Read on for the day in the life of a legal assistant…
Job Title: Legal Assistant
From: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Salary/Benefits: CAD $30K/year. (Permanent, full-time, almost never requiring overtime.) Extended health care benefits, including life insurance, short- and long-term disability insurance. 3 weeks paid vacation per year, increasing over time. RRSP employer matching starting at 2 years. Christmas bonus. Fair amount of intangibles, staff appreciation events, etc.
Employer Type: Private practice, law firm
Employer Size: Approx. 55 lawyers and 120 total employees
How Long in Current Position: 1 year
Highest Level of Education: Bachelor’s degree
How You Got to Your Current Job: I started out as an actor, mainly doing live theatre. I realized that the financial instability, complete lack of job security, and constant auditions were not a good fit for me. I also realized that, on the other hand, I didn’t want to go back to university, and I didn’t want the stress of a “high-powered” career, even if that meant earning less. What I really wanted was a career where there were lots of jobs available, those jobs had good job security and decent outlook, and a regular schedule with good work-life balance. I started thinking about what marketable skills I had and what jobs I could get in a reasonably short time frame that might fit that description. It took several years, and I considered a lot of different options, but I eventually discovered that office work suited me just fine, especially when I got to use my writing and composition skills and high English-language proficiency. This led me to more research, which led me to a six-month legal assistant program at a career college. That program included a work placement, and my placement hired me immediately upon completing that placement.
Describe a typical day at work.
[Ed. Note: This diary was submitted pre-Covid]
I work 8:30-4:30, and I live not too far from the office.
I typically get up at 7:00 and leave for work at 8:00.
I get home between 5:00-5:30.
I might take lunch starting anywhere from noon to 1:00 or even 1:30, depending on that day’s workflow. (I could work 8:00-4:00 if I so chose, but this is as close as I get to being a “morning person”.)
When people ask me what a legal assistant does, my short, snappy answer is “I do all the boring s**t the lawyer is too important to do.”
Most of the job is composed of tasks that require a little bit of knowledge about the law and/or government procedures, but not so much that you need to go to law school. (In fact, most of my learning about the law has been on the job, by a wide margin.)
Common tasks include: correspondence with clients, government offices, other lawyers, etc., per the lawyer’s instructions; scheduling appointments; filing (both hard copy and electronic); transcribing dictation; editing documents from written notes; billing; and opening and closing files in our computer system. Basically, the lawyer will tell you what they want to do and your job is to see that it gets done.
Additional tasks depend on what area(s) of law you work in; a real estate assistant’s job is very different from one who works in criminal defense, or civil litigation. Most of my work is in wills and estates, so tasks might include: preparing wills, powers of attorney, and health care directives (“living wills”) according to the client’s instructions; making sure those documents adhere to the court’s requirements; preparing them for long-term storage, which is a service we offer; preparing and filing probate documents with the court (“hey Court, this person died, we’re going to wind up their affairs, cool?”); and working with the executor of an estate to make sure that a person’s debts are paid and their remaining assets distributed according to the wishes in their Will (or as prescribed by law if there was no Will).
Most assistants either work directly for one particular lawyer, or in one of a few niche departments that specialize in routine tasks for a particular area of law; these are referred to as “paralegals”. As a sidebar: different jurisdictions and even different workplaces will use the terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” differently. In some jurisdictions, like mine, they’re interchangeable or the distinction is left up to the employer, but in others, they have clear definitions. As a general rule, a paralegal typically has more experience, seniority, responsibility, and autonomy, and are paid more accordingly. In this way, while there isn’t much of an upward trajectory to a legal assistant’s career path, it’s not a dead end, either. There is some room for promotion and greater responsibilities, and experience and seniority are consistently valued and rewarded by any employer worth working for.
I currently spend about half my time assisting one lawyer in the wills and estates part of her practice, and the other half assisting other lawyers on an as-needed basis (e.g. covering for other assistants during their vacation), doing as much for them as I can regardless of practice area. I may one day become a wills and estates paralegal.
In summary: I do clerical and administrative work specific to the field of law. Many people complain about office jobs where they only do an hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes of work and spend the rest of their day killing time, but that is not true for legal assistants. There is always work to do. However, that work is rarely urgent or time-sensitive, so I don’t feel like I’m under a lot of pressure or tight deadlines; it’s simply that there’s always something on my to-do list. It’s not exciting work, but it’s not exactly boring either, and the time passes quickly enough. (It helps to have at least a passing interest in the law.) It’s good, steady work, and I do recommend it.
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