How Legal Support Staff Roles are Changing
Am I a legal secretary or a legal assistant?
Legal support staff used to be very clearly defined. Everyone had a role, and they were expected to stick to it. Lines were drawn in the sand, everything was demarcated, and nobody stepped on anyone else’s toes. And that was fine.
These days, people are expected to know more than their job title. If anything, they’re expected to know two or three job titles’ worth — and then some. Journalists, for instance, are no longer just journalists. They are expected to write the story, photograph the pictures, edit their copy, and design their layout. They are one-stop shops now, intended to save money and cut back on human resources.
Legal support staff are now following this trend. While legal assistants generally perform legal tasks, such as researching case law and drafting documents, legal secretaries would do the clerical work that is necessary in the running of an office. The former is billed to a client, while the latter is not. However, these two jobs are now blending together because offices are looking to cut costs. Why have two secretaries when you can have one? Then you can raise the secretary’s morale by re-titling her job. Now, instead of “legal secretary,” she is a “legal assistant,” and everyone wins.
This is partly because of the great leaps forward in firm automation. No longer do secretaries tap away at typewriters; everyone uses computers and tablets now. Even more so, larger firms are using eDiscovery, which means that assistants must be versed in legal technology matters. You can’t just have Grandma Ethel come in on her afternoons and check the books anymore. You need someone extremely qualified.
So what does this mean for legal assistants?
Going forward, legal assistants will have to keep upping their game. Like lawyers, they should take continuing education classes. They will have to keep learning technology and stay abreast of any developments in the legal tech sector that affect their work. This will also allow them to stay competitive in an increasingly cutthroat job market. If jobs are melting into one another (such as “legal assistant” and “legal secretary” becoming one job), it follows that there are fewer jobs in the market as a whole. That means that applicants have to be sharper than ever. And it also means that those who have jobs need to do whatever they can to keep them.