Written by: Haley DeLeon // Aug 16, 2022
Last updated: Jan 17, 2023
Both legal assistants and paralegals support lawyers’ work and typically ensure that law offices run smoothly. However, despite similar job titles, there is a difference between a paralegal and legal assistant. Discover the roles, responsibilities, educational requirements, and salary ranges for each.
What Is a Paralegal?
The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as “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.”
In February 2020, the ABA updated this definition to remove the term “legal assistant” to “reflect terminology that more accurately represents the type of substantive work that paralegals perform.”
What Does a Paralegal Do?
A paralegal provides support to lawyers in nearly every facet of the legal profession, including:
- Investigating cases and evidence
- Conducting legal research
- Drafting legal documents, pleadings, and correspondence
- Writing reports or legal documents
- Summarizing interrogatories, depositions, and testimony
- Scheduling depositions
- Locating and interviewing clients
- Compiling and demonstrating exhibits used in court
- Filing appeals with opposing lawyers
- Attending legal proceedings with lawyers
The “substantive work” referenced in the ABA definition means that paralegals aren’t relegated to clerical tasks. Instead, their duties require a solid foundation of legal knowledge. Lawyers, as well as clients, often depend on paralegals. Sometimes clients will speak with paralegals to get a quick answer to basic questions about their cases.
Paralegals can specialize in different areas of the law, such as immigration, bankruptcy, litigation, personal injury, real estate, contract, tax, or criminal law, and typically work in law firms. However, paralegals may also work in government agencies, corporate legal departments, healthcare companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), real estate and title companies, and the judicial system.
It's important to note that while paralegals possess legal knowledge, they are not allowed to hand out legal advice. As documented by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), that’s reserved for lawyers. However, paralegals may interact with clients often and can also participate in meetings between lawyers and clients as well as planning sessions for case strategies. Paralegals may also bill clients for their services performed similarly to lawyers.
What Are the Educational Requirements for a Paralegal?
While educational requirements for paralegals can vary by employer, typically paralegals must earn a credential such as an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. Alternatively, you can have a degree in any subject and then earn a certificate in paralegal studies. According to Indeed, paralegals who hold a paralegal certificate generally earn 15 percent more than the average base salary.
“It used to be that the terms paralegal and legal assistant were used interchangeably,” according to Tara McManus, manager-legal at Mednax, National Medical Group, who has been in the paralegal profession for over 25 years. “Around 2011, there was a big push to make a distinction made between the two titles. Legal assistant was a title being used by administrative professionals who were not considered paralegals. Secretaries in the legal field wanted to be called legal assistants, as the term secretary was becoming antiquated and looked down upon in the industry. Paralegals needed a degree from an ABA certified program and/or certification from a nationally ABA certified program like NALA or NFPA.”
McManus emphasized the importance of gaining relevant experience and training and having the right educational background to succeed in either position.
“Paralegals should have a degree, national certification, or extensive prior experience in drafting legal documents,” she said. “Legal assistants need experience in administrative support functions.”
What Is a Paralegal’s Salary and Job Outlook?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paralegals and legal assistants earned a median annual wage of $56,230 in May 2021. Employment for paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 12 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
According to McManus, the salary potential for paralegals compared to legal assistants is higher, especially in law firms.
“Paralegals bill their time, so they are revenue generators for the firm. In law firms that use the title of legal assistant for their administrative staff, those positions do not bill their time,” she said. “If you generate revenue, you are more valuable and therefore can earn substantially more.”
What Is a Legal Assistant?
Legal assistants provide administrative support and customer service in a law office or similar setting. The term “legal assistant” can be used somewhat interchangeably with other job titles, including legal secretary and administrative assistant. According to the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA), legal assistants “divide their time equally between paralegal tasks, including researching and preparing discovery, and legal secretary tasks, up to and including filing, docketing, and assisting their attorney in the practice of law.”
However, legal assistants can typically only take on paralegal tasks once they have had adequate education and training.
What Does a Legal Assistant Do?
Legal assistants typically handle more administrative work than paralegals, including the following duties:
- Scheduling meetings and keeping track of appointments
- Collecting evidence and legal documents
- Organizing and maintaining documents in paper and electronic filing systems
- Managing client billing
- Drafting and proofreading legal documents and correspondence
- Serving as a point of contact for clients
- Preparing legal documents and evidence
- Maintaining lawyers’ calendars
What Are the Educational Requirements for a Legal Assistant?
While there isn’t a particular educational background required to be a legal assistant, employers often seek a high school diploma or GED at a minimum.
What Is a Legal Assistant’s Salary and Job Outlook?
The BLS doesn’t distinguish between the salary expectations and job outlook for legal assistants and paralegals. However, according to the BLS, the median annual wage for legal secretaries and administrative assistants as of May 2021 was $47,710. Since these job titles may be conflated, it’s important to do your research on job duties and responsibilities with any prospective employer so you can make sure your salary is fair.
Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Client Contact
One of the key differences in the job responsibilities of paralegals and legal assistants is client communication. Legal assistants interface with clients in ways related to administrative duties, such as scheduling meetings, collecting information from clients, billing clients, and taking messages from clients. On the other hand, paralegals are more involved on the legal support and documentation side, such as drafting legal documents, interviewing clients, and explaining legal documentation.
Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Case Preparation Duties
Another important area where paralegals and legal assistants differ is case preparation duties. While both paralegals and legal assistants are heavily involved in the trial preparation for cases, their responsibilities vary.
Paralegals are involved on a more detailed level, performing research on the case, interviewing witnesses, and preparing arguments and statements that will be given in the courtroom. If the case goes to trial, the paralegal will also be more involved in providing assistance to the attorney and may attend the trial with the attorney.
Legal assistants, again, handle the administrative tasks, from organizing work files and documents to scheduling meetings for the attorney and the paralegal.
Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Which Is Right for You?
Still can’t decide which career path you want to pursue? Download our guide to compare the differences between a paralegal and legal assistant, including roles and responsibilities, skills, educational requirements, and more.