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Paralegal or Legal Assistant?

The debate over professional titles continues.

By Rod Hughes

(Originally appeared in print as "A Rose By Any Other Name")

November/December 2002 Table of Contents


In an online opinion poll conducted during the course of 29 days in the summer of 2002, Legal Assistant Today gathered 1,897 responses from legal professionals on the issue of preference between the titles of paralegal and legal assistant. The results overwhelming demonstrated a strong desire by some in the legal community to draw a more clear line of distinction between the two terms.

For the better part of the profession’s history, the legal assistant and paralegal titles have been largely considered synonymous. However, as the legal assistant community continues to evolve, the issue of just which title smells sweeter has become hotly debated. Recently, the membership of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations voted to remove the legal assistant title from its definition of the profession, breaking with the industry standard of interchangeability of the terms (see July/August 2002 LAT). Additionally, paralegal-legal assistants have increasingly voiced concern regarding the trend of some legal secretaries to use the title of legal assistant in both the law firm and corporate environments.

“Numerous secretaries with no legal training … and none of the responsibilities of the paralegals in our office use the title legal assistant because they don’t want to be called just secretaries,” according to one respondent, who mirrored the comments of a majority of poll participants who felt the paralegal title denoted a preferred level of professionalism.

In contrast to NFPA’s move on the issue of definitions, within the past year a number of associations have adopted the American Bar Association’s definition of paralegals and legal assistants, which identifies the two terms as interchangeable. These associations include the National Association of Legal Assistants, the Legal Assistant Management Association and the American Association for Paralegal Education.

While the findings of the LAT Title Poll are not intended to represent the entire profession, the results are offered as the opinions of a representative sampling of professionals with varied experience and expertise in the field and not as the opinion or doctrine of any one particular group, James Publishing or the staff of LAT.

Garden Variety Professionals

Of the nearly 2,000 legal professionals who participated in LAT’s online poll (at a rate of approximately 65 respondents per day), 41.7 percent reported they were college graduates. Another 22.7 percent had earned paralegal certificates, 15.9 percent had achieved “some college” education, and 2.3 percent were high school graduates. A group of 17.4 percent identified their educational background as other than that of the aforementioned groups.

When asked for the primary title by which their employers identified them, 50.7 percent reported being identified as paralegals.

Those considered legal assistants by their employers comprised 26.6 percent of poll respondents, while 22.7 percent held titles in the legal profession not typically synonymous with the paralegal-legal assistant field — such as senior project manager, legal administrative paralegal, corporate compliance officer, legal investigator, notary public and so forth. While many paralegal-legal assistants currently use such titles in the course of their legal work, many continue to use these more specific titles in addition to their preferred title of either legal assistant or paralegal.

On the low end of the poll’s response rate, the average respondent reported to have worked in the legal profession in one capacity or another for roughly 13.7 years.

Alternatively, the average experience level for many veterans who participated in the LAT Title Poll was approximately 20 years.

In Full Bloom

The majority of those who participated in the poll (76.2 percent) reported they would choose the paralegal title in order to be recognized as legal professionals versus selecting the legal assistant designation. While there were a wide variety of reasons for choosing the paralegal title rather than the legal assistant moniker, a large number of respondents offered similar reasons for their selection. The perception that legal secretaries are encroaching on the legal assistant title; the theory that the word “assistant” denotes an air of clerical or administrative work; and a noteworthy trend in many law offices of promoting legal support staff members to the position of legal assistant were all popular explanations for the preference of the paralegal title.

According to one respondent, “A title including the word assistant is too often overused and has lost its meaning as a professional title. I feel the common perception is assistant equals secretary.”

In contrast, another participant stated, “I believe the word assistant is important — this is what legal assistants do — assist attorneys in whatever they need done. I think this is a better term for the profession.”

Interestingly, many respondents indicated the paralegal title seemed to denote a higher level of education and training than that of legal assistant. One respondent noted, “A paralegal title indicates that you have had additional educational instruction in the legal field, whereas the legal assistant title indicates that you have not [achieved a higher level of education].” While a large number of respondents echoed this perception, it must be noted that at press time, LAT was unable to confirm any known, universally discernable differences between educational standards at the national or state levels for those pursuing education options labeled for legal assistants versus those pursuing an education designed for paralegals.

Many respondents also referenced paralegal certification as a desirable element in the legal community that factored into their title preferences. However, the question of what constitutes certification and by whom is an issue not yet settled within the profession. For instance, is certification of credentials of more benefit when offered by a state agency, a local community college, a state-operated university, an AAfPE-affiliated school, an ABA-accredited paralegal program or a voluntary association? And which certification carries more weight with employers? (See January/February 2003 LAT for details on what employers look for in legal assistant-paralegal education credentials.)

It’s also important to remember that what defines the profession in one locality, doesn’t necessarily transfer to other areas of the United States, and in some cases, doesn’t even apply within the same state. For instance, California law defines the scope of paralegal-legal assistant work (see November/December 2000 LAT) as well as what is required in order to identify oneself as a paralegal or legal assistant, while other states lack specific criteria regarding who can and can’t use such titles, even at the state bar level. Kimberly Smith, a spokesperson for the Texas State Bar told LAT that at present, “The state bar has no set guidelines for defining a paralegal or legal assistant.” However, Smith did note, “[The Legal Assistant Section of the bar], which is voluntary in nature, recommends paralegals or legal assistants work under the supervision of an attorney.” To put it more directly, there are still areas of the country where anyone — regardless of education or experience — can legally call themselves a paralegal or legal assistant and be gainfully employed as such.

Seeds of Discontent

When asked if it was important to make the legal assistant and paralegal titles separate and distinct, 72.2 percent of respondents indicated this was a priority, while 27.8 percent said it was not.
Again, a variety of explanations were offered, however, a common thread ran through many of the comments in support of distinguishing the two titles. Respondents noted they felt the terms were no longer deemed interchangeable in the public’s perception due to the apparent increase in legal secretaries using the legal assistant title. In addition, a large number of respondents pointed out that the title of legal assistant seemed too generalized, and didn’t appear to offer a clear picture of what role a person with that title played in the law office. A minority of respondents who indicated it was not a priority to distinguish the two titles argued that being identified as a legal assistant was appropriate, because their work involved assisting attorneys, thereby making their roles more clear.

“When I say I’m a legal assistant, most people know I work with an attorney. If I say paralegal, some people do not know what it means,” wrote one respondent who expressed a desire to see the legal assistant title as the preferred, professional identifier.

Sixty percent of those who responded to the online survey noted they believed the public at large understood the difference between a legal secretary and a paralegal, while 40 percent disagreed. However, when asked if respondents believed the public could distinguish between legal secretaries and legal assistants, only 13 percent of respondents believed this was the case.

Additionally, 74.8 percent of respondents reported they believed lawyers make a distinction regarding professional ability based on professional titles, while only 25.2 percent disagreed. In the general comments provided by participants in the survey, a significant number of legal professionals noted attorneys themselves are not clear on the exact role of legal assistants-paralegals, further sowing seeds of misinformation and discontent.

A Rose With Many Thorns

Although a majority of those who participated in the survey made it clear they preferred the paralegal title to that of legal assistant, the gulf between those for and against certain titles reduced considerably when the subject of actually making a permanent, across-the-board switch to one title or the other was raised. On the issue of the profession uniting behind either the paralegal or legal assistant title, 68.9 percent were in favor of such a move, while a healthy minority of slightly more than 31 percent reported there was not a need for a change to a single, distinct title.

“In order to focus on more important profession-related issues, I say let us put the title debate to rest once and for all,” was one respondent’s view. Another called the debate a distraction from the professionalism of the field. However, other respondents noted that a profession that seems divided can’t move forward. Noted one respondent, “I think one title would really move this profession forward with confused legal consumers and bewildered attorneys who already don’t know what to do with us.” Still another asked if those in the profession can’t unite behind a single and clearly defined title, how will those outside the profession “have the first clue about what we do and why we are a benefit to them?”

More than just a few legal professionals indicated in their comments that they would support either title, as long as the qualifications for attaining such a distinction were standardized throughout the United States. A minority of respondents reported they felt the legal assistant title had already been effectively “usurped by legal secretaries” and that the title should be abandoned in order to draw a clear distinction between the two fields.

Still others insisted that the legal assistant title provides a broad base of authority and responsibility, while succinctly indicating the professions’ role as assisting lawyers and therefore clearly working under the supervision of attorneys.

Repeatedly, the interchangeability of the two titles was noted as confusing to the public at large and as such, detrimental to the professionalism of the legal assistant-paralegal community as a whole.

It’s worth noting, however, that despite 72.2 percent of respondents calling the need for a title switch a priority, 57.2 percent of those same respondents noted changing to either title would not significantly change the professional status of legal assistants-paralegals, regardless of their strong feelings on the issue.

Conversely, 42.8 percent of respondents indicated that making a change to one distinct title would enhance the professionalism of the legal assistant-paralegal community. Of the 57.2 percent who felt a perminant, universal title change would not effectively improve the status of the legal assistant-paralegal community, opinions ranged from the perception of adding to the general public’s existing confusion on the issue to such a change addressing only enhanced self-esteem rather than professionalism.

One respondent noted that beyond adding to his or her “personal self worth,” changing to one title or the other would not change the profession, it’s perception in the legal community or general public.

The minority’s view on the subject included the theory that using only one title would warrant increased responsibility and pay as well as drawing a needed line of distinction between the legal assistant-paralegal field and other legal support personnel.

“If the profession was defined by one title and the consumers were made aware of the parameters of the position, then either title would be sufficient and would clear up a lot of confusion that now exists,” according to one respondent.

However, a number of those supporting a switch to one title repeatedly insisted that choosing one title over another would only be effective and beneficial if it was undertaken as a national effort, either through legislation or governmental regulation.

Flower Power

When questions turned to the debate itself, opinions regarding its value and its impact — if any — on the profession varied.

Slightly more than 64 percent of respondents answered affirmatively that the debate regarding professional titles impacted or continues to impact the profession as a whole. Nearly 36 percent reported the debate had no impact at all on the profession itself.

Those who felt the debate regarding title preference offered no measurable advantage to the profession provided interesting insight into their reasoning. One respondent noted the debate itself served to be “something that is divisive and our attention could be better focused on more important and relevant issues that impact the profession.” More than a few respondents pointed to the issue using words such as “dissention,” “divisive,” “wasteful,” “ridiculous” and “detrimental.”

Such arguments ranged from creating a divide-and-conquer mentality within the paralegal-legal assistant community, to making the profession seem less than professional by squabbling over issues that don’t, on the whole, enhance the profession in a meaningful way.

One respondent wrote, “As legal assistants, we should find more important issues to consume our time. Arguing over a title is utterly ridiculous.”

Offering a counterpoint, one respondent stated, “Any type of professional debate or discussion, if approached with maturity and common sense, is good for the profession.” And that respondent was not alone. Others noted concern over the lack of a “uniform identity” within the profession itself, asking in one instance, “if we can’t decide who and what we are as a whole, how can we expect lawyers and legal consumers to make any kind of reasonable distinction?”

Still, others felt separating or distinguishing the two titles was not the paramount issue at all. There were many respondents, not statistically analyzed but clearly speaking with one united voice, who offered a theme that transcended most of the arguments regarding preferred titles, the perceived prestige of one title compared to another and the significance or value of any type of change on the subject — and that theme was the establishment of educational standards that define the available titles.

As a handful of respondents noted, many firms and corporations, in cooperation with or in spite of local bar and paralegal-legal assistant associations, classify and define those who can hold one title or another, thus handicapping the justification for debating the issue within the profession itself.

But a point that was passionately expressed — repeatedly — the importance of establishing some universal barometer for use of both titles or just one, either through self-regulation in voluntary organizations or through state or federal legislation or licensure.

Regardless of individual positions on the issue, clearly many in the profession want to see this debate concluded in one fashion or another.

As noted on Page 16 of this issue, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Assistants has acted to make plain its preference in the debate at hand.

According to sources within SCOLA, the proposed revisions to the official guidelines that legal assistant schools must follow to receive ABA approval include a recommendation by SCOLA to replace the legal assistant title with that of the paralegal designation in the majority of the language.

Additionally, a number of paralegal-legal assistant associations throughout the United States, such as the Alaska Association of Paralegals, South Dakota Paralegal Association and Sacramento Valley Paralegal Association have all changed their names recently to demonstrate a preference for the paralegal title.

One respondent seemed to summarize the debate best by noting, “If a consensus can be reached as to what term means what, it can only help the profession. There is no universally accepted definition for a legal assistant or paralegal. The definition changes from firm to firm, and sometimes, from association to association.”


Participants in the online survey were required to provide their full name and contact information by way of the LAT Web site so a random sampling could be made to verify the accuracy of submitted opinions. Privacy was assured to all participants, and contact information for those who submitted survey responses is considered confidential.



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