Difference Between Paralegal and Legal Assistant

The legal profession includes many different jobs with varying duties and education requirements. Becoming a lawyer is just one career in a sea of other opportunities. Consider two of the most popular careers, such as a paralegal or a legal assistant, if you’re interested in the legal field. Take a look at the key differences between these two professions so that you can follow the proper path for your career.

difference between paralegal and legal assistant

Defining the Terms

The key difference between paralegal and legal assistant jobs is an area of focus. For example, legal assistants concentrate on general administrative tasks, reports Thomson Reuters. In some cases, legal assistants can double as traditional secretaries. Answering phone calls, filing paperwork and general office duties are part of this career path.

In contrast, paralegals act as right hands to their respective lawyers. For example, they work directly on a case to support research and communication between the clients and the law firm. Although paralegals and legal assistants work alongside lawyers, their job duties are incredibly different.

Remarkably, every law firm can have its definition of each position in its offices. For large firms, there may be a mixture of paralegals and legal assistants performing specific duties. As a result, their workdays are strictly regimented.

In contrast, small firms with only one or two lawyers may require a mixture of job duties from their paralegals and legal assistants. Typically, when a job position opens at these firms, applicants will have a list of required duties. Here, a paralegal might research cases but answer phones, too.

Finally, understanding a shared similarity between a paralegal and a legal assistant is helpful for aspiring job seekers. Neither job position allows you to practice law. Only a licensed lawyer can offer legal advice. Paralegals and legal assistants simply support a lawyer or a firm.

Understanding Education Requirements

Another difference between paralegal and legal assistant positions is educational background. A paralegal must understand legal basics, such as during research duties or drafting documents. Subsequently, paralegals usually have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in legal studies. The degree tells employers that the applicant has the background to start legal work without much training on the job.

The Association of Legal Administrators states that paralegals may do legal assistant tasks, but legal assistants may only do paralegal tasks if they have the appropriate education, like a degree. To complement that degree, applicants take and pass a certification program focusing on paralegal studies. As a result, these applicants are welcome to apply for paralegal jobs.

In contrast, legal assistants might only have a high school diploma. Possibly, some applicants might learn on the job if they’re qualified as a standard secretary. In most cases, the employer decides on a list of required qualifications for the job listing. For example, a law firm may want an entry-level applicant to mold on the job. Otherwise, other firms need experienced legal assistants with education and experience backing up their resumes.

Exploring Job Duty Differences

Between the two jobs, legal assistants have simpler tasks. For example, they’ll answer phone calls and take messages. Assistants keep track of court dates, client requests and other important tasks. A key duty is also communication. Undeniably, clients speak with legal assistants more often than lawyers. This communication pathway reduces billable hours for clients and frees up lawyers for more important work.

In contrast, paralegals perform highly skilled duties for one or more lawyers. For example, they draft letters, pleadings, reports and other legal documents. They even investigate details regarding evidence, cases and potential witnesses. Filing appeals, scheduling depositions and working with lawyers in the courtroom are typical job duties, too.

Because of the dense amount of work, paralegals might partner with legal assistants for support. Working in the same firm together usually means that everyone is working on similar cases. In the end, both positions are incredibly important for a streamlined office and successful firm.

Knowing Salary Estimates

Although there’s a stark difference between paralegal and legal assistant positions, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t divide these positions out for salary consideration. For example, BLS’s website reports a 2022 annual salary of $59,200 for paralegals and legal assistants. It’s difficult to determine which job duties would equate to this salary amount.

Presumably, paralegals would garner a higher hourly rate than legal assistants because of the work involved. A paralegal’s workday includes intense work on legal documents, whereas a legal assistant deals with phone calls and simple administrative work. Furthermore, experienced individuals in their respective fields would earn a higher paycheck, too. Although education is critical to this field, experience offers another layer of professionalism and work ethic.

Furthermore, salaries also depend on location. Big cities, such as Los Angeles or New York City, will often have higher salaries compared to smaller cities or towns. The cost of living is simply higher in large cities.

Certainly, hybrid or remote positions might have unique salaries, too. Working full- or part-time at home as a paralegal or legal assistant usually lowers the salary range because of the convenience it offers an employee. However, some law firms want employees at the office all week. Every opportunity will give an applicant something to think about when it comes to compensation.

In the end, paralegals and legal assistants have challenging jobs with reasonable salaries. Applicants should match their skill sets to either career path, and work hard for future promotions. Unquestionably, the legal field will continue to grow and prosper with dedicated professionals at the helm.