The terms “legal assistant” and “paralegal” are sometimes used interchangeably. However, although they share some duties, there are several distinctions between the two roles.
A legal assistant’s job includes maintaining files, scheduling appointments, and preparing correspondence. On the other hand, paralegals are more involved in their employers' actual legal work. Their responsibilities entail interviewing witnesses, preparing legal documents, and assisting attorneys with trial preparation.
In this legal assistant vs. paralegal comparison, we’ll take a closer look at all the parallels and divisions between these two professions.
What Is a Legal Assistant?
A legal assistant is a person who provides administrative and clerical support to lawyers. They are also sometimes referred to as legal secretaries. The duties of a legal assistant vary depending on the law firm they work for and the specific needs of the lawyers they work with, but all legal assistants share some responsibilities.
Generally speaking, the duties of a legal assistant include:
- Answering phones and routing calls
- Scheduling appointments and maintaining calendars
- Greeting clients and visitors
- Preparing correspondence
- Organizing evidence and legal documents
- Drafting and proofreading documents
What Is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is a person who helps a lawyer prepare cases for trial. They provide support to lawyers in the form of research and document preparation. In addition, they speak with clients and examine the evidence.
While paralegals may talk to clients to, for example, explain legal documents, there are tasks that only lawyers can perform. These tasks include giving legal advice and signing papers. Moreover, only the lawyer represents the client, not the paralegal.
Additional tasks paralegals perform involve:
- Interviewing witnesses
- Preparing statements and arguments for the lawyer
- Drafting legal documents
A paralegal may specialize in a particular field. For example, there are real estate paralegals, family law paralegals, immigration paralegals, medical paralegals, and many others.
Legal Assistant Prerequisites
Formally, there are no requirements to be a legal assistant. One may become a legal assistant with a high school diploma. Such candidates receive training once they’re hired for the job. However, some law firms look for candidates with an associate degree or a legal assistant certificate.
The skills needed to perform the tasks of a legal assistant include:
- Excellent language skills, both oral and written
- Interpersonal skills
- Organizational skills (e.g., efficient scheduling)
- Attention to detail
- Data entry
While legal assistants don’t need any formal education after high school, there are educational requirements for paralegals. Usually, law firms require paralegals to either have an associate or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, or an unrelated bachelor’s degree combined with a certificate for paralegals.
Of course, there are also certain skills an individual needs to possess to be fit for the role of a paralegal. Some of them are:
- Analytical skills – to be able to understand and research complex legal issues.
- Research skills – to be able to discern relevant information.
- Communication skills – to be able to interact with clients, witnesses, lawyers, and other professionals both in writing and verbally.
- Organizational skills – to manage work productively and meet deadlines.
Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant Salaries
Since paralegals have to fulfill more educational requirements to do their job, they generally have higher salaries. The average salary of a paralegal varies between $53,340 and $105,040 per year. This depends on their job type and location, years of experience, skills, educational background, etc.
The salary of a legal assistant also varies according to their competencies, education, and company. The average annual legal assistant salary ranges from $45,235 to $60,325.
Although an aspiring assistant to a lawyer isn’t required to acquire certification, those with one will get more job opportunities. Some of the best certificates for legal assistants include:
- Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
- Professional Legal Secretary (PLS) by the National Association for Legal Support Professionals (NALS)
Keep in mind that these certifications come with eligibility requirements. For instance, to acquire the Professional Legal Secretary certificate, you must have at least three years of experience working in the legal field. However, if you have a post-secondary degree, or a legal assistant certificate, this period can be reduced by up to one year.
Paralegals must complete the paralegal exam to work in the field, unless they have a bachelor’s or associate degree in paralegal studies. Even if you do have one of those, however, acquiring further certification can up your chances of landing your dream paralegal job.
The exam can be one of the two offered by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) - the Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE) and the Paralegal CORE Competency Exam (PCCE).
You may enter a paralegal certification program to prepare for the exam. Some of the best options include:
- California State University, Los Angeles
- Hofstra University
- American National University
The California State University in LA offers a paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) that lasts between 12 and 15 months. The program costs $5,400, and allows students to acquire vital paralegal skills, through subjects such as Legal Research and Writing, Transactional Law, and Administrative Law. The students can choose to attend the classes in person or online.
The Hofstra University program is shorter, as it lasts for five months, but it’s also more expensive than the California State University one ($6,495). This ABA-approved program has a prerequisite, as students must have an associate degree, or 60 college credits. The program is completely online.
Finally, the program for paralegals offered by the American National University costs $10,640, and lasts for eight months. It’s approved by the ABA, and the tutors are legal professionals, including attorneys.
Many people use the terms paralegal and legal assistant as synonyms. That’s because there are quite a few similarities between the two professions. For one, both work alongside a lawyer, and don’t represent the client.
They also require some similar skills, as both jobs employ individuals who pay attention to detail, have strong oral and written communication skills, and the ability to conduct in-depth legal research.
The main difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal is that the legal assistant is more focused on administrative tasks, such as scheduling meetings and billing clients. In contrast, the paralegal assists the lawyer with cases much more extensively, often doing legal research and speaking to clients.
Another key difference is the level of education and training required for the roles. While paralegals typically need an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or certificate in paralegal studies, legal assistants are not required to have any formal education beyond a high school diploma.
So there you have it - while they have some similarities, the roles of paralegals and legal assistants are fundamentally different. Both are important for assisting lawyers, but each has its own focus and level of responsibility, with paralegals being much more involved in the actual legal aspects of cases.