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
“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
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.