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Your Paralegal or Legal Assistant: What's in a Name?

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Years ago, when I worked for Westlaw, I made the mistake of referring to one of my colleagues as a "salesperson" in an email to a client. After dealing with the client's problem, I received a phone call.

"So I noticed that you referred to me as a salesperson, but I'm not a salesperson. I'm an inside account manager." That's when I realized that people take their titles pretty seriously.

Don't believe me? Run a search for "paralegal or legal assistant." You can really ruffle some feathers when you confuse the two.

According to the American Bar Association, paralegal and legal assistant can be used interchangeably. The current definition states:

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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

The old school of thought was that paralegal and legal assistant were different jobs. Paralegals didn't want to be called legal assistants because they typically completed additional educational requirements to become paralegals. Now, even though the National Association of Legal Assistants and the ABA agree that the terms are interchangeable, you might still encounter pushback if you treat them accordingly.

The problem? Secretaries.

You don't hear the term secretary very often these days, unless you're talking about a government official like the Secretary of State. Instead, we've shifted to the term "administrative assistant." Since "legal administrative assistant" is a mouthful, some employees-formerly-known-as-legal-secretaries are now called legal assistants. That, however, is not an accurate representation of their duties. (According to NALS,"legal secretary" isn't even an accurate description of the changing role for a legal administrative assistant; the organization suggests the newer term, "Client Service Coordinator.")

Your office life will be much easier if you just ask employees what they want to be called. If someone is performing paralegal/legal assistant tasks, find out which term she or he prefers. If your administrative assistant doesn't want to be called a legal secretary, consider the terms administrative assistant or client service coordinator.

It doesn't cost you anything to accommodate your staff's title requests, but doing so can make law firm life more pleasant.

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