I went to dinner with a friend last week, and she told me she’s looking for a new career. She’s interested in work that involves the law but doesn’t want to go to law school due to both the time commitment and the cost. We tossed around a few ideas, including the possibility of working in a law firm in a different role that didn’t require a JD law degree. As we talked about the different roles in a law firm, we kept coming back to legal support roles, which led to the question: what is the difference between a legal assistant versus a paralegal?
Both legal assistants and paralegals work in law firms to support licensed attorneys in their legal work. Neither of these positions requires a law degree, and they both support the law firm in different ways. Neither position is allowed to give legal advice.
A legal assistant performs primarily administrative work, such as scheduling appointments, organizing files, answering the phone, and transcribing audio dictation. Paralegals can draft legal correspondence, documents, and forms that will be reviewed by the attorney, perform legal research, and interview clients.
What Is a Legal Assistant?
A legal assistant position focuses primarily on administrative work that supports the lawyer and the firm at large. Some firms may also refer to this role as a Legal Secretary. However, that terminology has become less frequent as it’s easier to bill clients for the services of an assistant instead of a secretary.
What Duties Does a Legal Assistant Perform?
Legal assistants will perform a variety of administrative tasks. Although many of their functions may be client-facing, they typically serve as a conduit between the client and their attorney. They can answer phone calls and take messages or questions to pass on to the attorney, but they will not answer any questions themselves.
Legal assistants are often responsible for an attorney’s calendar, including scheduling meetings or phone calls with their clients. They may also work with other legal assistants at the law firm when scheduling time with other attorneys or at firm events and activities. People who need to reach an attorney will likely get their legal assistant first, as this role can act as a gatekeeper to the attorney’s availability.
Legal cases often generate a lot of documents, and legal assistants are usually responsible for keeping everything organized. They can receive, sort, label, and file documents from clients, often using a law firm’s content management system. This organization is essential as it ensures the paperwork and other documents are easily found by paralegals and lawyers when it comes time to work on a case.
Lawyers often use dictation to write their legal briefings, create memos, or write other correspondence. These dictations are often given to legal assistants to transcribe into written documents that are subsequently returned to the attorney for review and signature.
Common skills for legal assistants include:
- Word processing
- Data entry
- Organizing and filing
- General client communication
What Duties Can Legal Assistants Not Perform?
Legal assistants are not permitted to give clients legal advice or legal assistance as they are not licensed to practice law. In most cases, legal assistants do not specialize in a specific area of law as their duties and responsibilities are more general and can be performed within any law firm.
What Level of Education Do Legal Assistants Need?
Most legal assistant positions require a high school diploma as the minimum level of education. Some legal assistants will have a bachelor’s degree, but they don’t need any specific degree or course specialization.
Most law firms will provide additional on-the-job training for their legal assistants. This training will focus on the needs of that specific law firm, including any specialized document management systems that they use. In-house legal assistant training will also cover the law firm’s preferences for interacting with clients and attorneys, such as email systems, phone responses, and written correspondence.
How Much Money Do Legal Assistants Make?
The salary for a legal assistant can vary greatly depending on their geographical location within the United States. Legal assistants in large cities tend to have higher wages than those in smaller towns or rural areas.
According to the employment website Indeed, the average annual salary for a legal assistant in the US is $42,573. They also indicate that the highest-paying cities for legal assistants are:
- New York, New York
- Los Angeles, California
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Chicago, Illinois
- Tampa, Florida
What Is a Paralegal?
A paralegal position focuses on directly supporting a lawyer as they work on a case and prepare to go to trial. Although some of their work may be administrative, they perform more detailed tasks and typically have a deeper understanding of the law than a legal assistant.
What Duties Does a Paralegal Perform?
Unlike legal assistants, paralegals often specialize in one specific type of law, such as immigration, personal injury, criminal defense, or family law. Their level of knowledge within their chosen sub-area won’t be as high as a licensed attorney’s, but they will be able to perform highly specialized work.
One of the primary responsibilities of a paralegal is performing legal research, often using specialized legal services and databases. They must know how to accurately find relevant information within these systems and summarize the critical points into a shorter document for the attorney to review. Paralegals must be able to perform this research work quickly and accurately.
Paralegals are also responsible for drafting many different legal documents for their supervising attorneys. These documents can be client-facing, such as memos, emails, and letters. They can only sign their own name to correspondence that doesn’t include any legal advice or recommendations; otherwise, the paralegal must draft everything before it is reviewed and signed by the attorney.
Paralegals will also draft legal documents that they may file with a government agency or with the court. Again, these documents must be reviewed and signed by the attorney before submitting them.
Some types of legal documents that a paralegal may work on include:
- Legal forms
- Formal petitions
- Cover letters
- Legal summaries
- Lists of evidence or documentation
Paralegals will also play a role in submitting some court documents or filing documents with the opposing counsel. They are again supervised when performing these duties, but filing these documents doesn’t usually require a separate sign-off by their attorney.
Some common skills for paralegals include:
- Legal research
- Legal documentation
- Familiarity with government agencies
- Writing and editing
- Communication and correspondence
What Duties Can Paralegals Not Perform?
Since they are not licensed attorneys, paralegals are not permitted to give legal counsel or advice. They can take information from their attorney and give it to the client. They can also answer questions about what certain legal forms or documents mean.
What Level of Education Do Paralegals Need?
All paralegal positions require at least a high school diploma, and most will need either a specialized associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. There are no required fields of study for paralegals with a bachelor’s degree. Still, many paralegals will have a background in an area that is writing-intensive or that focuses on the legal system, such as criminal justice.
Many, but not all, paralegals will also choose to attend a post-secondary certificate course to become certified. These courses are typically one semester in length and can be either in-person or online. Some schools will also offer a hybrid option.
These certificate programs will teach new paralegals the specific legal research and writing skills they’ll need to perform their jobs. They’ll also cover many standard tools and systems used in law offices, such as internal document management systems and court filing systems. Some paralegal certificate programs will focus on specific areas of law to better prepare paralegals for those niche fields.
How Much Money Do Paralegals Make?
The amount of money that a paralegal makes can vary depending on their level of education if they’ve received any specialized training and their geographical location within the US. Paralegals with a bachelor’s degree or a paralegal certificate tend to make more money than those with an associate’s degree. Also, some specialized areas of law will pay more for paralegals who are trained or experienced in that area.
Employment company Indeed lists the average salary for a paralegal in the United States as $49,177. This is just under $5,000 more per year than the average salary for a legal assistant. They also indicate that these are the highest paying cities for paralegals:
- Washington, DC
- Dallas, Texas
- Chicago, Illinois
- Phoenix, Arizona
- New York, New York
Is It Better to Be a Legal Assistant or a Paralegal?
Both legal assistants and paralegals play an essential role in the legal field. Both positions allow people to work for a law firm or independently practicing attorney without needing to attend law school.
A legal assistant position is a better fit for those interested in performing more administrative work. These employees must be highly organized and adept at juggling projects with many moving parts. Legal assistant jobs usually require less formal education than a paralegal.
The paralegal role is a better fit for those who want to do legal research and writing. These positions need someone who can consume, understand, and summarize dense legal information. They also need to be able to write coherent and highly structured legal documents and communicate accurate information to clients. Paralegal jobs usually require post-high school education, such as an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.