The legal field presents an exciting career possibility for many. However, some individuals may not want to invest in law school and become a lawyer. For these individuals there are several other legal positions available, including that of a paralegal or a legal assistant. Although the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” were once used interchangeably, they now refer to two different professions. In recent years, “legal assistant” has more commonly replaced the title “legal secretary” in law firms. A paralegal and a legal assistant can differ widely in terms of educational requirements, skill sets, duties and compensation. In this blog post, we will examine those differences.
A paralegal serves as an aide with basic litigation knowledge. Paralegals must have the training and skills to perform substantive legal legwork for lawyers. These professionals are responsible for tasks that lawyers regularly perform. Such responsibilities include conducting complex legal research, drafting legal documents, interviewing clients and potential witnesses, demonstrating exhibits, filing appeals with the opposing counsel and assisting with courtroom arguments and statements. A paralegal is a valuable asset to any law firm, streamlining processes and improving efficiency. By taking on these fundamental litigative tasks at a lower rate than a lawyer, the paralegal frees up the lawyer for more important concerns, reducing costs and increasing productivity.
Because paralegals perform litigation, prospective paralegals undergo legal education and training. To be competitive, most paralegals must have a degree in paralegal studies, legal studies or another related field. In addition, 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 median annual salary for paralegals was $49,500 in 2016, though paralegals can earn much more or much less depending on the location and type of organization. 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.
A legal assistant serves as an administrator for a law firm. Rather than litigative tasks, legal assistants perform a variety of administrative tasks. However, this administration often intersects with litigation and requires some legal knowledge. A legal assistant may collect information from clients, prepare legal documents, organize those documents for attorney review and organize working files. In addition, the legal assistant will utilize software to schedule meetings, depositions and other events, as well as performing other secretarial work. Legal firms necessarily require much administrative organization, and as such, legal assistants are vital to litigative operations.
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. However, to be competitive, some previous administrative or legal experience is necessary. The median annual wage for legal secretaries is $44,180, though this varies based on experience and location. The profession is projected to see steady job growth, as there will likely always be a demand for legal assistants.
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.