Lauren at www.unemploymentlawproject.org takes the  JobShadow interview.  Very cool insight into what it’s like being a legal assistant.  

What do you do for a living?

Legal Assistant

How would you describe what you do?

Completing routine tasks that help the office run smoothly and that allow attorneys to spend their time efficiently.

What does your work entail?

I work at a small law office, so I answer the phone and return messages, call the courts, schedule deadlines and appointments, schedule appointments with clients, proofread legal documents, answer basic legal questions, do filing etc. At a larger office, a secretary would handle more scheduling and phone work, while a legal assistant would focus more on filing, paperwork, keeping clients updated on their case, deadlines, working with the court, filing documents with the court, etc.

What’s a typical work week like?

I work 35-40 hours per week. Some legal assistants are expected to work for as long as the attorneys need them if there’s a deadline or a big case, so many legal assistants work overtime or are salaried.

How did you get started?

I started as a file clerk simply filing paperwork and then took on more tasks until I became a legal assistant.

What do you like about what you do?

I like learning about how attorneys find an angle on a case and craft an argument. Attorneys like challenges and expect everyone to pitch in as a team. In my experience if a mistake has been made, they don’t care who did it, they just want it fixed.

What do you dislike?

It can get monotonous with a lot of paperwork and a lot of phone calls. There is also a fair amount of negativity in law. It is an area focused on making arguments and resolving disputes.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I make about $16/hr

How much do people in your field make?

About $30-40,000/yr, but depending on experience and the area of law, you can make up to $50,000.

How much money do you make starting out?

What education or skills are needed to do this?

Most law offices want someone with a bachelor’s degree, but if you are smart and learn quickly, an AA degree would suffice.

What is most challenging about what you do?

I start to get callous after awhile and forget to be sympathetic. Everyday I hear from clients who have lost their house, lost their job, are getting divorced, have health problems, or are thousands of dollars in debt. These people are often angry and frustrated, but understanding the stress they are under and doing what you can to help makes a big difference.

What is most rewarding?

Feeling like a part of a team that resolves legal issues for our clients.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Ask questions about the legal process. It will help you do your job better and shows your employer that you don’t just clock in and clock out, you take interest in the field. If you are thinking of becoming a paralegal, all attorneys want legal assistant experience, so don’t expect to get a paralegal certificate and jump straight into being a paralegal.

How much time off do you get/take?

2-3 weeks/yr

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

We just shuffle paper.  Also, we never give legal advice. Only attorneys can do that.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

Unlike a lot of legal assistants, I don’t want to become an attorney. I like legal assistant work and don’t want to take on the $100,000 investment of law school. There are more graduates coming out of law school than there are positions for attorneys. That being said, becoming a legal assistant is a great way to figure out if the legal field is for you and if you want to become an attorney. You get a good feel for what attorneys do and what their day-to-day schedule is like.

What else would you like people to know about what you do?

It’s fast-paced, interesting, and rewarding! You must be detail oriented, and able to focus, re-focus, and multi-task well.

If you’re wondering what the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal is, basically a paralegal is a more highly skilled legal assistant. They tend to do more legal research and writing and have more in-depth knowledge of the law.