Legal Assistants: Duties, Benefits, and More
There's no doubt about it — lawyers are some of the hardest working people. It's important to note, however, that behind every great lawyer is often a great legal assistant. To the untrained eye, legal assistants and paralegals are often falsely perceived as interchangeable. But despite some shared duties, their responsibilities and education differ significantly.
The distinction between a legal assistant and a paralegal
From appointment setting, to legal document preparation, to billing and invoicing, it takes a lot to run a law practice. A legal assistant — sometimes referred to as a legal office assistant — is someone who works closely with attorneys, helping shoulder the brunt of their administrative work. In doing so, attorneys can focus on their substantive legal work.
According to the American Bar Association, a paralegal is defined as someone 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. Unlike legal assistants, they spend more time doing work like researching laws and helping prepare and brief attorneys for their actual trials. Some might even say a paralegal is practically a lawyer, they just can’t represent clients in court, or provide legal advice.
Unlike legal assistants, a paralegal must receive special training and certification in most states with some exceptions. Although the requirements can vary, typically legal assistants may only be required to have a high school diploma.
That said, a career in legal support is fast-paced and competitive. Legal assistants hoping to stand out amongst applicants may opt to become certified accredited legal professionals. (CLP) Although it is not technically required to be a legal assistant, it can demonstrate your eagerness and commitment to supporting the busy and demanding world of a lawyer. Some attorneys will only consider certified legal assistance when going through resumes, so it certainly puts candidates at an advantage.
Duties of a legal assistant
One of the most critical aspects of finding and retaining clients is being communicative. With lawyers having much on their plates, building and researching their cases, being responsive and timely is challenging. This is where legal assistants can be incredibly convenient. They can get back to prospective clients via email, providing more information about the law firm, sifting through voicemails, and making follow-up calls. Although they can't offer any legal advice, they can answer basic questions about the law firm, which can significantly lighten a lawyer's workload.
The scheduling aspect of running a law firm can be a hindrance to your workflow. Your clients have busy lives of their own, so agreeing to a time that works for both you and them can result in perpetual email back and forths. Busy lawyers don't always have the time to get stuck in an email vortex trying to schedule a simple consultation. Not only can legal assistants handle the scheduling aspect of appointment setting, but they can also help avoid client no-shows and mix-ups by sending out appointment reminders.
Billing is a tremendous undertaking unto itself. In the absence of law firm time and billing software, lawyers may opt for a legal assistant to do their invoice preparation and billing tasks for them to free up hours of their week. Any invoices that are left unpaid, will usually be followed up on by legal assistants, attempting to collect payment and accommodate clients by offering flexible payment options.
It goes without saying that there are a lot of documents that go into each matter. Legal assistants may help gather requested documents that lawyers need for a case and help organize files between clients.
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Essential skills of a legal assistant
Legal professionals operate in a fast-paced environment. A great legal assistant is there to help bring order to the chaos, and clarity to the confusion. Someone with great structure and a natural ability to take on piles of documents and files and organize them accordingly is a key component to getting everything done fast enough.
Prioritization is of equal importance: knowing what work is urgent, and what can wait. Because lawyers work with such tight deadlines, a legal assistant serves to keep attorneys on track with their deadlines, appointments, and court appearances.
It's critical to know where each of your prospective clients stand to avoid any missed opportunities. Ideally, a law firm should have a law firm CRM in place to ensure that information about clients and cases is easily communicated between legal assistants and attorneys. Since a CRM stores everything in one central location, you never have to wonder what tasks need to be done next or who has been followed up with. Pipeline management makes it easy for everyone in your law firm to stay on top of how new clients are progressing, and what needs to be followed up with next.
In most law firms, lawyers don't have the bandwidth to answer the phone every time it rings, nor should they. A legal assistant is there to provide basic information about the law firm and answer any questions that don't require legal advice. It helps if a legal assistant has great interpersonal skills, and is able to maintain an accommodating and pleasant demeanor. In addition to handling phone calls, legal assistants are frequently in charge of responding to emails and greeting clients when they come into the practice, so a basic understanding of legal terminology is a big plus.
Technological skills are one of the most important attributes of a legal support professional. More and more modern law firms depend on legal technology such as CRM, legal client intake software, and case management software, so it’s necessary to know your way around them. Even in the absence of legal software, traditional firms on a manual system will still require some technical knowledge as they will be expected to use a word processor and spreadsheets. Not to mention, as e-filing becomes more ubiquitous in the courts, one must know how to electronically file a document.
Simply put, it’s important for any legal assistant to be tech savvy, and ideally familiarize themselves with the most common software frequently used in law firms, so they can apply their knowledge of the programs if they're hired.
In a law office, time equals money. The faster attorneys can complete their tasks, the faster they can get paid, and take on more clients. In reality, a large portion of a lawyer's to-do list is administrative tasks that eat up a significant portion of their day. That's why they need to rely on a legal assistant to help complete their tasks so they can focus on their clients. Therefore, legal assistants must be extremely punctual and capable of effectively prioritizing their time. A legal assistant with a quick turnaround and the ability to meet deadlines with ease is an asset to any law firm.
Legal assistants vs CRM software
Legal assistants can find themselves with a substantial amount of tasks on their plate. A legal CRM can help lighten their load by automating and streamlining tedious manual processes. However, some law firms may choose to opt for one or the other. There are some things a CRM can do that a legal assistant can't, and vice versa. Knowing the differences can help you decide whether you'd like one over the other or both.
A CRM captures your leads
A legal CRM can capture your leads automatically, and help you manage their status in one central location. Suppose a lead goes to your website and fills out a client intake form. Your CRM will instantly capture that information and push it into your database without requiring manual entry - this is the first step in law firm contact management. From that point on, CRM can systematically fill out forms and contracts with all of the acquired contact information into the right fields. That means, rather than having to ask an assistant to fill out a lengthy contract for you, potentially risking errors, a CRM can generate something like an attorney-client agreement within a matter of seconds by simply taking the information directly from your database.
A CRM nurtures on autopilot
A CRM follows up automatically when it matters most. Choosing a CRM with advanced automation features not only streamlines your law firm's communication, but it gives your clients the impression that they're being tended to at each stage of the client journey, when in fact it's your CRM communicating on autopilot.
Modern AI makes it possible to send out personalized, and targeted emails that make each lead and client feel like you're talking directly to them rather than a generic blanketed email. While an assistant can certainly follow up on your calls and emails for you, manually communicating is much more laborious with greater risks of errors.
In many cases, the period of time between a contact shifting into a client from a lead takes a significant amount of time. Relying on your legal assistant to follow up month after month may not be realistic. A CRM allows you to put together a drip campaign to continue nurturing leads from month to month increasing your chances of them becoming hired clients.
A CRM automates your onboarding
Every time you onboard a client you usually follow the same steps regardless of the case type. Estate planning lawyers require forms on their clients' assets. Real estate lawyers usually need photos of the title. Criminal defense lawyers might need wavers of appearance — you get the idea. Relying on an assistant to send the same email and form out and go over the same steps every time you onboard a client, can be a waste of energy when A CRM can automate all this for you.
A CRM automates appointment setting and follow-ups
With a CRM, there's no need for a legal assistant to call leads and clients to ask what time works best for an appointment. Automated appointment scheduling takes the hassle out of finding a time that works for everyone. It's as simple as sending a link with only the available time slots that you want your leads and clients to see. Clients can self-schedule with ease, and you'll receive an appointment confirmation. Your calendar is then auto-populated with appointments that have been scheduled around your availability. Not only does a CRM allow clients to self-schedule, but it also sends out automated appointment reminders significantly decreasing your chances of no-shows or mixups.
A CRM helps you make data-driven decisions
Your CRM can give you real-time insights thanks to legal reporting software directly built-in. Comprehensive reports can help you pinpoint what's working and what's not in your law firm, from where your best leads are coming from, to who your most productive staff members are. A CRM can be a game-changer for making better business decisions based on real data.
Efficiency: the primary goal
Ultimately, a legal assistant is there to help lawyers stay more organized and on top of their administrative work. Although at first glance, a legal assistant may seem like enough to streamline your administrative tasks alone, a closer look at what a CRM can do may help you realize that an assistant can only do so much with the number of hours they're given a day. And although a legal assistant can be incredibly helpful, a CRM like Lawmatics can save your firm so much time and money that you are actually losing money by not relying on automation software to boost your productivity.
Lawyers looking to simplify and facilitate their legal assistant's administrative tasks should seriously consider a CRM as a supplemental tool. Alternatively, since not every lawyer's budget allows for paying a full-time staff member, a CRM can be a practical substitute to perform the duties of a legal assistant.
One thing is for sure, if you're serious about growing your law practice, then you'll need to deliver an exceptional client journey from intake to closed matter, and you need all the help you can get. Are you interested to hear more about how Lawmatics CRM, client intake marketing automation for lawyers can put your efficiency on hyperdrive and optimize the client experience? Sign up for a free product demo today!
ABA, Educational Information for Paralegals, Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Differences and Similarities, americanbar.org, November 08, 2021
Lindsey Dean, 7 Ways eFiling Benefits Your Law Firm (and Boosts Your Success) onelegal.com/, August 3, 2017
Online Master of Legal Studies Programs, Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Differences and Similarities, onlinemasteroflegalstudies.com, February 2021 https://onlinemasteroflegalstudies.com/career-guides/become-a-paralegal/paralegal-vs-legal-assistant/