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Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant
The challenges, rewards and opportunities in environmental law.
By Patrick Vuong
May/June 2006 Issue

The Shakespearean analogy about a rose still smelling as sweet despite a different name doesn’t quite work when applied to the paralegal profession. The professional status of a paralegal would not stay the same if the title changed to “legal assistant,” according to paralegals who responded to the March/April issue’s My Opinion Survey. An overwhelming 94 percent of respondents said “paralegal” denotes a higher professional status than “legal assistant.”

“Too many administrative assistants and legal secretaries are using the legal assistant title,” said Cindy J. Geib, a 14-year para­legal from Mount Joy, Pa. “The time to salvage the term ‘legal assistant’ by paralegals is long gone in most parts of the country. I just hope paralegals take a stand against those who also misuse the title ‘paralegal’ before that becomes synonymous with ‘secretary.’”

An eight-year paralegal based in  Roches­ter, N.Y., agreed: “[If you are called a paralegal,] it sounds like you are your own professional, not someone else’s.” Other paralegals agreed that the title “legal assistant” encompasses other job positions. “Loosely construed, ‘legal assistant’ can mean many things,” said a 26-year paralegal based in Memphis, Tenn. “The person does, in fact, assist in the delivery of legal services. That person can be a secretary, a pool typist or even a runner. I have even been told by a legal administrator that legal secretaries use the term ‘legal assistant’ because it sounds more glamorous than ‘legal secretary.’ What a slap in the face to all paralegals.”

Another Memphis paralegal, Scott W. Wood, said a legal assistant also could be a docket clerk, a file clerk or litigation support — none of whom, according to Wood, are paralegals. “I think ‘paralegal’ denotes someone with specialized training and a certificate … or a degree,” said Wood, who has eight years of paralegal experience.

Marisa Blewett of Arroyo Grande, Calif., was the only respondent with “paralegal/legal assistant” as her job title. She said “paralegal” denotes a higher status, though, because those with this moniker usually are held to higher educational and professional standards.

However, 30-year paralegal Roxanne Reynolds of Spartanburg, S.C., said the two job titles are synonymous: “At least in my section of the United States, the terms are interchangeable.” Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, Mich., an 18-year legal assistant has yet to decide which job title denotes a higher status: “I use the term para­legal when talking to clients because most seem to have a general idea of what that means. However, my official title assigned by my law firm is ‘legal assistant,’ and I use that on written documents.”

In other survey results, 91 percent of 33 respondents said the term “para­legal” should become the universal job title, considering that more associations throughout the United States have changed their names by replacing “legal assistant” with “paralegal.”

“I believe the term [‘paralegal’] should be universal as far as associations [go],” said a Memphis paralegal with eight years of experience. “But I also know that some people who classify themselves using this term [don’t] have the skills … or training associ­ated with this type of profession.”


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Updated 06/18/07
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