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Whether they are called legal assistants or legal secretaries, these professionals make the job of an attorney easier by performing the administrative tasks necessary to make a law office run smoothly. A legal secretary may have a legal background, but they are typically trained in a certificate or associate's degree program at a vocational school or community college.
Individuals who seek a position as a legal secretary usually have an interest in the law, but a legal background is not necessary to enter the field. Candidates are typically high school graduates and have basic administrative skills. They may seek enrollment into the legal secretary certificate program to get certified in their current position or begin as an entry-level employee. Certificate and associate's degree programs teach students the legal skills necessary in the position. In addition to legal knowledge, legal secretaries should know how to follow directions and be able to communicate well; they must also be computer literate and able to work well under pressure. A certificate or associate's degree as a legal secretary is not required for entry in the position. However, pursuing one of these programs can enhance employment opportunities.
Curriculum in a legal secretary certificate program is primarily targeted to those with advanced administrative responsibilities or who are already working as a legal secretaries. While focusing on the specialized training of a legal secretary, the program covers such topics as legal ethics, fields of law, communication skills, records management, pleadings, summons, litigation and confidentiality. Graduates gain an understanding of the legal system, legal terminology, procedures for filing and recording legal documents and conducting legal research. Students in the program learn to draft professional and legal correspondence, manage billing and use programs such as LexisNexis and QuickBooks.
The associate's degree program teaches prospective legal secretaries to help organize cases for presentation in court, counsel clients and provide overall support to the attorneys. The Associate of Applied Science degree program in paralegal studies covers general education topics, such as business math, communications and sociology, in addition to secretarial skills, like typing, transcription and office management. The bulk of the lessons cover legal terminology, the federal government, business law, legal billing, research, litigation and writing.
Following completion of this degree program, graduates will be qualified for entry-level positions working for an attorney.
Employers usually seek legal secretaries who have at least 3-5 years of experience in a law office supporting lawyers. Some employers will accept secretaries who have extensive administrative skills and are open to training. Legal secretaries with experience can expect to be given assignments and tasks upon hiring, including case scheduling, trial preparation, legal research, motion drafting and file management. There are several opportunities for legal secretaries with high school diplomas and experience, but completing a certificate or degree program makes room for advancement and increased responsibility. Most associate degree programs require students to secure an internship with an attorney to gain experience and increase the likelihood of future employment.
Obtaining certification as a legal secretary demonstrates commitment to the position. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends that legal secretaries be certified.
The National Association for Legal Professionals offers an Accredited Legal Secretary certification for experienced legal secretaries with one year of experience and completion of a business or legal course. The examination tests an individual's knowledge of accounting, business communications, legal terminology, judgment and office protocol. Certification is valid for five years, after which continuing education activities are required for recertification.
Completion of a degree or certificate program and at least three years of experience makes a graduate eligible to sit for the Professional Legal Secretary Certification, available from the National Association for Legal Professionals. Support professionals receive certification after taking a 4-part examination that covers topics, such as office procedures, preparation of legal documents, ethics and technology. Continuing education classes or activities are required for recertification every five years.
The National Federation of Paralegal Associations holds an annual convention where legal secretaries, legal assistants and paralegals may receive awards and scholarships while networking with other professionals. The association also offers classes across the country on multiple topics useful for legal assistants.
As technology and the law changes, legal secretaries learn new skills on the job. To stay up-to-date, and possibly earn continuing education credit, these assistants may find classes online or at local associations to learn about new equipment, software and management systems.