How to Become a Legal Secretary

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According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the job description of the legal secretary is a dynamic one, constantly evolving to meet advances in technology and the complexities of the U.S. legal system.

In fact, the ABA recognizes that legal secretaries and other litigation support staff will continue to fill a vital function within law firms, provided they embrace technology, adapt to change, demonstrate flexibility, and exhibit a desire for continuous learning.

Today’s legal secretary certification programs and voluntary national certification opportunities provide individuals with the skills and credentials necessary to handle the rigors, challenges, and the opportunities of the profession, both now and well into the future.

What is a Legal Secretary?

Legal secretaries perform the essential administrative duties within a law office or other legal setting, although their advanced knowledge and skills of the legal system and the nuances of the practice of law separate them from typical administrative assistants.

And although legal secretaries perform some of the traditional tasks of their predecessors, such as answering phones, filing, and organizing, they now take on a much greater role in law offices, performing high-value activities such as managing client relationships and drafting legal documents.

Legal secretaries work mainly in law offices; however, they are also valuable additions to government agencies, corporate legal departments, and public interest firms, among others.

Legal secretaries are highly adaptive professionals capable of working under pressure and under tight deadlines. These professionals are self-disciplined and are experts at time management, and they possess excellent interpersonal communication and organizational skills. Legal secretaries have strong writing skills, as they are responsible for drafting and proofreading correspondence and legal documents on a daily basis.

Job Duties and Responsibilities

Although legal secretary job duties vary according to the practice environment, firm size, and/or legal specialty, a number of responsibilities remain constant throughout the profession, such as:

  • Receiving visitors
  • Answering and transferring phone calls
  • Scheduling and arranging meetings and conferences
  • Arranging for travel, including scheduling transportation and making hotel reservations
  • Entering and processing docket cases, notices of hearings, postponements, reports, and other data into computer files
  • Producing legal documents such as pleadings, briefs, complaints, orders, and subpoenas from notes, dictation, shorthand, or other rough drafts
  • Transcribing legal dictation, minutes of meetings, conferences, interviews, etc.
  • Proofreading and sending prepared materials
  • Maintaining and updating system databases
  • Receiving, sorting, logging, and distributing incoming mail
  • Logging and scheduling administrative hearings
  • Preparing trial notebooks, exhibits, documents, and other materials for case presentation
  • Maintaining office inventory and ordering supplies and equipment
  • Scheduling repair and maintenance on office equipment
  • Maintaining attorney calendars

Senior legal secretaries are often responsible for more high-level job duties, many of which may be highly confidential or sensitive, such as:

  • Overseeing the calendar of activities for several attorneys or attorneys within a specific department
  • Serving as a liaison between attorneys and department personnel
  • Serving as a liaison between attorneys and the court system
  • Coordinating the administrative support activities for a legal division
  • Establishing and revising forms, procedures, and standards for office correspondence

What is the Difference Between a Paralegal and Legal Secretary?

Although the job duties of paralegals (often referred to as legal assistants) and legal secretaries often intersect, they are actually two very distinct support professionals in a law firm. While legal secretaries are responsible for most of the administrative duties of a law office, paralegals are responsible for assisting attorneys in the delivery of legal services.

Paralegals possess a deep understanding of the legal system and substantive and procedural law. To become a paralegal, individuals must complete an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved formal paralegal program. Paralegal programs are offered as diploma, associate, and bachelor degree programs.

The focus of paralegals tends to lean toward case management, such as preparing case summaries, researching, and documenting cases. Many paralegals assist attorneys in courts, although they are not permitted to give legal advice or represent a client in court. And like attorneys, paralegals may often choose to specialize in a specific area of law, such as immigration, bankruptcy, baking, corporate, and criminal defense.

How to Become a Legal Secretary: Earning a Career Diploma and Professional Certification

Complete a Formal Legal Secretary Certificate/Career Diploma Program – Individuals who want to learn how to become a legal secretary are often best served by completing a formal certificate/career diploma program offered through a vocational, professional, or technical school or college. Legal secretary diploma programs, which often include between 6 and 12 months of study and practical training, prepare students in everything from managing office finances to keyboarding to PC basics to filing court documents.

Courses are supplemented by practical exercises designed to help students master the skills they are learning. Many of today’s programs prepare students to take the NALS certification examination upon graduation.

Coursework within a legal secretary certificate/career diploma program often includes:

  • Stress and time management
  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Administrative office procedures
  • Technologies in the workplace
  • Using a personal computer and common software platforms
  • Writing, punctuation, spelling, grammar, capitalization
  • Legal terminology
  • Professionalism, risk management
  • Legal research
  • Office management

Many schools now offer legal secretary diploma/certification programs in an entirely online format. These programs allow students to complete all of the program requirements, including coursework and practical training exercises, through an interactive, web-based format.

Earn Voluntary Professional Certification – Professional certification, although a voluntary process, is common among legal secretaries interested in achieving a high level of credibility in the profession and enhancing their employment opportunities.

The National Association for Legal Professionals (NALS) offers the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) designation for legal secretaries who have three years of experience in the legal field or a post-secondary degree. Qualified candidates must take and pass the PLS exam, which consists of four parts:

  • Written communications
  • Office procedures and technology
  • Ethics and judgment skills
  • Legal knowledge and skills

Students must take and pass all four parts of the exam to pass. The PLS certificate is valid for a period of 5 years. Recertification requires the completion of at least 75 continuing legal education hours and activities within the five-year certification period.

Many legal secretary certification programs administer the exam to students upon graduation. The PLS exam application and related materials can be found here.

Salary Expectations for Legal Secretaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), legal secretaries earned an average salary of $46,470 as of May 2015, with the top 10 percent in the profession earning more than $72,890.

BLS figures also show the top-paying states for legal secretaries during this period were:

  • Washington D.C.
  • New York
  • California
  • Delaware
  • Massachusetts

Similarly, the top-paying metropolitan areas for legal secretaries were:

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $67,700
  • Washington D.C/Arlington, Alexandria, VA: $67,510
  • San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA: $67,290
  • San Rafael, CA: $64,900
  • New York City, White Plains, NY/Jersey City NJ: $60,520
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