The terms paralegal and legal secretary are used interchangeably, but they are separate and essential roles in a legal setting. The two are not the same. Duties overlap between the two, but the positions are far from equal.
Legal secretaries perform a lot of administrative duties for law offices. These duties are more clerical in nature, including transcribing reports, filing, general office duties, customer service, and billing. Legal secretaries receive their tasks from the attorneys as well as paralegal staff in the office. Many individuals who go on later to earn a paralegal degree start as legal secretaries to get the feel of the legal environment. However, legal secretary positions do not require the amount of training and responsibility expected of paralegals. Because training is not as extensive and expected, the responsibilities are less and pay is normally lower.
A paralegal position requires more training and education than legal secretaries, and because of this pay is normally higher, as are the levels of responsibilities. Paralegals report directly to the attorneys in the office and handle more legal tasks than clerical tasks.
Paralegals are often given more client interaction responsibilities, being asked to interview witnesses, helping the attorney prepare the case, and conducting legal research. While paralegals do administrative work, such as preparing correspondence, they also prepare independent documents for the attorney such as motions and pleadings.
Paralegals are given more legal duties, but they are still restricted in giving legal advice as a non-attorney. However, they have much more involvement in the attorney’s cases than legal secretaries. They are expected to work on a more independent basis with some supervision, where legal secretaries receive more supervision. Because of this, the pay for legal secretaries can often be hourly while paralegal pay is salary-based. In terms of legal billing, legal secretary work and paralegal work fees are different in amount when charged to the client.
Both positions are vital to the workings of a legal office, and both rely heavily on the other and play important roles in the office setting.