As the legal industry evolves, the delivery of legal services has become more sophisticated and complex. Although a law firm is necessarily comprised of one or more lawyers, today's law firms employ many more non-lawyers in various managerial, professional and administrative roles. Most of these positions require an entirely different skill set than that of lawyers.
Below is a breakdown and description of the most common non-lawyer roles in a law firm. For more on law firm careers, see Legal Jobs - Part I: Lawyer Careers.
Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
The chief financial officer is a high-level financial manager. CFO roles primarily exist in the largest firms, often those operating at a global level. With revenues at some law firms reaching as high as $1 billion annually, savvy financial management is critical. CFO's direct and oversee the financial aspects of the firm including accounting, forecasting, financial planning and analysis, budgeting and financial reporting. CFO's play a strategic role in shaping the firm's financial future and establishing operating policies, exploring growth opportunities and protecting the firm's financial stability.
Law Firm Administrator
Sitting at the executive level, law firm administrators - also known as executive directors, chief managing officers (CMOs) or chief operating officers (COOs) - are highly skilled non-lawyer professionals. In small firms, this position might be called an office manager and held by a senior level paralegal or secretary.
Law firm administrators manage the business side of law practice. Their role encompasses everything from strategic vision, competitive intelligence, knowledge management, hiring, branding, marketing, human resources, compensation, benefits, business development, technology and client service.
The litigation support professional (also called an e-discovery professional) is a hybrid paralegal/technology role that has evolved immensely in the past ten years as technology has become an integral part of legal service delivery. While litigation support positions were formerly relegated to BigLaw and large corporations, these roles are becoming more common in small and midsize firms. As the litigation support industry explodes, more specialized roles are emerging and larger organizations now boast a complex hierarchy of litigation support positions.
More on Litigation Support Careers:
- Breaking into Litigation Support and E-Discovery
- Litigation Support Career Ladder
- E-Discovery Explosion
- Litigation Support Director Career Profile
Paralegals are trained legal professionals who work under the supervision of a lawyer. As cost-conscious clients demand reasonable legal fees, paralegals help keep costs down and improve the efficiency of legal services. Like lawyers, paralegals often specialize in one or more practice areas. In large firms, paralegals may ascend from entry level to senior level paralegal roles. In small law firms, paralegals may wear many hats and may also perform secretarial, clerical and administrative functions.
More on Paralegal Careers:
- Paralegal Career Guide
- 8 Best Things About Working as a Paralegal
- 8 Worst Things About Working as a Paralegal
- Paralegal Certification
In some geographic locations and within certain law firms, the term "legal assistant" is synonymous with "paralegal" (see legal assistant v. paralegal). However, as the legal roles evolve and become more specialized, many legal assistant positions today are a stepping stone to a paralegal job. Legal assistants are often paralegal students, new paralegal grads or experienced secretaries who operate as assistants to paralegals and attorneys.
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A legal secretary (also known as an administrative assistant, legal assistant or executive assistant) is a secretary who is trained in law office procedure, legal technology and legal terminology. While legal secretaries perform clerical functions such as filing, typing, answer the phone and organizing files, they also possess specialized, practice-specific skills and knowledge that help lawyers' practices run smoothly. Legal secretaries usually work for one or more paralegals and/or attorneys.
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A legal receptionist is a law firm gatekeeper, greeting guests, answering the main phone line, scheduling conference rooms and performing other administrative tasks as necessary. In the smallest firms, a secretary may also perform receptionist duties.
More on Legal Receptionist Careers:
- Legal Receptionist Career Profile
Entry Level Legal Careers
A law clerk within a law firm is usually a law student, recent law grad or experienced paralegal who performs legal research and writing. Law clerks often work part time or seasonally (usually in the summer).
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Also known as a law firm messenger, the court runner files documents with the court and performs other errands for law firm lawyers and staff. Court messengers are often law students who work part-time with a law firm to gain legal skills and exposure to the law firm experience.
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