What Is a Legal Assistant? Explaining Their Role in a Law Firm

What does the day in the life of a legal assistant look like?

It’s hard to explain exactly what a legal assistant does, as every one of them works on different types of cases in different practice areas.

While the title seems self-explanatory, many people confuse them with paralegals. But the two do different jobs in a law firm.

A legal assistant generally assists with administrative duties in a law firm — think billing, answering emails, and scheduling meetings.

Law firms that don’t recognize the significance of a legal assistant will miss out on the value they add to your everyday life as a lawyer.

Let’s break down everything about legal assistants, including what they do, how to hire and work with one, how they differ from paralegals, and more.

What is a legal assistant?

A legal assistant (or legal secretary) is a professional working in a law firm who assists a lawyer with miscellaneous administrative tasks. An excellent legal assistant is invaluable, assisting with the day-to-day tasks, including answering phones, billing, and scheduling appointments.

That’s a general definition. But the job description isn’t enough of an explanation. Every legal assistant does something different, as the role and responsibilities that come with it change depending on the law firm.

Governing bodies currently define legal assistants as those who perform the duties of both a paralegal and a legal secretary. That is, some legal assistants could do more legal research and prepare discovery while others perform more administrative tasks like filing.

Ultimately, the job duties of any particular legal assistant come down to their qualifications and the needs of the law firm.

Regardless, they exist to take care of much of the time-consuming work that distracts and reduces a lawyer’s productivity.

Take a look at some of the job duties in this job description.

legal assistant

What does a legal assistant do?

We know that a legal secretary supports lawyers with all sorts of legal tasks that an administrative assistant might do. Let’s look at the specifics.

  • Scheduling and calendar coordination. Legal assistants can schedule and coordinate meetings, interviews, and make appointments for the legal team. This includes scheduling discoveries and expert witnesses.
  • Managing client communications and client services. Most legal assistants will handle client communications, from answering calls and emails to greeting clients who come into the office. It’s important, as clients expect quick responses that a lawyer is often too busy to manage.
  • Law firm billing and accounting. Legal assistants can help with invoicing and handle much of the law firm’s accounting.
  • Legal research and writing. With the right qualifications, a legal assistant may be able to help with legal research and drafting legal documents.
  • Legal document organization. This involves preparing, editing, formatting, and revising legal correspondence and documents. It also involves creating, maintaining, and storing client files as appropriate.
  • Basic preparation and coordination of hearings, trials, and pleadings. Many legal assistants help with the basics of preparing for court.

Legal assistant vs. paralegal: Differences and similarities

The two terms, legal assistant and paralegal, are often used interchangeably. The BLS continues to group them together and insist that they share responsibilities.

They aren’t entirely wrong — many legal assistants and paralegals do similar duties. It all depends on the specific law firm and position.

The ABA revised its definition of paralegal to emphasize the substantive legal work they do.


Because many paralegals represent clients in court and handle complex and crucial legal matters — something that a legal assistant can’t do.

But at the end of the day, both provide a lot of value to a law firm.

Legal assistants are more administrative

The bulk of a legal assistant’s work involves routine tasks on behalf of a lawyer. For example, legal assistants can schedule meetings, prepare paperwork, and greet clients.

If you’re a lawyer who spends a lot of time completing non-billable tasks, a legal assistant could improve your firm’s efficiency and allow you to spend more time on billable work.

You can become a legal assistant with as little as a certificate, although many have associate’s degrees. Again, it comes down to the specific law firm and position.

Completing a legal assistant program is more of a sign of dedication to the career.

Paralegals work on substantial legal matters

While paralegals aren’t able to practice law, they can take on more law-related tasks than legal assistants.

A day in the life of a paralegal could involve preparing a host of legal documents, then going to assist at a trial.

Afterward, they could go back to the office and conduct an interview with a witness.

Paralegals are more cost-effective than hiring an additional lawyer, especially in cases where all you need is a hand with minor legal work. A paralegal can also provide limited legal advice to clients.

Any law firm that’s spending too much time on smaller legal tasks or is having trouble providing client-centered service would do well by hiring a paralegal.

How the roles overlap

Many states don’t require formal legal studies. In those states, the job title of “paralegal” and “legal assistant” can bleed into one another.

Plenty of legal assistants and paralegals handle both administrative duties and assist with law-related matters.

Like many other aspects of the law world, everything changes with your jurisdiction.

How much do legal assistants make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal assistants make an average of $56,230 per year, or $27.03 an hour.

It’s important to note that the BLS does not differentiate between paralegals and legal assistants. Most legal assistants make less than paralegals — keep that in mind!

legal assistant salary
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Indeed reports that legal assistants make around $44,552 per year.

But like all jobs, including lawyers, pay varies heavily from state to state and depends on your practice area and years of experience.

Take a look at the variation of wages in the following states.

legal assistant salary range
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As you can see, there is massive variation in earning potential depending on many factors. But with the right experience and education, any legal assistant can become a top earner.

Hiring a freelance legal assistant

Not every law firm would benefit from hiring a full-time, in-house legal assistant. Smaller firms, in particular, may not need that much assistance on a day-to-day basis.

In this case, hiring a freelance or virtual legal assistant could be the remedy. It allows you to delegate administrative work that may only take up a few hours per week without the burden of hiring a full-time employee.

The right virtual legal assistant can help you reclaim those lost hours as billable hours. It’s a good way to test the effectiveness and efficiency of a legal assistant and how they could benefit your firm.

And the best part? You don’t have to worry about the overhead and technicalities involved in hiring an in-house worker.

But make sure to think about the job description you post to job boards, as legal assistant means many things to many different people.

How to hire a virtual legal assistant

Decided you want to hire a freelance legal assistant? There are two routes you can take.

First, you can find someone directly.

Maybe you know someone through word of mouth. Or, you could post a job ad on a job board for a freelance role. Whatever you do, it will require a bit of work as you go through the hiring process.

However, it’s a good strategy to ensure you’re hiring someone who’ll mesh well with you and your firm’s culture. Going through the traditional interview process can help you vet whoever you hire and ensure they’re someone you can rely on in the long term.

Alternatively, you could work with a legal outsourcing company or a freelance network like Upwork to find legal assistants.

Hire an Esquire is an outsourcing company that specializes in connecting freelance legal assistants and paralegals with lawyers. They handle all of the screening and ensure you get a high-quality candidate.

hire an esquire
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On platforms like Upwork, you post a job, and a pool of candidates submit their pitch. You pick who you want to hire. This is perfectly fine if you’re looking for general administrative help, but we recommend other routes for more specialized law-related tasks.

What to think about when hiring

You likely know by now whether or not you want to hire a legal assistant.

Let’s start the process by considering these questions.

Do I need a legal assistant or a paralegal?

As we’ve discussed, there are key differences and similarities between the two roles. It gets more complicated when you consider different practice areas and geographical locations.

Consider what tasks you need help with. If they’re more law-related, you may want to hire a paralegal. If administrative tasks are the primary pain point, then a legal assistant will likely suffice.

Do I need a full-time employee or a freelancer?

Consider your law firm’s budget, size, and needs before you decide whether to hire a full-time employee or a freelancer. A freelancer is recommended if you have less frequent, on-demand tasks that don’t require 40 hours a week of assistance.

Do they need a particular skill set?

Many legal assistants and paralegals specialize in certain practice areas, just as you do. In addition, the job of a legal assistant will vary depending on the particular law firm they worked at, so their experience could be different than what you expect.

Find a legal assistant who’s worked in your practice area (like family law) and has done the required tasks.

Hiring a legal assistant to improve your law firm’s efficiency

If you’re a busy lawyer struggling with the balance between billable work and administrative tasks, a legal assistant may be able to help.

They can help you free up time to spend on billable work, so you can earn more money, far more than the cost of a legal assistant.

Plus, they can help you get back to the work you love doing, rather than tedious paperwork.