Paralegals vs. Legal Assistants: What’s The Difference?

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 8, 2020

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The field of law is made of more than just lawyers and judges. Many firms, particularly large-scale ones, employ a variety of professionals to aid attorneys. Some of the most common occupations you’ll find are paralegals and legal assistants.

Paralegal and legal assistants are great positions for those interested in a career in law. This is especially true if you do not have the time or money for a law school education and want to try the field out with less commitment. You may find it the perfect fit for your needs or a great stepping stone into a different law career.

You should understand that both paralegals and legal assistants fulfill roles and responsibilities that, on the surface, can seem very similar but come with key differences. By exploring the differences, you can determine which of these positions best complements your professional interests.

What Is a Paralegal Assistant?

Paralegals are the trained support staff for lawyers to help them with their caseloads. Since paralegals are trained, normally with a background education in law and/or a certification in paralegal work, they are given tasks that directly deal with legal matters.

However, with all these responsibilities in mind, paralegals do have a few key distinctions. Paralegals cannot practice law; that is to say, they cannot represent a client, nor can they give legal advice. Paralegals are for legal support only.

Some other key points to know are that in some cases, paralegals can bill clients specifically for their time instead of being paid by the firm via a salary or part time wages. Paralegals do not have to be the end of one’s career path. Many options await for those with paralegal experience.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

A paralegal may be expected to investigate evidence and gather facts, conduct legal research, prepare and file legal documentation such as affidavits, and much more. In short, a paralegal assists an attorney with all courtroom procedures and the filing of necessary paperwork. Paralegals are entrusted to handle that which requires an intimate knowledge of the law.

Paralegals work closely with lawyers, so their tasks are greatly affected by the firm’s size and focus. Some examples include corporate paralegals who monitor government regulations or prepare contracts for shareholders and litigation paralegals who organize evidence or draft settlement agreements.

Some other specific paralegals include bankruptcy paralegals, criminal law paralegals, and immigration paralegals. You’ll notice that paralegals can work in specific areas of the law, so this provides you the ability to dive into fields you find most interesting.

It is also good to know that if a large firm employs a paralegal, their tasks may be very specified. For example, in a large firm, a paralegal may be expected only to perform research or assist in courtroom proceedings.

Whereas in a small firm, a paralegal may have to assist in all stages of a case. So if you are the type of person who wants a more intimate experience with certain stages of the law, then a large firm is for you. However, if you would like more of a general overview of the law, you should look into a smaller firm.

Finally, it is imperative to understand the distinction that comes with being a paralegal. You are expected to have an education in the field of law. This can be achieved in several ways.

Many paralegals can be hired with only a two-year associate degree. This can be achieved through most community colleges. However, like many other careers, your chances increase if you can complete a four-year bachelor’s degree.

You also have the option to obtain paralegal certification from accredited institutions. Do your research and pick an institution that best fits your needs. Consider if your state’s paralegal association accepts the institution.

Paralegals are close to the action with attorneys and clients. If this sounds appealing to you, then you should consider the career of a paralegal.

The term legal assistant can sometimes cause confusion. In the past, it was used interchangeably for paralegals and legal secretaries. Now, however, legal assistants are generally considered to be similar in roles to secretaries only.

Unlike a paralegal, a legal assistant does not need certification or specific training in law. Nor are they billed for their time and are instead paid directly by the firm or attorney who has hired them.

Still, legal assistants are assigned a lot of tasks. They fulfill mainly an administrative role where they are not expected to deal with legal specifics but rather the general logistics of a legal operation.

Legal assistants are tasked with administrative and customer service type roles. Responsibilities include managing payable/receivable accounts, payroll organization, filing documentation, record keeping, scheduling, taking phone calls, and much more.

The legal assistant’s role is focused on office management. You will likely be expected to provide word processing and data entry, so you must have the necessary skills to handle relevant software.

Legal assistants provide help in ways that do not necessarily need legal experience. They are not expected to focus on how a case will go – instead, their job involves deciding on how the necessary administrative tasks are handled. Due to this, they do not need a legal education or certification like a paralegal.

Some legal assistants will help a variety of lawyers at a firm, while others will be assigned to specific attorneys. This is especially true for partners in the firm who will get their own legal assistants.

Like a paralegal, a legal assistant is a great way to start a career in law. Since entry barriers are a bit lower, if you are in law school or without law experience, then a position as a legal assistant is a great place to start.

However, do not be fooled just because the barriers of entry are lower. Legal assistants need an extensive background and skill set that proves they are expertly equipped in office management. Law offices are some of the busiest and most complex office operations and will only be looking for the best.

Legal assistants, like paralegals, perform critical tasks for attorneys. Though they may not be as close to the industry’s legal language, legal assistants manage the environment that ensures attorneys can complete the job in the best manner possible.

Let’s compare paralegals and legal assistants to clarify the differences between the two.

A paralegal:

  • Handles specific legal tasks that require intimate knowledge and application of legal proceedings.

  • Has an educational background in law, either as an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or certification from an accredited institution.

  • Work with clients on their case without giving legal advice or representation.

  • Strategizes with the attorney and client.

A legal assistant:

  • Handles office management tasks in an administrative and customer service role.

  • May have an educational background in law, but can also have a general background in administration and customer service, with experience such as a receptionist.

  • Work with clients on setting up appointments and paying invoices.

  • Enact strategy put forth by an attorney, paralegal, and clients.

Why Are These Differences Important?

If you are looking for a career in law, it is essential to understand the differences between paralegals and legal assistants. As you can see, the job requirements are different in crucial ways. Therefore if you are applying for a specific role, you will want to make sure the job description accurately fulfills your needs and that you have the necessary skills required.

For example, if you are only just starting out in law, you will want to look for legal assistant positions because entry barriers are lower. Conversely, if you already have experience in law and are looking to move further with your career, you will want to look for paralegal postings.

In either case, distinguishing the differences is crucial to make sure you apply to the appropriate position. It would be most unfortunate to be hired as a legal assistant position when you expect a paralegal’s duties. A good thing to consider the type of role you would like to fulfill and the type of career options you would like to have.

If you have the ability, try to network with paralegals and legal assistants. Set up informational interviews and learn more about what their normal days are like. A first-hand account of a profession can go a long way.

Final Thoughts

The field of law is a great career choice. It has some of the best job outlooks, which shows its relative stability. On top of that, compensation is higher than average. If you think it is a career path for you, look into paralegal and legal assistant positions. Based on your level of experience and your own professional needs, one may be better than the other.

Regardless, a career as a paralegal or as a legal assistant opens a lot of doors for you. Take a look, and you might be very happy with what you find.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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