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Guide to the Legal Assistant Profession
For Human Resource Professionals
Published July 1999 by the National Association of Legal Assistants
 

The Corporate Human Resources Guide
To The
Legal Assistant/Paralegal
Profession

Introduction

The National Association of Legal Assistants, Inc. (NALA) is a professional association dedicated to the growth and advancement of the legal assistant career field. Corporations often contact the association for information and assistance concerning the legal assistant/paralegal profession. This brochure has been designed to answer questions from corporate human resource departments and provide information to aid in the establishment of in-house legal assistant positions within their companies.

What is a Legal Assistant?

Is a legal assistant different  from a paralegal?

The terms "paralegal" and "legal assistant" are used interchangeably. "Legal assistant"  is defined by NALA as follows:

Legal assistants are a distinguished group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training, and experience legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law, which qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the supervision of an attorney. (Within this occupational category, individuals are also known as "paralegals.") Adopted by the NALA membership, July 1984.

Over the past 25 years other associations, for instance, the American Bar Association, have developed their own definitions of "legal assistant/paralegal" and much has been written as to what duties are appropriately delegated to legal assistants. All agree that legal assistants/paralegals perform work which is of a substantive nature, requiring education, knowledge and expertise, distinguishing it from that which is clerical or rote. Case law relating to legal fees has been consistent in requiring that the task performed by the legal assistant be that which an attorney would do if the legal assistant had not been available--not work traditionally done by secretaries or clerks.

Legal assistants do work which requires substantive legal knowledge, creativity in problem solving and independent judgment, but always under the supervision of a lawyer. The nature and amount of supervision required lies within the lawyer's discretion. Legal assistants/paralegals cannot ethically set fees, accept or reject clients, represent clients in court, or give legal advice. Yet, legal assistants may, and do, exercise independent judgment within established parameters.

Standards and guidelines are important to the profession. The Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) Examination and Program, designed and established by NALA in 1976, is the national professional credential for legal assistants. It ensures uniformity of professional standards. The CLA certification is available to all professionals in the field who meet relevant, objective and consistently applied standards. The designation "CLA" signifies that a legal assistant is capable of providing superior services to employers.

How can a legal assistant benefit my company?

 

COST SAVINGS

Use of legal assistants contributes to the "bottom line." In-house legal assistants can perform many tasks now assigned to outside counsel, thus, containing legal fees and improving case management. Legal assistant salaries, while commensurate with other professionals having like credentials and responsibilities, are still less than those paid to lawyers. Legal assistants are expected to manage a large number of assignments in an efficient and timely manner.

Transactional work (e.g., preparing and negotiating contracts, protecting the corporation's intellectual property, and maintaining corporate records) can be done entirely in-house by legal assistants, which reduces the need for outside counsel.

Typically, a good portion of an in-house attorney's time is spent managing outside counsel. Legal assistants can assume a primary role in the management of cases and free the in-house attorney to work on more substantive legal matters. The bottom line is clear. Using legal assistants significantly lowers outside counsel fees, improves the management of cases, and provides greater cost containment for the legal department.

IN-HOUSE KNOWLEDGE

An in-house legal assistant acquires knowledge that is invaluable to both internal attorneys and outside counsel, which, in turn, allows matters to be handled efficiently and cost effectively. Corporate legal assistants become extremely familiar with the organization of the company, its goals, priorities, and products, and can accumulate, analyze and summarize data and facts from an insider's perspective. From such insight legal assistants can quickly determine the appropriate persons to contact to obtain specific information, saving time and money when working with outside counsel in preparing and responding to discovery requests in litigation.

Experienced legal assistants with in-house knowledge work not only in the legal department but are found in a variety of positions throughout a corporation: contract administrator, corporate procurement, patents or corporate secretary to name a few.

The use of legal assistants provides consistency. When firms throughout the country are handling similar matters for the company, it is beneficial to have an in-house legal assistant providing information so that each firm does not have to "reinvent the wheel."

Intangible Benefits

In addition to the cost-savings and corporate-knowledge benefits described above, intangible benefits accrue to corporations who employ long-term legal assistants. No dollar value can be placed on teamwork skills developed over time by attorneys, legal assistants and other legal staff in a corporate setting. Attorneys and management can develop a comfort level with the predictability of performance of long-term in-house legal assistants. Long-term relationships between legal assistants and operations employees are also extremely beneficial to on-going company success.

What does the company need to do to recruit qualified legal assistants?

IMPORTANCE OF CAREER PATH

Legal assistants are intelligent, educated individuals who seek the same potential for growth as other corporate professionals. They want recognition for service, the ability to be promoted, and the challenge of new opportunities. Developing a defined career path for legal assistants allows corporations to set a standard for professional and personal growth of valued employees--an excellent recruiting tool for qualified legal assistants. A tiered program, which incorporates well-defined job descriptions and education and experience requirements, is apt to attract the most qualified legal assistants.

Examples of tiered structure:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legal Assistant l

  • Meets Minimum Requirements

  • Has 0-3 years experience in the legal field

  • Is recognized as undergoing a period of training and development in practice area skills, professional skills (organization, effective planning, problem solving and analytical skills), as well as knowledge of company operations

  • Undergoes a minimum of 5-10 hours of continuing legal education per calendar year

  • Hiring Requirement: Minimum Requirements as well as generally high academic standards

Legal Assistant II

  • Meets Minimum Requirements
  • Has 3-6 years experience
  • Has mastered routine elements of practice area skills, professional skills and knowledge of company operations
  • Has developed proficiency in legal research skills
  • Uses initiative and discretion in accomplishing routine assignments with minimum supervision
  • Drafts legal documents
  • May assist more senior legal assistants in litigation management
  • Attends internal company training programs
  • May participate in training Level I legal assistants in routine practice elements.
  • Undergoes a minimum of 5-10 hours of continuing legal education per calendar year
  • Hiring and Promotion Requirements:  Same as Level l with advancement to Level ll upon satisfactory completion of Level I requirement
  • Successfully completes Certified Legal Assistant examination.

Legal Assistant III

  • Meets Minimum Requirements
  • Has 6+ years experience
  • Demonstrates mastery of practice area skills sufficient to handle non-routine matters within individual area of authority using discretion and initiative
  • Drafts complex legal documents
  • May assist attorneys in litigation management
  • Attends internal company training programs
  • May supervise others
  • Participates in training and professional development of Level I and Level II legal assistants
  • Undergoes a minimum of 5-10 hours of continuing legal education per calendar year
  • Hiring and promotion requirements: Same as Legal Assistant I and ll above, with advancement to Legal Assistant III upon satisfactory completion of Legal Assistant II requirements

Legal Assistant IV; Senior Legal Assistant; Legal Assistant Manager; Practice Area Specialist

  • Meets Minimum Requirements
  • Has 10+ years experience
  • May practice consistently in a specific area of law, and be considered a specialist in that area, such as litigation, real estate, intellectual property, corporate transactions, etc.
  • Consistently demonstrates analytical ability, ingenuity, judgment and administrative skills in managing practice areas
  • Coordinates personnel and company resources in accomplishing legal work of their practice areas
  • May perform administrative staff supervision, accounts payable management, library management or other department administrative functions
  • May develop written procedures, work flow plans or other systems for practice areas as required
  • Drafts complex legal documents
  • May assist attorneys in litigation management by drafting pleadings and discovery
  • May plan and conduct internal company training programs
  • Supervise others
  • May chair company committees and task forces
  • May represent company at administrative hearings
  • Maintains and projects high levels of professionalism within the company and community
  • Promotes a moral end positive work ethic through personal commitment and leadership
  • Undergoes a minimum of 5-10 hours of continuing legal education per calendar year.
  • Successfully completes a Certified Legal Assistant Specialist examination in related field.
Sample Generic Job Description

Requirements

  • Successful completion of Certified Legal Assistant examination; and/or legal work experience of a nature and length of time acceptable to the company; Bachelor's degree from an accredited institution in a related field of study and/or legal work experience, of a nature and length of time acceptable to the company; and/or a certificate from an ABA approved paralegal training program or another paralegal training program acceptable to the company.
  • Minimum of ________ years experience in ________ (field of practice)
  • Thorough working knowledge computer software, including word processing, spreadsheet, document management, electronic mail and database programs
  • Proficient in legal research, including the use of Lexis, Westlaw, CD-Rom services, Internet services and library materials, and factual research
  • Demonstrated ability to interact at a professional level with clients and attorneys
  • Effective communications and organizational skills
  • Effective planning, problem solving and analytical skills, ingenuity, judgment and administrative skills in managing practice area
  • Demonstrate a positive attitude, the ability to work with others and a desire to learn
  • Be self-motivated requiring limited supervision
  • Undergoes a minimum of 5-10 hours of continuing legal education per calendar year

Primary Responsibilities

  • Use a wide range of legal or specialized knowledge to provide legal support services
  • Develop areas of expertise and company knowledge to improve client service and meet department objectives
  • Communicate critical information by conveying that information clearly, accurately, honestly and concisely in accordance with company and department policies and procedures
  • Provide services in a timely and efficient manner
  • Formulate and evaluate plans, work processes and decisions from a cost-benefit and/or legal point of view
  • Gather and review information to set goals
  • Identify, coordinate and optimize resources needed to execute plans; modify goals and plans, when needed
  • Identify patterns and trends to recognize potential problems
  • Use systematic approach to problem solving and troubleshooting
  • Strive for an error free work environment
  • Strive to exceed goals and expectations.
Are legal assistants exempt from overtime?

Because the nature of work performed by legal assistants varies widely, the determination of whether a position is exempt or non-exempt from overtime compensation must be made on a case by case basis, based on the requirements of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The law in this area continues to evolve, and human resources professionals should keep abreast of current developments.

Where do I get more information?

For further information on the legal assistant/paralegal profession, visit NALA's website, www.nala.org. Additional publications available from NALA include:

  • What is a Legal Assistant?
  • Model Standards and Guidelines for Utilization of Legal Assistants Annotated
  • Summary of Definitions of Terms Legal Assistant and Paralegal
  • The Certified Legal Assistant Program
  • Information - Recognition - Perspective
  • NALA's Bi-Annual National Utilization and Compensation Survey

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Date of Last Update:  12/19/2007