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What’s the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Lawyer?

What's the Difference Between a Paralegal and a Lawyer

Have you ever thought about pursuing a career in the legal field or what it takes to become a lawyer? Did you consider becoming a paralegal? Most people may not know what exactly a paralegal is. It is possible that becoming a paralegal can be a very fulfilling career. However, do you know what is the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer?

There are two notable differences between a paralegal and a lawyer, the education and licensing that would be required. A lawyer must attend and graduate from an ABA (American Bar Association) accredited school. Then he or she must pass the bar examination in the state he or she intends to practice law. A paralegal does not have these requirements. Although some states may have certification procedures for paralegals, they are usually not required to work as one. 

How Do You Become a Paralegal?

There are no specific educational requirements for a paralegal, although you may pursue a degree in paralegal studies or criminal justice, while others can be certified as a paralegal (depending on the state); typically, an associate degree in any major is sufficient. 

There are some employers who may require the paralegal be certified or have some minimal experience, but that can vary depending on a particular law firm and their specific needs for a particular position. 

Lastly, there are no legal requirements for paralegals to be licensed in the state they wish to work. The certification is a nice to have but not a must have. Obviously, those who choose to become certified as a paralegal would potentially be more competitive in their job search and be able to command a higher starting salary.

Related: 8 of the Best Types of Jobs you Can Get with a Criminal Justice Degree

So, What Does a Paralegal Actually Do?

A typical day for a paralegal usually consists of some form of the following:

  • Conducting research on relevant laws, regulations and legal articles
  • Investigation into and gathering facts of a case
  • Organizing and maintenance of files
  • Drafting correspondence and other legal documents
  • Assistant to the lawyer during a trial
  • Scheduling and coordinating meetings/calls with clients, external vendors and other lawyers
  • Drafting reports for lawyers in preparation for a trial

This is not an all exhaustive list but just a few examples of some of the work a paralegal may be involved in. The most critical point is that a paralegal’s primary role is to provide support to a lawyer and perform the various tasks as delegated by the lawyer. This is why a paralegal’s role can vary, as it would depend on the particular type of law they are focused on and whether they are working for a law firm or a private organization. 

What Makes a Good Paralegal?

What Makes a Good Paralegal?

As mentioned previously, there are no specific educational or legal qualifications to become a paralegal, but listed below are examples of some good skill sets to have:

  • Excellent communication skills, both verbal and written
  • Be diligent in their work and attentive to detail
  • Good administrative and time management skills
  • Knowledge of legal court proceedings and regulations

The last one can be learned on the job, but that would depend on the law firm, as some would prefer to hire fresh college graduates with no paralegal experience and provide on the job training. 

While other law firms may require more work experience and a paralegal certification, again this is solely contingent on the law firm and their specific needs for a particular role at the time. 

Can a Paralegal Provide Legal Advice?

Paralegals cannot provide legal advice to or represent a client in any legal proceeding, as only a lawyer is allowed to perform these duties. Additionally, although a paralegal may be the one preparing some or all the documents, only the lawyer can sign these legal documents. 

The work a paralegal performs must be under the supervision of a lawyer. This ensures the quality of the work, but more importantly it is the responsibility of the lawyer to ensure accuracy and adherence to the specific laws and regulations for a specific case. 

Lastly, a paralegal can work for a lawyer but cannot practice law. This may be an obvious difference, but not everyone who interacts with a lawyer or his paralegals may realize this fact. 

Related: Paralegal vs Legal Assistant: What’s the Difference?

What Is the Salary Range for a Paralegal and a Lawyer?

The national average for a paralegal in the US is around $57,000 annually, whereas the national average for a lawyer is approximately $100,000 per year. This enormous difference reflects the significant amount of effort and time to accomplish the studies, as well as the regulatory requirements needed to become a lawyer, compared to the minimal requirements to become a paralegal. 

We also need to factor in the amount of money one spends in order to complete their studies to become a lawyer. It can vary from country to country, but in the US for example, one would first need to complete their undergraduate studies and obtain a bachelor’s degree in any major and then attend law school afterwards. This can take six to seven years at a minimum to accomplish. 

These states have some of the highest salaries (based on average) for paralegals: District of Columbia, Connecticut, California, Washington and Massachusetts. 

Can a Paralegal Become a Lawyer?

In short, yes, paralegals can become a lawyer by accomplishing the same educational and legal requirements. As noted previously, the path to become a lawyer can be long and arduous, and that is not even considering the cost of attending both undergraduate and law school. 

However, a paralegal has a clear advantage when compared to a fresh undergraduate student going straight to law school; and that is the work experience and the fact that he or she has determined this is the path they wish to pursue. The paralegal has worked in a law firm, and thus worked closely with and performed all their duties for a lawyer. This firsthand experience provides very crucial knowledge and understanding of what a day in the life of a lawyer is like. 

Then there are the obvious benefits of becoming a lawyer, such as the higher salary and the prestige of being a lawyer as compared to the “lowly” paralegal. This is not to belittle the paralegal profession, as it plays a very crucial role in the legal field, but when was the last time you saw a paralegal interviewed by a reporter on national TV or congratulated for winning a case? 

What Are the Different Types of Paralegals?

What are the Different Types of Paralegals?

Just like becoming a lawyer, there are also several types of paralegals one can choose from. Here are some of the more popular options:

  • Family law
  • Immigration law
  • Real estate law
  • Litigation 
  • Corporate law
  • Bankruptcy law
  • Intellectual property law
  • Labor law
  • Estate planning 

As you can see, there are several areas from which a paralegal can choose, and each one has its own nuances and varying degrees of duties performed. For example, a corporate paralegal would probably have extremely limited if any interaction with a client, as he or she works for an organization. So, in theory the corporate paralegal only has one client, the organization he or she works for. 

Related: Is Family Law a Good Career? 

What Is the Job Growth Outlook for a Paralegal?

Based on information provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth potential looks incredibly good, as the data from 2020 forecasts a job growth potential of 12% by the year 2030. There were approximately 345,000 paralegals in the United States in 2020, so based on this number, we can expect an additional 41,000 jobs by the year 2030. 

As with any industry, there would obviously be larger clusters of growth in certain states and parts of the country when compared to other areas. Therefore, you must make some effort into researching the different data points that is relevant to your location, if you are interested in pursuing a paralegal career. 

What Are Some of the Top Reasons or Benefits of Becoming a Paralegal?

The most obvious is of course the job security offered by this field, as supported by the data provided in the previous section on the job growth potential in the next ten years. There is a great demand for paralegals and demand equals job security. 

A median annual salary of $57,000 is not bad, given the minimal requirements of becoming a paralegal. There are several options that you can pursue, based on the specific area of law you are interested in, so you are not only tied to working in a courtroom environment. 

There is the potential for advancement opportunities within a law firm into a more senior supervisory role or even a managerial position. 

A paralegal is a stepping stone to becoming a lawyer, since a paralegal has performed a lot of the tasks for a lawyer, this provides great insight into what it would be like to be a lawyer. This insight can greatly help a paralegal making that important decision of whether to pursue a law degree.

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