Legal secretary vs paralegal? Which has more job openings? Which is a better career?

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jaclie in Monroe, Michigan

54 months ago

I will be going to college soon and want to do something in the legal field. I know that a legal assistant and a paralegal are the same thing. But how do they differ from legal secretaries? Are these good jobs to get into right now? Any advice will be appreciated.

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Regular dude in San Francisco, California

52 months ago

Yeah something to consider is to try and get a job in Office Services or Reception at a law firm. That way you can see if it is for you. All the other stuff DLP said is typically true. The "tuff" part is especially true. Law Firms are strictly for the hard chargers, so be prepared to bust your ass no matter what position you get into.

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krs in Brooklyn, New York

51 months ago

The legal assistant and paralegal jobs are completely different.

A legal assistant is, basically, a legal secretary, sometimes with additional administrative duties. You sit at a desk outside the lawyer's office, type memos and other documents, answer phones, screen mail and email, create and maintain files, decipher the lawyer's notes and enter work descriptions into a time entry and billing program, mail out bills and track client payments, schedule the lawyer's meetings, set up conference calls, make conference room reservations, send faxes, make copies, scan documents, make travel arrangements and do as much personal work as the lawyer wants and needs -- everything from making a restaurant reservation to helping his/her kids with their homework. It's not difficult work once you get used to it, and it pays pretty well, though the market is tight. The job description is constantly evolving as office automation increases, and as older lawyers retire and younger ones come in who are self-sufficient on computers.

A paralegal has special school training in basic law and litigation. You search through boxes and sometimes warehouses full of old papers, looking for particular items and, often, the "smoking gun" document that will destroy the adversary's case. You then make annotated lists of documents and apply bar-code stickers so they can be retrieved quickly, and put the papers in binders or scan them into a database. For me, it's boring and repetitive work, and full of allergenic dust. Also, you're paid about 1/3 less than a secretary.

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South Fl Snr Civil Lit Paralegal in Hollywood, Florida

48 months ago

Regretfully, I disagree with the above posters. It strictly depends on the firm you work for; in firms in S.Fl, a legal assistant is a glorified secretary with the pay to boot. A paralegal is a usually a degreed professional, who is almost if not more so, educated in law. We prepare ALL the legal briefs, do legal research, prepare the arguments, review contracts for errors (for litigation), talk to clients, prepare all the evidence for hearings, contact opposing counsels, prepare and review settlement agreements, draft law suits, in other words, we do everything a lawyer does, and in some firms, represent clients in court (small claims and administrative law court), act as mediators (where the law allows such), and in general do everything but represent the clients in court. It is an amazingly fun job but the hours are long and arduous. Our "seasoned professionals" above notwithstanding, seem to have become jaded due to the firms they work (it is all about the firm's ethos, if people have bad attitudes, you don't want to work there). In my opinion, small firms don't have those issues, so enjoy the opportunity to get into a very aggressive, hard-hitting environment where everything you do can drastically affect peoples' lives.

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mary in Tampa, Florida

48 months ago

I never heard of a paralegal representing someone in small claims court, nor acting as a mediator. I also prepared briefs - in draft form. Appellate briefs and legal research is almost always done by attorneys.

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tessie425 in New York, New York

48 months ago

Small firms can be brutal. I am in one now, and hate it. I have no help whatsoever, where at least in my last (big) firm, if I was overwhelmed with work, there were other secretaries to help me. I just came back from taking TWO DAYS off and I am so backed up it's unreal. I have to do everything. Plus my boss is a disorganized mess which makes my job that much harder. If I have to work in an office again after I leave this job, I am going to make sure it is in a bigger type of office, where everything doesn't fall on my shoulders.

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Grant013 in Astoria, New York

48 months ago

Absolutely everything that DLP has stated is true, right to the core - from beginning to end. I was a paralegal in New York City working for small firms. I tried to move to larger better firms. Nobody wanted me with my smaller and medium size firm background, and no Ivy League school.As a result, I began temping at a few Fortune500 law firms and realized that things there were so ugly I didn't want to be made permanent. I too have a 4 year ABA approved Paralegal Major degree. I even minored in Criminal Justice on the side. All no no avail whatsoever. Legal secretaries, legal assistants, legal clerks, and paralegals everywhere were all miserable in one way or another. The attorneys were just as DLP described. The women lawyers were far worse than the guys. It was hell on earth. Then I left and went to work for the non profit field. I was treated much better, and yes, the money was a little better. Not much.

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Grant013 in Astoria, New York

48 months ago

I saw people with degrees in everything from English, Psychology, to "shoemaking" work as paralegals, doing the same work I was. Someone even laughed at me and made a comment as if, "you actually got a 4 year degree in THIS?" "Were you on drugs?" This was New York City and Wall Street in the 90s. Some of them clearly "knew" someone personally - a lawyer or hiring manager or someone's wife/husband or "nanny." That's how they got into the "better" paralegal job. Most people I meet outside of the legal field (and outside of corporate sectors) don't even know what a paralegal is, let alone what one does. They think it's a "paper clerk" or "secretary" or "receptionist" in a law office. A few law office women even advised me to "forget about climbing the ladder - just find yourself a lawyer boyfriend" and "he'll make you the paralegal." And when he gets a new "girlfriend?" Gee, thanks. So much for the modernization of labor mentality for women.

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tessie425 in New York, New York

48 months ago

I warn everyone not to get involved in this field. It's a nightmare. Then again, I think all office work is a nightmare, but law is at the top of the list.

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Nomme de Pixel in Alexandria, Louisiana

48 months ago

In my experience, "legal assistants" and "legal secretaries" are synonymous. You will do typing, filing, calendaring, etc. As you gain experience you will also draft skeletons of routine pleadings for attorneys, but you will not be doing research, etc.

Paralegals will do some limited research, but if they are smart, they will be careful about the amount of responsibility they take on. Some lawyers will treat them like associates, which means they will do the same kind of grunt work that associates do, the most boring and time consuming tasks on routine, low profile cases.

The work is more challenging, but paralegals are rarely given the respect they deserve for the amount of work they put in. Also, contrary to public perception, they aren't paid that much more than experienced secretaries. Certainly not enough to compensate them for the higher stress levels they live with.

Paralegals are more likely to work overtime, and in my opinion, it's an utterly thankless, low-paying, dead-end job.

If you've the brains and drive to be a good paralegal, buckle down and go to law school instead. If you want to work 8-5 and do essentially the same thing but keep your sanity, be a legal secretary / assistant. You'll get the same level of non-respect, for nearly the same level of remuneration.

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Grant013 in Astoria, New York

48 months ago

I also have to second verbatim everything in that post by way of having gone through it personally. If I could turn back time, I would have changed my major in school to something creative, thereby avoiding all the bitterness and cynicism that the paralegal field has brought on me. When I hear paralegals and secretaries commiserate in a restaurant or over drinks in a bar, I am thankful that is not me there.

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Britney33480 in Florida

48 months ago

jaclie in Monroe, Michigan said: I will be going to college soon and want to do something in the legal field. I know that a legal assistant and a paralegal are the same thing. But how do they differ from legal secretaries? Are these good jobs to get into right now? Any advice will be appreciated.

I strongly discourage it. I've worked in law firms for 12 years. Ir brings tears to my eyes thinking about all the garbage and stress I've gone through and how it has affected my life so negatively.

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Britney33480 in Florida

48 months ago

Ir=It

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esther0606 in Northeast, Ohio

48 months ago

Does it make any sense to start paralegal training, in order to get a legal secretary/paralegal/legal assistant job in my area? I'm thinking about either a Bachelor's Degree or an Associate's Degree.

I have a Master's Degree in Sociology from a European University, which is currently being evaluated for further use within the US university system. I cannot do anything with it here, so I'm thinking about going back to school. The legal field has always interested me.

My main concerns are (in addition to some of the negative aspects that have been mentioned in this forum):

My age (in my late 30's now, which will put me in my early 40's when I can start looking for an entry-level position), i.e. age discrimination, and

I am not a native speaker (mother tongue German), but I have been working as an English translator most of my life. However, I am worried that there might be some prejudice as far as hiring a "foreigner" is concerned. I do have a Green Card, but I am not a citizen.

Please, experts, give me your thoughts! Thanks in advance.

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esther0606 in Northeast, Ohio

48 months ago

Thanks for your input, Displaced!

So, what if I do go for the Bachelor's in paralegal studies and can't find a job?
Do law firms usually hire paralegals with no practical experience as legal secretaries, or would they consider you "overqualified"? I'm just thinking that if this is the case, it might even be smarter to go for the lower degree (Associate's), in order to avoid being rejected for being overqualified for a position as a legal secretary (which is probably easier to find to start out with). Does my thinking process make any sense, or am I thinking too much? I'm assuming that if I CAN get a secretary job in a law firm, I could advance from there, if I can get my foot in, right?
Or would you recommend to get a Bachelor's right away?

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

When you shop for a paralegal program, make sure there are three things the program has and offers:

1) The program you plan to enroll in is approved by the ABA which is key, especially if you do not already process a bachelor's degree. In NY, most firms and insurance companies prefer candidates who hold both a bachelors and a paralegal certificate;

2) The program provides an internship. Most ABA approved programs have mandatory requirement for its students to take an internship. I started off as a receptionist in a small law firm while I returned to school. When you graduate, try to aim for entry level positions. These positions do exists, however you have to look out for them. Most importantly, try to obtain excellent grades (B+ and A). In law if you have little experience, a strong GPA will help get you through the door;

3) Make sure the program you will enroll has an active placement program. The program I am currently enrolled in (taking some brush up courses while out of work) the head of the program is pretty well connected within Westchester County (where I live). Some who have graduated from the program managed to find really good jobs. If you do well, come to class prepared, you will at least have an academic reference which is important when you go look for a job.

I also strongly recommend in taking writing courses and computer software classes in addition to your legal classes. In law, you need to have strong writing skills, regardless of what area of law you want to work in. Biggest problem these days is that there are few people who can write decently. You will need to compose letters, e-mails, and memorandum. I also recommend taking MS 2007 Suite classes and also see if your school also offers computer courses in litigation software. Most paralegal programs include computer applications as part of its course requirements.

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

continued...

One other thing I do have to say…horrible bosses are not just limited to the legal field. I have worked in non-profit and the entertainment industry before venturing into law and I have come across some pretty vindictive and abusive personalities while working in both areas. Although I greatly respect Displaced’s opinion, I feel that it is necessary to state that abusive bosses and co-workers exists in every field out there. I have worked with some pretty wonderful attorneys as well as working with some attorneys who should be disbarred due to their abusive conduct towards staff (and even towards their clients).

It is also important to bring attention to that almost every industry and field is hurting right now in the US; the economic fallout is not just limited law. There are limited jobs out there not because companies (both large and small) do not want to hire until the new tax laws are established. I don’t want to turn this forum into a political debate, but no one is hiring now due to the uncertainty of the new tax laws and business operation regulations looming.

With respect to age discrimination, the only age group I know who is having a hard time being placed are the over 55+ group. It is very unfortunate that some recruiters have a stigma when it comes to age. However I do know some people who were 99’ers and who over the age of 45 who have finally found some work. Please do not become discouraged.

All the best!

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

Displaced Legal Professional in Denver, Colorado said: Interesting............

It's an unfortunate fact. Throw in rising healthcare costs, companies are reticent to hire right now. We need to give tax breaks to companies to stimulate job creation.

--------
On another note, some of us here are stuck in this field. I have ten years under my belt working between the insurance industry and the food/beverage industry as a paralegal. It is hard as hell to be hired in any other field than law. I'm just trying to remain positive. I'm getting up there (nearing 40) and I am freaking out. But I can't do anything else but try and hope that someone appreciates my skill set and looks past my age.

With my current situation, I went from insurance to contract law in the entertainment industry. I have not done any real paralegal work in nearly 5 years now and my three years in light contract administration is not cutting it. I know this has nothing to do with our discussion, but I really needed to vent. Thank you for listening.

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

Six years ago I had my own office and managed a team of junior level paralegals for a large insurance company in its SIU group. My supervising attorney was promoted (and rightfully so) and my new manager (who was a non-attorney and knew nothing) often clashed. I was squeezed out after giving it my all for five years and unfortunately this guy may have noted my HR record that I am ineligible for re-hire. I was lucky to be scooped up by an import beer company. The job was wonderful, the people were wonderful. I just was not really mentored in the field of contract law. I have struggled for now almost two years to land something. I am back in school taking some refresher classes in an ABA paralegal program. I feel that I have to start all over again.

It also hurts nearing the big 4-0. I hate to admit this, I look very young, but my resume boasts 12 years of experience. I've had people ask me point blank what year I graduated. I have knots in my stomach. I receive calls, get interviewed, then nothing. I really feel very sad and I cannot believe how quickly I went from having my own office and department to nothing. Because I was a manager, it removed me from doing substantive paralegal work, hence why I have returned to school. I just hope when this semester finishes, my timing will improve. Honestly, I don't know what else to do right now. My confidence has been diminished. At least I know I am doing well in my classes...

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

I know my comments above have nothing to do with this discussion. I am sad right now and I need to vent. I had a telephone interview last week and it was so promissing. I called back the hiring assistant to confirm she received my application and she forgot my name ((sigh)).

Ok...carry on...

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

PS: excuse my typos...I have a few mispelled words in my previous post.

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tmf1977 in White Plains, New York

48 months ago

SIU = Special Investigations Unit. In the insurance industry, there are claims which have been flagged for either fraud and sometimes large losses in which the insurance carrier may encounter problems in settling timely. These claims are flagged and are handled by more senior adjusters, investigators, attorneys are assisgned to monitor.

My department was responsible in reviewing claims which were handled by SIU and were denied to prepare for possible litigation. Most of these cases had comlaints filed with with the Department of Insurance or Attorney General's Office alleging the carrier handled the claim in bad faith.

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Britney33480 in Florida

48 months ago

I've known people who have their paralegal certification and yet they are relegated to working as Legal Secretaries - no offense LS.

For whatever reason some law firms don't feel comfortable moving a secretary up into a paralegal position - even though they have the certificate and the experience to do the job. I've seen it several times and it's frustrating for the person.

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esther0606 in Northeast, Ohio

48 months ago

Thanks everybody!

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Pixelific in Jonesboro, Louisiana

47 months ago

Displaced Legal Professional in Denver, Colorado said: .If you are doing well as a legal secretary your firm may not be anxious to upgrade you.

This has not been my experience. However, I work in a small city (about 50,000 people in town, 150,000 all told if you include surrounding counties that mainly do business here). You do not need a paralegal certificate to be a paralegal. Anyone will gladly "promote" you if you take on those kinds of responsibilities. Same as any job.

If you want to work for the government, or for large firms in large cities, you will need a paralegal certificate. Outside that, you don't. As long as you are capable of doing the work, any firm will gladly hire you as a paralegal, or "upgrade" you to paralegal.

And you will work your asterisk off, for the same money as a secretary.

If you can get a job with the government there are higher pay grades to which you can aspire, the benefits are fantastic, and it is nearly impossible to be fired. If anyone here wants to be or is a paralegal, look for government work. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend it. It is completely oversold as a "profession."

By the way, most legal secretaries in this town have college degrees. It is competitive, even in the sticks.

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Pixelific in Jonesboro, Louisiana

47 months ago

@Esther - Sorry I'm late to the conversation, but with a Masters in Sociology, might I suggest work as a licensed counselor or social worker or speech pathologist? Of course, that kind of work might be what you are trying to get away from.

Believe me, if you've ever worked with children with behavioral problems, those skills will be useful should you find a job as some sort of legal support staff.

And NO, you don't need to go back to school for this. If you go back to school, study something you love. If you love law, go to law school.

SINCERELY,

Pixelific

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Pixelific in Jonesboro, Louisiana

47 months ago

tmf1977 in White Plains, New York said: ...[M]y resume boasts 12 years of experience. I've had people ask me point blank what year I graduated.

My resume summarizes 20 years of experience. Displaced has written elsewhere about how you get a raise in this field - you do a lateral transfer, you find another job that's paying the going rate.

As for rude interview questions, I remember one from my thirties - "Why aren't you married?" I'd just broken off a long-term relationship. What an ass. The upside is from that point on, I didn't care about getting the job because I knew I didn't want to work for this jerk, no matter what. (The proper answer would have been, of course, "Because you haven't asked me yet!" It works for both men and women.)

I am not writing any more today. God, it feels good to vent!

I have been dwelling on the negative, but I am not so stupid to stay in a job that is totally terrible. There are good bosses. Sometimes you are part of doing something good - you're an essential part of helping people get some justice who wouldn't be able to do so on their own. Actually going to and preparing for trial is interesting and exciting. And there are very smart people working in this field - not only the lawyers. There are friends to be made, and if you want another career, it is a great place to network (discreetly, of course). Good luck, everyone.

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Paralegal Student in Springfield, Missouri

42 months ago

In my psychology class, we are to do a paper on a psychosis or neurosis that is common, or even not so common to those in our future field. I have seen many posts on paralegals being bullied, on many different sites, but these can only be used for support in my paper. Do you know where I would be able to find some psychological information on the issue of the paralegals being bullied. My other classmates are going towards the depression and anxiety issues, which I know the bullying can lead to, but I would like to address the actual issue of the bullying. I have to be able to give an actual condition similar to "depression", so I'm not thinking that "being the subject of a bully" will count. Any input would be greatly appreciated!! Thank you!

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Connie S in Los Angeles, California

42 months ago

the American Bar Association has taken the stance that "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are synonymous terms, and that legal assistants must work under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney. ABA Model Guidelines for Utilization of Paralegals has adopted the following definition: 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 who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations has adopted the following definition: A Paralegal is a person, qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of legal concepts and is customarily, but not exclusively, performed by a lawyer. This person may be retained or employed by a lawyer, law office, governmental agency or other entity or may be authorized by administrative, statutory or court authority to perform this work. Substantive shall mean work requiring recognition, evaluation, organization, analysis, and communication of relevant facts and legal concepts.
Also check National Association of Legal Assistants' definition

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