What is the difference between a legal assistant and paralegal?
Updated: Feb 7
Legal assistants and paralegals are vital additions to any law firm or department. Both roles provide support for lawyers with case preparation and general administrative work. However, what's the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant? We'll try to answer that question and provide you with an understanding of the similarities and differences between these two roles. Although there's no legal distinction between paralegals and legal assistants, legal offices can have their own requirements for these roles and may refer to specific certifications during the screening process.
Paralegals can be thought of as lawyer's assistants; they do everything from conducting research on laws and cases to drafting legal documents and compiling evidence to be used in courts. They help attorneys get ready for trial by drafting reports, displaying exhibits, and filing appeals with the rival counsel. Because of their thorough work on cases, paralegals are able to bill clients for their work, whereas legal assistants cannot.
In addition, paralegals are able to specialize in certain areas such as criminal law, family law, real estate law and immigration law. Depending on the area in which they choose to work, their duties will vary. Most paralegals should complete ABA-approved post-degree certification programs through professional associations such as the NFPA and NALA. However, unlike lawyers, paralegals do not need a secondary degree or licensing and are not subject to the same regulatory strictures. The demand for paralegals in the industry is projected to steadily increase. This is a lucrative and rewarding career choice for anyone interested in the legal field.
The term "legal assistant" is sometimes thrown out interchangeably with several titles, including administrative assistant, legal secretary and even paralegal. For a more comprehensive comparison, we will be using the definition of a legal assistant vs. paralegals, as there are more distinct differences between the two. Legal assistants perform more administrative tasks than paralegals. They can be found preparing legal documents such as subpoenas, answering phones, using scheduling software to keep track of appointments and other secretarial duties. Unlike paralegals, there are typically no set education requirements for a legal assistant. In addition, there are more entry-level job opportunities for legal assistants. The profession is projected to see steady job growth, as there will likely always be a demand for legal assistants.
Paralegal vs. legal assistant:
Top skills employers usually seek:
Top skills for paralegal:
Litigation, Microsoft Office, Legal Documentation, Legal Document Composition, Legal Research
Top skills for Legal Assistant:
Administrative Support, Microsoft Office, Scheduling, Legal Support, Data entry
As you can see, there is a slight overlap in skills, but there are different specialized tasks for each position. Paralegals are more involved with the actual technicalities of the law, whereas legal assistants undertake broader tasks. If you are looking for a more hands-on law career, becoming a paralegal may interest you more. However, becoming a legal assistant first could be a great way to find out if you enjoy working in the field before committing to school.
Both paralegals and legal assistants present alternative career opportunities in the legal field; however, their work and responsibilities differ. Paralegals perform more specialized, litigative work and require a more demanding educational background. Legal assistants are much more administratively focused. Both professions are thriving and present exciting opportunities for those interested in the legal industry.
Various certification programs are voluntary, but many employers require or expect them to be completed for paralegal roles. Most paralegals complete ABA certification programs issued by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) to become a certified paralegal (CP). NALS also offers a Professional Paralegal (PP) certification for graduates of a legal studies or paralegal studies program.
If legal assistants wish to obtain certification as an Accredited Legal Professional (APL), Professional Legal Secretary (PLS), or Certified Legal Professional (CLP) from NALS. A Legal Office Assistant Diploma program can help prepare you for these certification exams.