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Navigating Legal Careers: The Distinct Roles of Legal Secretaries and Paralegals Explained

Published on: Feb 20, 2024

Paralegals and legal secretaries play a critical role in the legal system, with both positions addressing a variety of administrative, professional, financial, and legal tasks that help a law firm operate successfully. However, while both positions can lead to rewarding careers, there is often confusion regarding the responsibilities of each role. 

To help guide you on the distinctions between the roles of a legal secretary vs paralegal, we have prepared the guide below, where we will detail the distinct roles of a legal secretary and paralegal.

Understanding the Roles

Although both the roles of legal secretary and paralegal meaningfully contribute to the legal field, if you are trying to determine which position is the right path for you, it is important to consider the distinct responsibilities and qualifications of each.

Legal Secretary

Legal secretary, legal assistant, and paralegal are often used interchangeably but are each distinct jobs. While legal secretaries are valuable members of the legal team, their duties differ from those of a paralegal. A legal secretary is usually known as an administrative assistant with legal training, but their work is not of a substantive legal nature.

Additionally, while there are no legal requirements to meet any specific educational or training requirements as a legal secretary, it is not uncommon for those in this position to take vocational secretarial courses, such as at Purdue Global, or other courses that can help you get ahead in the profession.

While legal secretaries handle a variety of tasks, some of the more common duties in a legal secretary job description consist of:

  • Communication

    Legal secretaries are often responsible for handling communications with attorneys and other legal professionals within the law office. They answer phone calls, answer general questions, and take messages. They also manage emails, distribute memos within the office, and help draft routine letters.

  • Document Preparation

    Legal secretaries help prepare and format various legal documents, including contracts, briefs, pleadings, and agreements. They ensure that these documents are accurate and free of grammatical errors. They also manage document filing systems, both electronically and physically, to ensure that cases are easy to retrieve and well-organized.

  • Calendar Management

    A legal secretary often manages a lawyer’s schedules and calendars, including meetings, court appearances, depositions, and other appointments.

  • Client Support

    Legal secretaries often interact with clients by handling basic inquiries, scheduling appointments, and passing on messages between clients and attorneys. Additionally, they assist with client intake and ensure that all relevant information, legal advice, and documents are properly recorded and stored in client files.

  • Administrative Tasks

    Legal secretaries must also handle various administrative duties, including scanning, photocopying, and faxing documents. These professionals are also responsible for maintaining office equipment, ordering office supplies, hiring a court reporter, and ensuring that the office environment is professional and organized.


According to NALA, The Paralegal Association’s Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility, paralegals can perform a range of legal tasks under the guidance of a licensed attorney. These tasks include conducting research, communicating with clients, preparing documents, and assisting in trial preparation.

It is important to note that paralegals can have a wide range of responsibilities depending on the type of law and the size of the firm they work for. However, in general, paralegals are usually expected to perform the following duties.

  • Research

    Paralegals assist lawyers by conducting legal research and reviewing regulations, statutes, and legal precedents. This role is also usually in charge of gathering relevant information and analyzing the details to support legal arguments and case strategies.

  • Drafting

    Paralegals prepare legal documents, including motions, pleadings, briefs, contracts, and deposition summaries. Paralegals ensure that these documents are formatted accurately and meet legal requirements.

  • Management of Cases

    Paralegals have a critical role when it comes to case management and case preparation. Paralegals are often responsible for organizing case files, maintaining calendars, tracking deadlines and legal proceedings, and managing legal documents and evidence.

  • Communicating With Clients

    Paralegals may have direct contact with clients depending on the firm, such as a family law firm. As a legal professional, paralegals may interview clients to obtain information, provide updates regarding case progress, and answer routine questions. Paralegals may also help prepare clients for meetings, depositions, and trials and review the legal procedures involved.

  • Preparing for Trial

    Due to their role in supporting lawyers, paralegals often help attorneys prepare for trial. Preparing for trial generally involves gathering evidence, coordinating witness interviews, and preparing trial exhibits. In some instances, paralegals may also assist with organizing trial notebooks, developing trial strategies, and drafting trial-related documents.

Be sure to check out our more detailed guide on the typical day in the life of a paralegal

The Primary Differences Between a Legal Secretary and Paralegal

Although there is some overlap in the duties that paralegals and legal secretaries often perform, paralegals tend to have a more significant legal role. Paralegals are tasked with more substantive legal responsibilities and working closely with lawyers to assist with various legal tasks. In comparison, legal secretaries mainly concentrate on administrative duties within a law office and specialize in addressing the firm's clerical needs.

Furthermore, while there are certifications and degrees available for both legal secretaries and paralegals, if you are seeking a career in one of these fields, it is crucial to ensure the educational program you choose is right for you and the position.

Educational Pathways

There are usually three academic pathways for individuals looking to become a paralegal. They include obtaining an associate’s, bachelor’s, or post-baccalaureate certificate. Many individuals seeking a position as a paralegal tend to get a degree in legal studies, political science, or other related fields.

In addition to the degree, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) recommends that individuals wanting to become a paralegal or further their career complete a certifying examination to obtain a paralegal certification. Although an employer does not always require these certifications, they often benefit the individual pursuing them.

Some of the top programs for obtaining a paralegal certification include the following:

It is also not uncommon for paralegals to decide to pursue a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree. These degrees are designed to provide individuals with a better and more comprehensive understanding of the legal system, improve their legal skills, and make them more competitive in the job market.

Legal Secretaries

Some legal secretaries start in entry-level positions with a high school diploma or a General Education Development (GED) certificate. However, many pursue further education by completing associate degree programs or certification courses explicitly designed for legal secretaries.

Several community and vocational colleges, such as the Certified Legal Secretary Course at Central Michigan University, offer one to two-year programs that cover legal topics like court-filing procedures, legal terminology, and criminal law. These programs provide students with an understanding of law office procedures. Students may also learn standard office skills like filing, spreadsheets, accounting, and word processing.

Securing the Role

Whether you want to work as a paralegal or legal secretary, obtaining relevant experience can be very helpful in securing your desired job, especially in the face of tough competition. To gain experience, you can look for internships, volunteer work, or assist pro bono clinics. Networking and joining professional associations such as NALA can also help you connect with the right people who can offer guidance in finding a job as a paralegal or legal secretary. 

Furthermore, ensuring your resume is up-to-date and highlights your transferable skills can also be incredibly beneficial, as will interview prep. Because many paralegal positions require confident communicators, you should be able to showcase this skill in your resume and during the interview.

Career Outlook and Advancement


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, paralegal employment will grow 15% from 2016 to 2026. Law firms are also likely to hire more paralegals as they try to increase the efficiency of their legal services and reduce their costs. As a result, these positions will often take on a hybrid role within the law firm, performing traditional paralegal duties and tasks previously assigned to other legal support staff.

The median annual wage for paralegals is around $59,200. However, this amount will typically depend on the type of work the paralegal performs, the firm they work for, and their industry. For example, the median annual wages for paralegals in the top sectors are as follows: 

  • Finance and Insurance: $73,050

  • Federal Government: $72,320

  • Local Government: $58,000

  • Legal Services: $57,250

  • State Government: $50,310 

Over the next decade, approximately 38,000 new paralegal positions will open annually. Although law firms will still be the primary employers of these legal professionals, many large organizations are expanding their legal departments, which may further boost the demand for paralegals.

Be sure to check out our more detailed guides on the paralegal job outlook and the typical career paths of a paralegal.  

Legal Secretary 

The demand for legal secretaries may be lower than for paralegals, but the salaries for this position continue to rise. According to Zippia, The Career Expert, legal secretary salaries have increased by 11% in the last five years, with an average legal salary of $41,725. 

However, it is essential to note that the statistics on job openings and pay for legal secretaries will vary depending on geographical location. Certain states have more job opportunities for legal secretaries and offer higher pay scales. For instance, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Florida are among the states with the highest number of job openings for legal secretaries. 

Moreover, as legal secretaries gain experience, they can take on different roles or advance to other positions, such as office assistant, legal assistant, or executive assistant. These changes may also increase the salary. For instance, the average executive legal assistant salary in the United States is $53,442, while the average salary for legal assistants is $55,644.

Other Roles to Consider

In the legal field, there are various positions to consider beyond paralegal or legal secretary roles, mainly if you are keen on working in legal support. 

Legal Assistant

Legal assistants typically perform administrative and organizational tasks essential for a law office's smooth functioning. These tasks may include scheduling appointments, answering phone calls, preparing documents, and keeping track of daily activities. Being detail-oriented is a requirement for legal assistants, and individuals who can efficiently manage multiple tasks simultaneously are particularly well-suited for this position.

Be sure to check out our detailed comparison of a paralegal vs a legal assistant

Law Clerk 

A law clerk usually refers to a law school graduate who provides a judge or an attorney with assistance regarding legal matters such as research, writing, and analysis. A law clerk’s duties generally depend on whether the individual works in the courts or at a firm. However, their main tasks often include researching laws and legal precedents, advising legal team members and the judge on case facts, managing evidence, and providing additional legal assistance.

Be sure to check out our detailed comparison of a paralegal vs a law clerk

Legal Researcher

Legal researchers are generally responsible for collecting information, using public resources to find case-relevant materials, identifying relevant laws and regulations, and summarizing their findings for a law firm or legal department. This position may also communicate with clients, update relevant parties on their research, respond to discovery requests, coordinate with the legal team, and apply logical deduction principles to uncover the facts.

Compliance Officer

Compliance officers ensure that companies and organizations adhere to all legal regulations and industry-specific guidelines. This position is also often in charge of monitoring internal policies and bylaws. In the event of regulatory misconduct, compliance officers may need to address these concerns and find solutions to these problems. 

Case Manager 

Case managers at law firms optimize client services so that the law office can run efficiently and caseloads can be managed effectively. A case manager’s duties are predominantly administrative and include organizing case files, addressing case issues, completing the necessary documentation, answering client questions, and referring them to the right attorney. The case manager may also be responsible for client billing and case time management.

The Bottom Line

Paralegals and legal secretaries perform important functions at law firms and the companies that employ them. While paralegals are entrusted with case-sensitive legal tasks, legal secretaries are also known to support their attorneys. 

If you are considering pursuing a job as a paralegal or legal secretary, the next step is to research educational and training opportunities tailored to your chosen path.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kasia Nelson, Esq.

Kasia Nelson is a licensed attorney and skilled legal content writer with years of experience. With a background in corporate immigration law, she is well-versed in the intricacies of producing legally accurate and well-researched work. 


  • Michigan State University, B.S.

  • Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Law Licensures

  • Michigan

Kasia Nelson

Kasia Nelson, Esq.


Education: Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Knowledge: Corporate Immigration Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning