Law offices, like many other types of businesses, must address a bevy of administrative, financial, and professional considerations in order to operate successfully. In a law firm, these tasks are, generally, divided up between lawyers, legal assistants, and paralegals, among other staffers. Depending on the size of your law firm, these items may be divided up into highly specialized roles, or for smaller firms, one or two individuals may be asked to address a broad array of tasks.
Legal assistants, also sometimes referred to as litigation assistants, and paralegals are among those often charged with handling a multitude of support duties. Here, we will explore the similarities and differences between legal assistants and paralegals, look at some of the education and training necessary to take on those roles and parse through the specific tasks these employees handle each day.
While there are many areas of overlap between the two jobs, and they sometimes get lumped together, there are, in fact, several important differences between the expectations of a legal assistant and a paralegal. Let’s take a closer look at these two roles below.
What is a legal assistant?
A legal assistant, also known as a legal secretary, is a professional who provides administrative and legal support to lawyers and law firms. Legal assistants are responsible for administrative and legal tasks such as conducting legal research, drafting legal documents, filing systems and cases, scheduling meetings with clients, phone calls, and assisting with trial preparation. They may also coordinate with other professionals, such as expert witnesses and court reporters. Legal assistants are not licensed to practice law or provide legal advice nor need to go to law school (a high school diploma is sometimes all that is needed), but they play a crucial role in supporting lawyers and ensuring that clients receive the best possible representation. They are sometimes considered administrative assistants.
What does a legal assistant do?
In general, legal assistants’ work is geared toward administrative and organizational tasks that help keep a law office running smoothly. These tasks might include setting up appointments, answering the phone, preparing documents, and keeping track of other day-to-day considerations. Being detail-oriented is a necessity for a legal assistant, and individuals who can manage several types of tasks at once are strongly suited for the position.
To that end, legal assistants’ responsibilities are usually quite broad, and individuals in these roles typically possess strong organizational and communication skills. While much of the work done by a legal assistant is not public-facing, it is still important they be able to effectively handle intraoffice communications as well as effectively dialogue with clients and others in the legal field.
What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is a type of legal assistant who has received specialized education and training in legal procedures and practices, often with a college degree. Paralegals are often required to hold a degree in paralegal studies or a related field, and may also be certified by a professional organization. While some of the work may be the same as that of a legal assistant, paralegals have a larger focus on legal tasks such as conducting legal research, drafting legal documents, interviewing witnesses, case preparation, and assisting with trial preparation. Paralegals are not authorized to provide legal advice or represent clients in court, but they are an essential part of the legal team and help to ensure that cases are prepared effectively and efficiently. They have higher credentials than a legal assistant.
What does a paralegal do?
A paralegal, according to the American Bar Association (ABA), refers to a “person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
The position largely focuses on the research and paperwork directly related to litigation. In order to do so effectively, a paralegal should have a basic understanding of the litigation process and relevant terminology.
To that end, paralegals are often tasked with more substantive research work, which without the services of such, would need to be done by an attorney. They are also asked to prepare documents, draft notices related to discovery proceedings, and can even interview clients. However, paralegals are not licensed to provide legal advice nor are they licensed to practice law. As such, they cannot represent anyone in court, sign a pleading, or take a deposition.
What educational requirements are needed for paralegals and legal assistants?
There is no specific educational requirement necessary to be hired as a paralegal (unless an employer imposes such a requirement), however many paralegals do opt to complete an ABA-approved certification program. In many cases, that program takes the form of an associate degree. Additionally, post-degree certificates are also available to achieve the career path, and some paralegals choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject area like criminal law, family law, immigration, real estate, or other types of legal studies. This can improve employability and pay.
“Most paralegals and legal assistants have at least an associate degree or a certificate in paralegal studies. In some cases, employers may hire college graduates with a bachelor’s degree but no legal experience or specialized education and train them on the job,” notes BLS. As an example, Thomson Reuters Westlaw offers a paralegal certification.
Legal assistant vs. paralegal
The main difference between paralegals and legal assistants is in the scope of their responsibilities. Paralegals typically have more extensive legal education and training, and may perform tasks such as legal research, drafting legal documents, and assisting with client communication. Legal assistants, on the other hand, typically focus on administrative and clerical tasks such as managing documents and files, scheduling appointments and court dates, and communicating with clients and other parties involved in legal matters.
Additionally, the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” may be used interchangeably depending on the jurisdiction and the specific employer.
Oftentimes, especially with respect to those who do not work in the legal profession, paralegals and legal assistants get grouped together. There is good reason for this, as the two positions do share some natural overlap in responsibilities. Further, smaller law firms that may not have the same resources as larger ones may be inclined to combine the two roles and use their limited personnel to handle a large swath of administrative tasks.
Additionally, the two jobs are so intertwined that the federal government saw fit to group paralegals and legal assistants together in its labor reports. To that end, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), combined the two positions when generating its annual salary and hourly wage data review.
According to information from the government agency, the paralegal/legal assistant job classification earned an average of $56,230 per year and $27.03 per hour, per its most updated information. It also notes individuals in these roles are generally hired to full-time, salaried positions but can often be asked to work more than the standard 40 hours per week associated with salaried work.
Breaking the roles down further, per job resource Indeed, the average annual salary of a legal assistant is $50,000, with a paralegal job earning $57,000 per year.
Other notable considerations from BLS include that the paralegal and legal assistant field is expected to grow 14% between 2021 and 2031, which would outpace the average across occupations, and there are an expected 45,800 openings projected each year in the coming decade.
Broadly speaking, a legal assistant, or litigation assistant, usually performs administrative duties as well as legal tasks while a paralegal focuses more on legal duties and research to assist lawyers. Both positions require an understanding of legal terminology and procedures.
Paralegals appear to do more and make more money in their respective roles, and for that reason, it may be more attractive to students and job seekers. However, firms looking to save may be inclined to hire a legal assistant instead and shift more responsibility to the firm’s lawyers.