Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal: 5 Key Differences [2021 Guide]

Are you wondering about the differences between legal assistant vs. paralegal? These two job titles are often used interchangeably, but there are significant differences in responsibilities, requirements, and possibly even pay.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal

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To help you decide what type of law firm assistant job is best for you, you can take a look at the specifications of each of these job titles. That way, you can figure out where your interests lie and pursue the right sort of training.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal

legal assistant and paralegal

In order to decide between a legal assistant and paralegal, it helps to first understand the difference between these two professions.

Both of these positions help law offices run smoothly. They provide services and support that contribute to lawyers’ work. Paralegals, though, typically have more training than legal assistants. Because of that, they can also be authorized to carry greater responsibilities.

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While legal assistants may spend more time on clerical duties, paralegals may focus more of their attention on legal proceedings and client services.

What Is a Legal Assistant?

legal assistant professional

A legal assistant is a professional who provides administrative and legal support services in a law office or a similar setting. There’s not a set definition for what constitutes a legal assistant, so the job description can vary greatly from one firm to the next. Sometimes, legal assistants work more as legal secretaries.

In a secretarial role, you’d take care of clerical duties, like answering phones, filing paperwork, and scheduling appointments. Legal training can be useful for transcribing attorneys’ notes or typing up documents. In other workplaces, though, legal assistants do similar jobs as paralegals.

As a general rule, working as a legal assistant will include more clerical or administrative duties than a paralegal position.

Legal Assistant Educational Requirements

legal secretary certificate

There are no formal requirements for what it takes to enter the legal assistant job category, but secretarial and legal training can be beneficial. You can gain those skills in a short-term legal secretary certificate program.

For a legal secretarial training certificate, you might study:

  • Filing systems
  • Legal terminology
  • Office technology and software
  • Transcription

If you’re hoping to take on more specialized legal tasks, you may consider an associate degree or grad certificate in legal studies.

What Is a Paralegal?

paralegal professional

A paralegal is a trained professional who works closely with lawyers to help them prepare for cases. They take care of tasks that lawyers would otherwise have to handle themselves.

Paralegals have the know-how to carry out a variety of responsibilities related to legal cases. They might be tasked with interviewing clients, investigating evidence, preparing documents, and conducting legal research.

Lawyers depend on paralegals, and clients may appreciate their input too. For example, paralegals can walk clients through legal documents to explain what each part means. Talking to paralegals can also be a quick way for clients to get answers to basic questions about their cases.

Paralegals can’t take the place of lawyers, though. Paralegals are not able to provide legal representation for clients, offer legal advice, or sign documents that require an attorney’s signature.

Paralegal Educational Requirements

paralegal programs

Requirements for working as a paralegal can vary by employer. You can usually earn the requested credentials by getting an associate or a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Another option is to have a degree in any subject and then earn a certificate in paralegal studies.

Topics studied in paralegal programs often include:

  • Case investigations
  • Criminal law
  • Law office practices
  • Legal research

Becoming a nationally certified paralegal after completing your program may increase your job prospects.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Certifications

Certified Legal Professional

NALS, the association for legal professionals, offers the Certified Legal Professional or Professional Legal Secretary (CLP/PLS) credential for legal secretaries and legal assistants.

Most applicants qualify for this credentialing exam based on work experience. Graduation from a program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) can reduce the experience requirements.

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NALS has a credentialing option for paralegals too. The Professional Paralegal (PP) option requires significant work experience or graduation from an ABA-approved program. Paralegals can also choose the Certified Paralegal (CP) program from NALA, the Paralegal Association.

There are both education and experience paths to qualification for the credentialing exam. One of the most straightforward options is to complete a paralegal program that has been approved by the ABA. Some colleges and universities even offer accelerated paralegal degree programs that may allow you to complete your education requirements more quickly.

Professional certifications may be a requirement for jobs in some law offices, or they could lead to pay increases.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Roles and Responsibilities

Paralegals and legal assistants serve on the same team to keep law offices functioning efficiently, but they can go about that mission in different ways. Legal assistants handle more administrative duties, and paralegals get to be more closely involved with legal matters.

Legal Assistants Paralegals
  • Coordinate office tasks
  • Gather documents, evidence, and other case materials
  • Maintain filing systems
  • Schedule appointments with clients
  • Send and pay bills
  • Type transcriptions, documents, and correspondence
  • Answer clients’ questions
  • Consult on legal strategies
  • Draft legal documents
  • Interview clients and witnesses
  • Prepare evidence for cases
  • Research laws and court cases

Whether you work as a legal assistant or a paralegal, your specific duties may depend on the size of your law firm. For example, in a large firm, each lawyer may have their own legal assistant, but a smaller firm might employ only one legal administrative assistant for the whole organization.

A paralegal in a small firm might be a generalist who covers many responsibilities. In a larger setting, each paralegal specialist might focus on just one aspect of the practice, such as filing motions or conducting research.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Careers

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Careers

Your job title and your pay level will probably depend on whether you’ve trained to be a paralegal vs. legal assistant. Salaries vary, but legal assistants generally make less than paralegals.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 10% job growth for paralegals and legal assistants over the next 10 years.

Legal Assistant Careers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps legal assistants and paralegals into one job category, with a median annual salary of $52,920. Jobs for legal assistants are commonly found in law firms, government agencies, and financial organizations.

If a particular job is more secretarial in nature, the salary may align closer with that of legal secretaries and administrative assistants, who earn a median salary of $48,980 per year.

Paralegal Careers

Paralegal Careers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that paralegals and legal assistants usually earn between $32,900 and $85,160 annually. Since paralegal positions tend to require more education, they often earn more than legal assistants.

The highest salaries are typically associated with federal government jobs. Other work settings may include law offices, local governments, and financial institutions.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Skills

Your personal strengths might play a role in whether you should become a legal assistant or a paralegal. A legal assistant, or litigation assistant, may perform administrative duties as well as legal tasks. A paralegal focuses more on legal duties and research to assist lawyers.

Both positions require an understanding of legal terminology and procedures. Since these positions can have some overlapping duties, they also have some overlapping skill sets.

Legal Assistant Paralegal
  • Computer savvy
  • Organizational skills
  • Strong writing and proofreading skills
  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Research skills
  • Ability to work independently
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Excellent writing abilities
  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Research skills

While natural ability may contribute to your success, a training program can help you develop many of these skills.

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Client Contact Expectations

Legal Assistant vs. Paralegal Client Contact

Whether you’re a legal assistant or a paralegal, you’re likely to communicate with clients on a regular basis, but the capacity in which you do so can differ.

As a legal administrative specialist, most of your contact with clients will be transactional in nature. For example, you might schedule appointments or take notes about a new client’s needs.

You might also answer basic questions about the services provided by your firm. For in-depth queries, though, you’ll take messages and pass them on to other members of the legal team.

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As a paralegal, you can handle more communication with clients concerning legal topics. For example, you can explain the parts of a legal document to someone. You might also participate in client-lawyer meetings or interview witnesses during case preparation.

Even though you can often answer a client’s questions, you won’t be authorized to give legal advice.

What Does a Legal Assistant Do?

legal assistants professional

A legal assistant is a professional who provides administrative services in a law office or a similar setting. Depending on the job, they can also share the responsibilities and duties of a paralegal.

Legal assistants can take care of a range of responsibilities. Some of their most common tasks include maintaining lawyers’ calendars, serving as a point of contact for clients who call, and handling correspondence.

Some legal assistants take on responsibilities that are related to legal cases. For example, a legal admin assistant may participate in conducting legal research or organizing evidence.

What Does a Paralegal Do?

Paralegals careers

A paralegal plays a key role in a law firm. Paralegals understand legal matters, including terminology and court proceedings, so they’re able to assist lawyers with their tasks.

They often take care of various responsibilities, such as researching laws, preparing affidavits, conducting witness interviews, and speaking with clients. Some paralegals specialize in a particular type of law. For example, they might focus on contract, tax, real estate, or criminal law.

Can Paralegals Give Legal Advice?

Paralegals are not allowed to hand out legal advice. They also can’t steer clients toward certain choices or serve as their legal representatives. Those roles are reserved for lawyers.

Despite these limitations, paralegals can have quite a bit of contact with clients. In many contexts, they can answer client questions, conduct interviews, and explain documents. There may be opportunities to sit in on meetings between lawyers and clients and participate in planning sessions for case strategies.

Are There Any Alternative Careers for Paralegals?

Alternative Careers for Paralegals

Your paralegal training can help prepare you for other careers as well. For example, you may consider working as a legal secretary. Your background knowledge of law can be beneficial in that position.

As for earnings, there is a difference between legal secretary vs. paralegal positions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal secretaries typically make less than paralegals, but this position might help you get your foot in the door at a desirable law firm. Other jobs that might benefit from your legal background include title examiner, license clerk, or court clerk.

Gaining experience as a paralegal can also help you decide whether you want to go to law school and become an attorney.

Is a Legal Assistant the Same as a Paralegal?

The positions of legal assistant and paralegal are sometimes used interchangeably, but that’s not necessarily accurate. The American Bar Association recently updated their definition for paralegals, no longer recognizing “legal assistant” as an equivalent title.

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These professionals support the work of the law office in different ways. In many firms, paralegals are more closely involved with legal cases while legal assistants handle administrative duties in addition to legal tasks. Despite these distinctions, job descriptions vary from one workplace to the next.

Do You Need a Degree to Be a Legal Assistant?

You can get started in legal assisting without first earning a college degree. Even still, pursuing formal training can give you a leg up in this line of work. There are certificate and associate degree programs that can teach you legal terminology, office skills, and more.

Going through an official training program is also beneficial if you want to become certified. You may also qualify to take a professional certification exam soon after completing your studies.

Who Makes More, Paralegal or Legal Assistant?

Paralegal or Legal Assistant

Paralegals usually earn more money than legal assistants. Many firms have higher work experience or education requirements for paralegals, and they may also grant these professionals greater responsibilities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups paralegals and legal assistants into one job category, with a median annual salary of $52,920. Those at the top end earn over $85,160.

Legal Assistant or Paralegal – Which Is Right for You?

Legal Assistant or Paralegal

The positions of legal assistant and paralegal allow you to work in the legal field without going to law school.

You might enjoy a career as a legal assistant if you want to do administrative office work in a legal setting. If you’d prefer to play a more prominent role in case preparation, then a career as a paralegal might be a good fit for you.

For either role, education can be the key to a strong start. You can start exploring accredited schools today to find the legal assistant or paralegal training program that’s best for you.

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Joy Cromwelle
WRITTEN BY
Joy Cromwelle
Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration. Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.