below are five terms to be familiar with when using legal assistance services.
Paralegal - A professional who assists lawyers with legal work. A paralegal does things like legal research and writing, fact checking, and completing paperwork. Paralegals work under the supervision of a lawyer, who is responsible for their work, and often specialize in a particular area of the law.
Law Clerk - A legal professional who completes research and assists a judge in writing court opinions. The term law clerk may also be used to refer to an individual who works on behalf of a lawyer or law firm. A clerk that works for a lawyer may do things like file legal documents with the court, run errands, or tasks similar to a paralegal.
Legal Secretary - An individual who supports a lawyer or law firm and may be responsible for a variety of tasks. Depending on the needs of a law office, a legal secretary may manage the law office or handle tasks similar to those of a law clerk.
Legal Billing Specialist - A professional who prepares statements for clients of a lawyer or law firm indicating what services have been rendered and what balance is owed.
Document Preparation Assistant - An individual who offers guidance to clients about preparing legal documents. A document preparation assistant is not a lawyer and cannot draft a legal document on behalf of a client, but he or she can assist a client in completing legal instruments.
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Paralegals are sometimes called legal secretaries. However, they have more responsibility than the average secretary.
They act as assistants to lawyers, handling the easy and routine work so as to free the attorney's time to deal with more complicated matters. As such, they have significant legal training, although nowhere near as much as a fully trained lawyer.
A paralegal may be in the courtroom, acting as a clerk and organizing documents for the lawyer. Much of their work is done by computers, but library research is also important. Corporate paralegals may handle much of the work of the legal department. They know the law and have their own professional associations. Bar associations may also have a section for paralegals. There are also specific guidelines of ethics that apply to paralegals. Lawyers are expected to provide guidance to their paralegals in ethical and procedural areas.
Paralegals perform varied work and assignments. As assistants to lawyers, they prepare documents. They follow court procedures and support litigation. Although a paralegal is obliged to act as a secretary and handle routine matters, they have considerable leeway to investigate and research. Entry level positions are often referred to as paralegal clerks, and they handle very basic matters. Large firms may have a paralegal manager, who supervises paralegals, clerks and possibly other assistants such as receptionists.
Most paralegals work for law firms or corporate departments. Some work for the government, either Federal or local. All fill an important role in supporting the judicial system by allowing law firms to perform their jobs more efficiently.