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TCL > April 2003 Issue > From Our Readers

April 2003       Vol. 32, No. 4       Page  35
From Our Readers

From Our Readers

Dear Editor:

It was probably inadvertent, but the misuse of the term "legal assistant" in your article on "Smart Staffing: How Administrative Staff Can Boost Your Bottom Line" [Davis and Smith, 32 The Colorado Lawyer 31 (Jan. 2003)] creates confusion in an otherwise excellent article on law office management. It is well documented by statute, court rulings and case law, as well as in the professional literature, that the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are synonymous—just as "lawyer" and "attorney" are the same.

Colorado Bar Association guidelines [see below] state that legal assistants are "also known as paralegals," and the American Bar Association is explicit in referring to "a legal assistant or paralegal" as "a person" (singular) in their 1997 definition of the profession. I have included a separate page with this letter citing a number of sources for your reference. [Not shown.]

Your article stated: "Legal assistants perform high-end clerical/secretarial functions, including file organization, docketing, and transcription, among other generally not billable tasks. Paralegals review and analyze documents, draft legal documents and correspondence, and perform factual and legal research among other billable tasks."

In this context, "legal assistant" was surely intended to be "legal secretary" or "administrative assistant." Your readers may need to be reminded that "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are synonymous terms, and their time would be billed the same—just as an "attorney’s" time and a "lawyer’s" time is billed the same.

There is a great deal of overlap in duties performed by everyone in a law office, but the universally accepted definition of legal assistant/paralegal must not be compromised if the ethical, legal, and professional standards for their services are to be preserved. Trying to distinguish the terms diverts attention from the point of the article—that there are great benefits to a law office using legal assistants/paralegals.

Vicki Kunz, CLAS
President, The National
Assoc. of Legal Assistants
1516 S. Boston Ave.
Tulsa, OK 74119
(918) 587-6828

• Colorado Bar Association Guidelines
(Adopted by Board of Governors, 26 July 1986)
Definition of Legal Assistant:

Legal Assistants (also known as paralegals) are a distinguishable group of persons who assist attorneys in the delivery of legal services. Through formal education, training and experience, legal assistants have knowledge and expertise regarding the legal system and substantive and procedural law which will qualify them to do work of a legal nature under the direct supervision of a licensed attorney.

• American Bar Association Definition (1997)

A legal assistant or paralegal is a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.

Sharon Davis and Larry Smith Reply:

The authors acknowledge that in many organizations, but not universally, the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal" are used interchangeably.  Indeed, there is an ongoing debate among legal assistant and paralegal organizations regarding the use of these terms.

In fact, partly in response to the increasing number of legal secretaries and administrative assistants using the title "legal assistant" or "lawyer’s assistant," the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Assistants recently changed its terminology to abandon "legal assistant" and use "paralegal" exclusively to refer to those personnel performing substantive legal work.

Here, the authors did not intend to take a position in that debate, but rather to distinguish between billable and non-billable tasks performed by law firm employees. The primary theme of the article is that law firms can benefit greatly from the use of quality support personnel.



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