egal assistants are essential in a legal environment as they assist in keeping the office organized, inputting data, and helping out lawyers and clients. There is much more to being a legal assistant than administrative duties and keeping everyone happy, so we’ve put together a full guide to help you understand exactly what it takes to be a legal assistant.
While legal assistants have, sometimes archaically, been described as a legal secretary, they play a crucial role in any legal organization.
Zaki Ahmad, a Calgary Downtown lawyer and former legal assistant, gave us some insight into the responsibilities involved in the role, “It varies from law firm to law firm as to what the extent of the responsibility will be for the legal assistant… You really have to assess the job descriptions and the responsibilities on any legal assistant role. Typically you can get this [information] pretty straight-forward from the law firms here in Calgary.”
Wherever there are lawyers, you’ll find legal assistants; in legal firms, court houses, corporations, and federal, provincial and municipal offices. The role can often depend on the type of law the organization typically practices.
“In civil litigation you have the commencing document, which is a statement of claim typically, and that will include the style of cause, the file number, who the parties are and who the service needs to be addressed to. This will be put in by the legal assistant.”
“In family law, for example, legal assistants generally take a more active role… there are a lot of applications that need to be done, or divorce documents… often legal assistants know these nuances and they can draft documents accordingly.”
In Alberta, 80 per cent of people employed as legal assistants work in Professional, Scientific, and Technical industries, where they perform tasks such as maintaining and organizing files, responding to client inquiries, conducting follow-ups, organizing meetings and other duties. It’s important that legal assistants have experience and skills relevant to their job role:
“It could be that the legal assistant gets all of the information from the clients and then does the pleadings, or the application, or drafts the affidavit… or it could be that they gather the information and then the lawyer does the rest”, says Ahmad.
The expected base salary of someone new to the role would be around $45,225, or $30.74 per hour.
While there are no required specific qualifications to succeed in this role, a one-year post secondary certification in a relevant field helps to give you the edge over someone without the skills or experience. A Legal Assistant Diploma can be achieved in as little as 31 weeks, and can include a practicum experience that will supply the on-the-job skills and knowledge required when applying for a role in the legal profession.
Someone looking for a full time role as a legal assistant should be able to exhibit that they have the skills and attitude to succeed in the role. This doesn’t necessarily have to be shown by specific qualifications and years of experience, but by examples that you can include in your resume and showcase during interviews. This can include attention to detail and caring about the work you are doing, which is what lawyers and legal firms are looking for in an employee.
“You could allude [to caring about your work] through specific examples; often lawyers work very late hours and so seeing a willingness to commit to working beyond their usual hours is showing that they’re willing to go above and beyond and really care for the work,” says Ahmad.
Attention to detail can be shown with practical evidence such as high school grades and specific examples of situations that have occurred in your previous job roles, and will be very important when preparing legal documents and performing a variety of tasks as a legal assistant, “lawyers are looking to feel assured that when they give a task to a legal assistant there won’t be any mistakes.”
While good grades in many subjects can be beneficial to the role, an efficiency in English language, computer literacy, social studies, and business administration are all recommended fields of study relevant to a role in the legal profession. Ahmad recommends reading a lot and becoming able to understand and analyze English language as a good way to improve your attention to detail.
“Being able to show that level of attention-to-detail is very important and it comes down to your English language skills and people who have an interest in reading would naturally be drawn to that,” Ahmad suggests.
In terms of employment prospects for legal assistants, 80 per cent of people employed as legal assistants work in professional, scientific and technical services industries. The employment turnover is expected to increase over the next few years as more people reach retirement age. Bigger cities are home to more companies and industries and will have a higher demand for a legal assistant, and studies have found that assistants specializing in the legal field have better employment prospects than others.
The best ways to prepare for an interview as a legal assistant are:
We’ve compiled a list of some of the most common and most important interview questions for a role as a legal assistant, and some examples of answers that you should be giving:
A: This question is asking about your ability to solve problems and to cope with stress in the work environment. You will need to show self-assuredness and confidence in your ability to calm down situations, stay focused, and ease tensions when others are getting stressed.
“I would try to focus on the work that needs to be done and assure the lawyer/client that everything will be done to help them.”
A: This is where your research will come in handy. It gives you a chance to demonstrate your knowledge of the company and highlight how you’ve helped workplaces in the past to improve.
“I already think the company is doing a great job at keeping up with demands, as I know that you won an award last year for Best Law Firm. When my previous company was having trouble keeping up and staying efficient, I created a system that ensured that everything stayed organized and up-to-date.
A: The interviewer wants to know about your organization skills and how you meet deadlines when under pressure. Try to give practical examples of things you have done in the past to manage these kinds of situations.
“I keep up-to-date with my tasks by making a checklist every day that prioritizes my tasks and makes sure that I am aware of deadlines. I have also set alarms on my computer and put meetings into a calendar to remind me of what is coming up so that I’m prepared.
A: Your knowledge and experience of law will work in your favour for this question. Even if you don’t know much about law, showcase what you do know and any kind of experience you’ve had in the past.
“I have always been interested in law and the justice system. Although I’m not a lawyer, I am very detail-orientated and believe that a legal assistant role would be a great fit for me.”
A: This question can be tricky, depending on how things ended with your most recent job role. Even if the employment ended on a sour note, try to spin your answer into a positive. No employer wants to hear someone bad mouthing other employers.
“Although I learned a lot from my last job, I couldn’t see any more growth opportunities for myself and the time was right to move on. There were some difficulties between myself and my former colleagues and I ultimately stepped down from my position. I’m still on good terms with my supervisor and they are happy to provide a reference to back up my experience and work ethic.”
A: Here’s your chance to talk about your relevant qualifications and experience in roles similar to this one. While there’s no need to mention every single one of your previous jobs or high school grades, be sure to talk about anything relevant to the role.
“When I was completing my legal assistant diploma, I learned about the role of a legal assistant and acquired the knowledge necessary to succeed in the role. I learned about different legal procedures, types of law, how to conduct legal research, and technical writing. I also completed a 4-week practicum at a local law office where I put everything I’d learned into practice and really enjoyed my time there.”
A: Your interviewer knows what answers they’re looking for in this question, and you will need to touch all relevant bases. Be sure to mention the skills that you have which you know are assets as a legal assistant. Strengths such as organization, attention to detail, diplomacy, problem solving, working under pressure, and good communication skills are great to talk about.
“I work well under pressure because I believe that I handle stressful situations and challenging people well due to my ability to stay focused and keep up with the planning and organization that goes into this kind of role. I love reading and writing and so I think my communication skills are excellent, and have taught me how to pay close attention to details and not make silly mistakes. Something that I’m not so great at is my creativity, I much prefer listening to others and taking on their ideas to work into my plan than to take risks that may go wrong and get the company in trouble.”
A: Although having extensive knowledge of laws and regulations isn’t required with this role, you’re applying to work in the legal profession so you need to show enthusiasm and research in that area.
“I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t always know the complete ins and outs of different legal cases, but it’s still a field I’m interested in and would like to learn more about. I pay attention to court cases and changes in law when they are in the news, and I’m hoping that this role will help me to improve my knowledge while doing something I enjoy.”
A: While it’s tempting to have a list of former colleagues who had annoying traits, and interns who couldn’t do their jobs, you need to stay diplomatic and positive with your answer. Think about traits that anybody entering a career as a lawyer would have and go with them.
“I like working with people who know what they want and understand the legal system well, so that they can delegate clear and precise tasks to me. Anyone who works hard and has enthusiasm for their job is always a great person to be around. A company that supports their employees and wants to make progress in the best way they can is the type of environment I want to be in.”
A: You will be asked this question at the end of every interview so you need to be prepared with a list of 3 or 4 questions that you’ve gathered from research about the company and the job description. If the interviewer already answered all of the questions you had prepared, don’t worry, summarize them to show that you did your research and that you’re on the same wavelength as them.
“I did some research on the company and I made a list of some questions but you seem to have answered them all. The main query I had was about what the work environment is like, and I’m glad you said that everyone supports each other and does the job they were assigned, because that’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
Ahmad also provided us with some good tips for acing a legal assistant interview:
“Focus on your attitude. What sets good candidates apart from others is having a good attitude that shows they want to work hard and that they have pride in their work. That always gives the lawyers confidence.”
He recommends preparing questions to ask that show your work ethic:
“Focus on questions that show how hard of a worker you are, how you’re willing to go the extra mile, and anything else that alludes to your strengths.”
“If your research shows that a firm does a lot of family law, ask questions like, ‘what sort of applications do you mostly work?’ or ‘do you mostly specialize in family law’ which gives you a chance to have a conversation about the topic and shows that you’re willing to engage with the lawyer. The lawyer will then think about if you’re the kind of person he can work with”.
This guide provides you with everything you need to know about legal assistants and how to become one successfully. Thanks to Zaki Ahmad for providing some professional knowledge and insight on this topic. Head over to our blog for more employment tips and tricks.