AT A GLANCE
Legal assistants, sometimes called legal secretaries, are crucial to any legal organization. They play an important role in communication and office administration. Legal assistants are the ones who make sure each and every document meets the standards required.
Discover the many different aspects of a legal assistant’s work!
THE WORK OF A LEGAL ASSISTANT
Legal assistants are indispensable members of the legal profession. Rarely referred to any more by the title of “legal secretary”, legal assistants usually carry out functions in four main areas: communication, organization and coordination, legal work, and general administrative work.
A legal assistant handles much of the communications in a law office. A legal assistant may be responsible for:
- Dealing with clients who drop into the law office;
- Sending legal briefs to other law firms; and
- Managing email correspondence with suppliers.
Legal assistants play a key role in coordinating internal and external communications. Often a legal assistant is the first person individuals meet when they come to a law office. A legal assistant may also be responsible for:
- Greeting clients;
- Answering the phones;
- Taking and delivering messages;
- Receiving and distributing mail;
- Making appointments; and
- Producing reports and creating presentation documents.
Organization and coordination
Many lawyers rely on a legal assistant to help them do their job well. Legal assistants fulfil a variety of functions for their employer. For example, they:
- Manage the lawyer’s schedule;
- Set up office systems;
- Coordinate meetings and conferences; and
- Confirm attendees for various meetings.
Assistants may also:
- Create information management systems;
- Set up and manage filing systems;
- Create databases for purposes such as mailings;
- Maintain a bring forward system (a follow-up system designed to make sure deadlines are met); and
- Ensure various documents are up to date (for example, client files accounts or the office expense accounts).
A legal assistant’s work differs from the work of other assistants because it requires a solid understanding of legal terminology and procedures. The exact nature of the work legal assistants do, however, depends on the specialty of the lawyer or lawyers they work for. Their duties may include:
- Formatting documents related to criminal, corporate, family and other types of law;
- Ensuring legal documents are properly prepared (they are on the required paper size and using the correct font, for example);
- Doing legal research;
- Making sure legal documents are submitted by the deadlines;
- Keeping the firm’s legal documents, such as archives of meeting minutes, are up to date; and
- Taking notes at conferences, hearings or proceedings.
Commissioner of oaths
In Ontario, legal assistants can be asked to administer an oath for a lawyer. To be qualified to do so, a legal assistant must be recognized as a “commissioner of oaths” by the appropriate body. Administering an oath is an important task since giving false information under oath is a criminal offense.
General administrative work
Legal assistants must also carry out administrative tasks, such as:
- Making photocopies;
- Collating documents;
- Transcribing letters, procedures and memos dictated by the lawyer;
- Ordering office supplies and arranging outside services; and
- Transcribing audio recordings of meetings.
Wherever there are lawyers, you’ll find legal assistants!
You may find legal assistants at work in:
- Legal firms;
- Court houses;
- Federal, provincial and municipal government offices; and
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
To become a legal assistant, you must:
- Have a secondary school diploma; and
- Have completed a college-level legal assistant program (one or two years).
In Ontario, Collège Boréal and La Cité offer this training in French. To learn more about the legal assistant programs offered at these two colleges, visit the institutions’ websites:
If you would like to work as a legal assistant in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba after training in French, you will need to do your training in another province or with your employer.
For more detailed information on a career as a legal assistant in Alberta, visit the Alberta Occupational Profiles website.
More and more of the work done by legal assistants involves computers, which has greatly changed the nature of their work. As a result, legal assistants must be comfortable with the various computer resources available. Examples include:
- The Internet;
- Legal databases; and
- Computerized billing systems.
Legal assistants must develop a variety of legal skills and have a sound knowledge of legal matters. This is imperative to ensure legal files and procedures are followed up and deadlines are met.
Since rules of procedure as well as timelines and deadlines may change over time, legal assistants must stay on top of any such changes to ensure compliance. Ongoing training and updating is essential in order for assistants to stay current.
The future for legal assistants is bright. There is generally a higher demand for legal assistants in larger cities, where the rate of pay is also higher.
Assistants specializing in the legal field have better employment prospects than assistants without a specialty.
Here are some of the important skills needed for a career as a legal assistant.
Ability to plan
Given the volume of documents that legal assistants handle and the variety of duties they have, legal assistants must be able to set priorities, meet deadlines and have exceptional organizational skills.
Legal assistants must be extremely diplomatic and show discretion since they are often the person clients first come into contact with and have access to confidential information.
In the course of their work, legal assistants must observe deadlines, legal procedures as well as writing and grammar rules.
Good written communication skills
A great deal of a legal assistant’s work involves drafting and revising documents. As a result, legal assistants must have excellent communication skills, an eye for detail and a good command of French and English.
These are just some examples of skills you would need. Qualities like showing close attention to detail in high-stress situations under tight deadlines would also help make you an excellent legal assistant.