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Playing the Name Game
Determining who’s who and who does what in a law firm.
By Linda A. Potter, CLA

January/February 2000 Issue

Job titles play a number of roles in our lives. They help us define who we are and what we do. They can help others understand our position in the hierarchy of an organization.

Unfortunately, they can also carry confusing, ambiguous and even negative connotations that sometimes complicate our search for employment that adequately utilizes the skills and abilities we have worked so hard to obtain. Although this situation can be found in any occupation, these issues are becoming more prevalent for non-lawyer legal professionals.

As the practice of law has evolved, law firms and legal departments have had to create more jobs and job titles to meet the increased demands of larger, more complex caseloads and a more competitive legal market. While the development of new job classifications has created a multitude of new opportunities in the legal field, those same opportunities have also created significant confusion regarding the duties and responsibilities generally expected of those who work in these positions.

Legal Assistant or Paralegal?
Many of us in the profession use the terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” interchangeably, much like “attorney” and “lawyer” or “doctor” and “physician.” In 1997 the American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates adopted the following definition of a legal assistant or paralegal, which is representative of the definitions approved by various organizations:

“A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training, or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

The ABA definition was reinforced by recent legislation in Maine regarding the definition and responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants. According to Section 1.4 of Maine Revised Statutes Annotated, c. 18, a “paralegal” or “legal assistant” is a person who is qualified by education, training or work experience to be employed or retained by an attorney, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity to perform specifically delegated substantive legal work for which an attorney is responsible.

Some responsibilities typically delegated to legal assistants are: performing legal and factual research; conducting client interviews; locating and interviewing witnesses; conducting investigations; drafting legal documents, correspondence and pleadings; summarizing depositions and testimony; and attending executions of wills, real estate closings, depositions, hearings and trials with an attorney. A paralegal’s time for substantive legal work can be billed to the client on an hourly basis.

Even if those in the profession believe that paralegal and legal assistant are synonymous, it’s the belief and perception of our employers that are the deciding factors in utilization issues.

Legal Assistant or Legal Secretary?
While doing research on paralegal utilization, I was surprised by the number of legal assistants whose typical work responsibilities are more than 50 percent clerical. The majority have paralegal degrese or certificates but no legal experience. Many indicated that they took their current jobs to get a foot in the door and gain valuable experience that would eventually allow them to apply for positions with more paralegal-type responsibilities. The persons in these jobs generally have titles such as legal assistant or legal secretary, and most indicated that it was difficult for them to distinguish between their legal assistant work and secretarial tasks.

This isn’t surprising, considering the results of research conducted by four chapters of the Association of Legal Administrators and published in a White Paper, titled “Staffing Issues and the Delivery of Legal Services in the Future: The Changing Role of ‘Legal Secretaries.’” According to the research, more attorneys are choosing to refer to their secretaries as legal assistants. While attorneys want their secretaries to continue to do word processing, scheduling, taking client calls and other duties normally thought of as secretarial in nature, they also want them to do as much paralegal work as possible, including conducting basic research, drafting legal documents and pleadings and having more client contact.

One of the suggestions in the White Paper is to reclassify legal secretaries as legal assistants. I disagree, however. If this suggestion were implemented on a large scale, such reclassification would effectively negate the difference between legal secretaries and paralegals. Legal assistants, especially those who have earned the CLA and CLAS credentials, would be negatively impacted.

The Secretary’s Viewpoint
The organization formerly known as the National Association of Legal Secretaries has concluded that being a legal secretary is no longer as popular as it once was. In response to that conclusion, the organization changed its name to NALS, The Organization for Legal Professionals and opened its membership to anyone employed to do work of a legal nature. NALS continues to offer certification for legal secretaries in the form of the Accredited Legal Secretary (ALS) and the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) certificate programs. Although the organization has no immediate plans to change the name of these certifications, it now publishes “The Basic Manual for the Lawyer’s Assistant” and “The Advanced Manual for the Lawyer’s Assistant” as study resources for the certification exams. NALS President Connie Maslowski, PLS, attributes the change in the textbook titles to the fact that many younger people don’t want to enter a career that includes the word secretary in the job title.

Although NALS doesn’t attempt to equate a lawyer’s assistant with a legal assistant or paralegal, the use of this additional job classification does carry with it the reasonable possibility for more confusion within the profession. Additionally, there are educational programs that currently offer certificates for lawyer’s assistants. The required curriculum for these programs, most of which require a bachelor’s degree as a condition of admission, includes substantive law course work, research and writing, litigation, ethics, contracts, business organizations, critical thinking skills and communications skills. These classes are substantially different from those required in most legal secretary studies programs, which generally focus on transcription skills, business writing, word processing and other clerical applications.

Legal Professional, Distinguish Thyself
There are a plethora of career opportunities available for all qualified professionals within the legal environment. However, in the absence of universal regulations that define paralegals, legal assistants and legal secretaries, job applicants need to be aware of the many complexities of the name game when applying for a job with a title that may or may not accurately describe the associated duties, tasks and responsibilities of the position.

Linda A. Potter, CLA, holds a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies and a master’s degree in legal administration from the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, Mont. She is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants and the Legal Assistants Association of Michigan where she coordinates the CLA program. She is an adjunct faculty member in the legal assistant studies program at Delta College in University City, Mich., and sits on the program’s advisory board. She currently owns and operates Superior Paralegal Administration Services.

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