Studying to become a legal assistant: a dead end or a highway to success?

Dear Joan:
I am considering terminating my present employment to enter a two-year technical school in Eau Claire to pursue the program entitled Legal Assistant.

The 1984-'85 Occupational Outlook Handbook suggests there will be substantial growth in this field throughout the 1990s. I have written letters to several law firms across the entire country and have received rather unencouraging, almost downright dismal projections for employment opportunities for those seeking careers in the legal-assistant field. How can the most recent government publications available project optimistic growth in this field, when prospective employers are telling me just the opposite?

I'm really confused! I can't afford to expend several years' savings for school only to find out the opportunities will be few and far between.

It appears you've done your research well. Although the Bureau of Labor Standards projected growth in the profession of 132% to 166% by 1990,the legal assistant profession is experiencing a professional identity crisis.

There are many varying opinions on the nature of the problem but basically they center around three issues, according to the 1985 Spring Issue of "Legal Assistant Today," a trade journal. First, titles given to people who do legal assistant work are varied and confusing: paralegal, legal secretary, document clerk, legal technician, and legal para-professional.... There is no universally accepted title or distinction.

Second, there is no common training, education or experience required for the title "paralegal" or "legal assistant." In fact, there is no nationally recognized accreditation or licensing for legal assistants.

Third, there is a proliferation of organizations that decide for themselves what the standards should be. Phrases such as "certified legal assistant" are used along with others like "licensed" or "trained."

The courts, the bar and responsible legal assistants are becoming concerned or the lack of standards for legal assistants.

But there is some good news.

Dallas attorney Michael Jung recently wrote in "Legal Assistant Today": "This controversy ... may in fact be a sign of strength in the profession, a milestone in the development of the legal assistants' role. The fact that legal assistants are facing up to these issues is a sign that the profession is coming of age."

The American Bar Association Journal, November 1983, went further. An article entitled "Legal Assistants Can Increase Your Profits" by Paul Ulrich, a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistants, states: "Employing assistants as part of an organized, managed practice can greatly improve productivity and profitability, while holding fees to a reasonable level."

Some attorneys would not agree, particularly with the surplus of new lawyers on the market. Clifford R. Steele, of Cunningham, Lyons, Steele, Cramer S.C., who practices law in Milwaukee and Florida, summed it up this way: "Why hire a legal assistant who can tread water for $18,000 a year, when you can hire a new lawyer at $20,000 who can swim the length of the pool?"

Others would argue productivity can best be served by delegating details to a legal assistant whose salary and career aspirations will be lower.

As you can see, you did bump into the tip of the iceberg.

I applaud your research techniques. In fact, it's a skill that is critical as a legal assistant.

The decision to enter this field must be based on your skills and interest. No matter how many jobs are available for legal assistants, if you aren't well suited for the work, you won't be satisfied.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 65,800 legal assistants by 1990. About 32,000 students are now enrolled in 350 training programs nationally. You will have to decide for yourself if you will be one of them.

Should you decide to go ahead, several sources recommend attending a program that is "ABA approved." Often these "approved" programs don't even accept anyone without a bachelor's degree. Although standards for the profession haven't been set, at least you'd be off to the right start. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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