Office and Admin

How to become a legal secretary

Written by Kate Lopaze

Some fields come with perennial job openings, because basic human needs don’t change very much—healthcare and education come to mind. The legal world is like this as well. It’s an industry that will always be necessary. And if you don’t have or want a law degree, don’t worry! That’s not a barrier to breaking into the field (unless your goal is to be a practicing attorney). If you have stellar organizational skills and an interest in the law, you can break into the industry as a legal secretary. Let’s look at the basic building blocks of this career path.

What’s the difference between paralegals and legal secretaries?

In the legal world, there are a number of non-attorney legal professionals in supporting roles who work for law firms, legal clinics, and government agencies as part of the legal team. These roles are typically broken out into two types:

Legal secretary/assistants: Legal secretaries may organize and file legal documents or case research, but their primary role is to support the lawyers administratively. This can include managing calendars, scheduling appointments, performing many of the same tasks as an administrative professional in virtually every other industry. There’s no specific degree typically required to become a legal secretary, but associate’s degrees are fairly common.

Paralegals: Paralegals focus more on the legal aspects of the supporting role. The paralegal is more likely to work directly with clients, taking and giving information, managing depositions or other legal meetings, and conducting research. Paralegals typically hold a four-year degree in paralegal studies.

What does a legal secretary do?

Legal secretaries are responsible for managing an attorney’s day-to-day office life. That may include the following responsibilities:

  • Maintaining attorney schedules, scheduling appointments
  • Drafting correspondence and legal documents (such as briefs, subpoenas, or motions)
  • Managing and ordering office supplies
  • Answering phones and email
  • Greeting clients
  • Filing legal and administrative documents
  • Copying, scanning, and faxing legal documents
  • Assisting with research and reading legal journals or materials
  • Reviewing and proofreading legal documents

Legal secretaries typically work full-time in an office setting, though the number of hours can vary depending on the needs of the firm or legal office.

What skills do legal secretaries have?

Legal secretaries need to have a very strong administrative skill set to succeed at their jobs. Legal skills and context can be learned, but without that basis of organization and management, a legal secretary would find him- or herself feeling very challenged by the day-to-day work.

Organizational Skills: Legal secretaries are largely responsible for keeping attorneys (and their work) organized. Being detail-oriented is a must, because even small slips or carelessness could have serious legal consequences.

Discretion: Legal information is often privileged information, so the legal secretary needs to be someone who can be trusted with confidential info. Again, breaches of this trust can lead to legal consequences, so being able to keep work at work and being discreet about information learned in the course of the job are essential to the legal secretary’s job.

Time Management: Attorneys often have hectic schedules full of client appointments, court dates, and other important meetings. The legal world is also based very heavily on deadlines. If the legal secretary doesn’t have tight control over making sure things are happening on time, that can put projects or cases at risk.

People Skills: The legal secretary is often the initial go-between for attorneys, legal staff and their clients, making appointments and greeting clients who come in. A friendly, professional demeanor when dealing with guests or colleagues is essential. Legal issues can also be stressful for clients and legal staff alike, so a calm “bedside manner” can be a very helpful asset in this role.

Technology Skills: Being up-to-date on standard administrative tools like word processing, email clients, presentation software/apps, productivity apps, and digital filing systems is a must for legal secretaries. There will likely be paper-based filing for certain things (especially confidential information), but as the world becomes more digital in general, legal secretaries should be well-versed and adaptable when it comes to using technology in their everyday work.

Communication Skills: Clear, solid written and verbal communication skills are a cornerstone for legal assistants—especially for legal correspondence and documents. Details are important always, but in legal matters they can mean everything. Legal secretaries may also work on proofreading or editing legal documents for attorneys, so having a critical, knowledgeable eye for language and grammar is important.

Teamwork: Everyone who works on a case is part of the team—from the attorney to the secretary to the paralegals and research assistants. Everyone has a common goal of providing the best possible legal work and representation, so there’s little room for diva behavior. Legal secretaries should be adept at working with different kinds of people to make sure projects and cases are being worked on with maximum efficiency and minimum drama.

What do you need to become a legal secretary?

For many legal secretary jobs, there is no formal degree requirement, though many employers may prefer at least an associate’s degree in a legal studies field. There are also no specific licensing or certification requirements for the job, but there are a number of professional certification options for legal secretaries who want to take the extra step; the National Association for Legal Secretaries (NALS) and Legal Secretaries International both offer certificate programs.

How much do legal secretaries get paid?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal secretaries make a median annual salary of $44,180, which is higher than the median annual salary for other types of secretaries and administrative assistants ($37,320).

What’s the outlook for legal secretaries?

For legal secretaries/assistants and paralegals, the number of job openings is expected to grow by 16% by 2026, which is not only much faster than average for all jobs, but also significantly faster than non-legal secretary jobs (which are expected to dip by about 5% over the same period).

If you’re thinking about this exciting career path and have a passion for details, it could be your ideal path into the legal industry. Once you’ve gained experience as a legal secretary, you can use that as a stepping stone to becoming a paralegal, or maybe even decide to become an attorney yourself! Whatever your goals, it’s a solid administrative role that can bring satisfaction and job security.

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About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.

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