Your Guide to Understanding the Difference Between Paralegals and Legal Assistants

What’s the difference between paralegals and legal assistants? In a word: education. Paralegals are expected to have field-specific training in paralegal studies, often earned through an associate or bachelor’s degree or post-degree certificate.  That kind of education comes with a greater depth of knowledge of the mechanics and language of law, research skills and professionalism.

The typical law firm has a team of pros whose responsibilities involve assisting attorneys and keeping the office running smoothly. Both paralegals and legal assistants perform tasks related to both, yet their job titles are decidedly different.

Paralegals work side-by-side with attorneys, either independently or semi-independently (the prefix “para” actually means beside or side-by-side in Greek), while legal assistants, as their name suggests, assist in supporting the daily administrative tasks of an attorney or law office.

In terms of hierarchy, paralegals fall just below attorneys in the legal environment, and their responsibilities are nearly always focused on accomplishing the tasks directly related to a legal practice.

Legal assistants, who were once upon a time largely referred to as legal secretaries, serve as the administrative backbone of a law office, and their job duties are therefore largely clerical in nature.

The educational requirements of both paralegals and legal assistants aren’t set in stone or always clearly defined, but there is a difference between paralegal and legal assistant jobs.

Neither paralegals nor legal assistants are regulated or licensed to practice (with the exception of California’s paralegals), which means that the educational pathways to these professions aren’t completely standardized. For each job, there’s a number of viable paths into the profession. And just like any other unlicensed profession, it’s ultimately up to the employer to set the bar for job qualifications.

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What’s the Difference Between a Legal Assistant and a Paralegal in Terms of Education?

Paralegal

To become a paralegal, you’ll likely complete an associate or bachelor’s degree, or if you already hold a degree, you can earn a post-degree certificate.

An associate’s degree is enough to impress most employers. Though bachelor’s degrees in areas like paralegal studies or legal studies aren’t nearly as common, for aspiring and practicing paralegals looking to rise through the ranks and land senior-level jobs in large law firms, a bachelor’s degree is often preferred. These programs often provide the opportunity to specialize in one more areas of law. And for every different area of law there are different types of paralegals with specialized skills.

A bachelor’s provides an advanced level of education that prepares paralegals to take on higher-level responsibilities that often include managing an entire department or paralegal team.

You’ll also find no shortage of post-degree certificate programs for aspiring paralegals who have already completed at least an associate degree. These programs build on your previous general education and offer paralegal-focused courses for an expedited course of study.

Paralegal programs at the certificate, associate, and bachelor’s level can be found in junior colleges and four-year colleges and universities.

Some great programs have even voluntarily submitted their curriculum for approval in order to be recognized by the American Bar Association (ABA). Though there is no universal expectation that you complete an ABA-approved program, some employers may prefer it.

Pre-degree certificates also exist, and can vary widely in terms of the depth and breadth of education they offer. Quality programs that are serious about preparing paralegals for professional practice can be every bit as long as an associate degree, between 18-months and two years.

Legal Assistant

The duties and responsibilities of a legal assistant/legal secretary tend to be clerical in nature, so the educational pathway to this profession usually involves completing a certificate or diploma program in legal assisting through a two-year junior college or vocational school. Legal assistant programs combine study in legal terminology and a general overview of the legal system with education and training in general office administration.

Not all legal assistants complete formal legal assistant programs. An internship is often a great way to enter the profession, while others enter the profession with a secretarial or administrative assistant background and learn the inner workings of a law office on the job.

What’s the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Legal Assistant in Terms of Professional Certification?

Paralegal

Beyond earning a degree program, professional certification has become the gold standard for paralegals. While not necessary to practice, professional designations in the paralegal field have become popular with paralegals who want to set themselves apart from the competition, land highly coveted paralegal jobs in top law firms, and increase their earning potential.

And many law firms have begun to not just prefer certification, but demand it because it indicates that the paralegal has developed a set of valuable core competencies.

The following professional associations offer one or more paralegal designations:

  • The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) offers the Certificate Paralegal (CP) designation, along with advanced specialty exams.
  • The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) offers the Registered Paralegal (RP) designation.
  • NALS – the Association for Legal Professionals offers three designations: the Accredited Legal Professional (ALP), the Certified Legal Professional (CLP), and the Professional Paralegal (PP).
  • The American Alliance of Paralegals Inc. offers the American Alliance Certified Paralegal (ACCP).

Certain state bars (including Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Texas) also offer their own professional paralegal certifications in an effort to recognize paralegals who have met specific competency and experience standards.

Learn more about becoming a paralegal.

Legal Assistant

Similar to paralegals, legal assistants can also enhance their marketability and earning power in the legal assisting profession by earning professional certification. NALS – the Association for Legal Professionals offers the Accredited Legal Professional (ALP) and the Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) and/or Certified Legal Professional (CLP) designations.

Job Scope Differences Between a Paralegal and Legal Assistant

If you’re asking yourself what’s the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant, know that it can be a bit tricky to differentiate between the responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants because paralegals tend to have a broader job scope that may encompass some of the duties of legal assistants.

Paralegal

Seniority, previous experience, and the size of the law firm all influence the job scope of today’s paralegals. In smaller firms, paralegals can often be found tending to both paralegal-specific job duties and some administrative duties, while in larger firms, the job duties of paralegals are more focused and tend to fall solely within the purvey of a paralegal.

In general, the job of a paralegal is to work alongside — and under the direction of — an attorney. Their education and training allow them to bill for their time if it directly involves work related to a case or client. Paralegals also often direct and oversee the work of the law firm’s legal assistants. Some senior-level paralegals even have their own dedicated legal assistant or legal assisting team. Learn more about working as a paralegal through this paralegal FAQ.

While much of the work of a paralegal is done on an independent or semi-independent basis, their work must always be delegated and supervised by the attorneys for whom they work. Under law, paralegals cannot:

  • Practice law
  • Represent clients in court, take depositions, or sign pleadings (with a few exceptions, including some federal and state administrative agencies)
  • Establish the attorney’s relationship with a client
  • Set fees to be charged
  • Give legal advice

Although they can’t practice law, paralegals can and do tend to any and all of the activities and duties related to the practice of law, which include:

  • Interviewing witnesses and preparing witness testimony
  • Maintaining client contact
  • Drafting, sending, and receiving legal documents, correspondence, and pleadings
  • Performing research and conducting investigations
  • Attending hearings, depositions, and trials alongside attorneys

Although paralegals are most often called upon to handle “substantive” legal work, that doesn’t mean you won’t find them also engaged in the general administrative duties of a law firm, making their responsibilities overlap with the responsibilities of legal assistants, which include:

Legal Assistants

Legal assistants take care of any and all of the administrative activities of a law office, which includes:

  • Maintaining one or more attorney calendars
  • Greeting clients
  • Answering phone calls
  • Maintaining and organizing files
  • Sending and receiving mail
  • Preparing pleadings, correspondence, and memos
  • Proofreading and checking documents and correspondence for completeness, accuracy, and compliance
  • Creating and editing legal documents and general correspondence
  • Scheduling and confirming meetings, depositions, and witness meetings
  • Maintaining client contact, communicating case progress
  • Sending client invoices, managing expense reports, and documenting attorney and paralegal billing
  • Coordinate meetings, conference calls, and video conferencing meetings
  • Organizing materials for team case review and court proceedings

They may work alone or as part of an administrative team, and they may be supervised by a paralegal or attorney, depending on the size of the firm.

Job duties for legal assistants rarely – if ever – extend to include paralegal job duties. Paralegal jobs may include doing some of the same things you’ll find legal assistants doing, but with the additional education and qualifications it takes to be a paralegal, you’ll never find legal assistant job duties encroaching on the job duties of a paralegal.

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