Our Experts | Lesley Shiels


In the past, legal support roles have been primarily two distinct functions: legal secretaries and paralegals. These roles traditionally had their own responsibilities, education and experience requirements.

Now, with technology changing the world before us, these roles have begun to transform into something new, and can overlap in some areas.

How will this affect your work as a legal support staff member?

Traditionally, legal secretaries did not require legal education and performed dictation, clerical duties,  scheduled appointments and managed an attorney’s phone calls. They worked under the supervision of an attorney or paralegal, and generally only worked for one or two attorneys at a time.

This was distinct from the paralegal role, which required a degree in paralegal studies or a paralegal certificate, and many times even a four year bachelor degree. Paralegal duties included legal research, preparing discovery and conducting client meetings and interviews.  

Over the years, “legal secretaries” have become “legal assistants,” and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably with “paralegals.” As technology has changed, there is less need for as much secretarial work. Attorneys typically draft their own documents and send their own emails, so many secretarial duties have been decreased.

In place are legal assistants, who now serve as many as five attorneys at a time and are much more tech-savvy. The term “assistant” has also been used to attract younger generations who don’t see the secretary title as a career.

Legal assistants and paralegals now handle a great deal of editing, research, discovery and litigation support which requires using document management software. Much of these responsibilities requires working with IT professionals and handling digitization and online storage processes.

As an applicant in these fields, you must become tech-savvy, learn how to use certain software programs and be willing to learn new ways to communicate, work and manage projects. Technology is changing the way law firms operate, from how they research a case to how they bill a client, so support staff must be prepared and trained for these changes.