Take the First Step Toward Your Criminal Justice Career Now!

Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant - What's the Difference?


Oh Google, when you fail, you fail epically. You know those times when you desperately need the answer to that age-old question: What is the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant?

You hit up your favorite search engine, frantically throw your fingers over the appropriate letters on your keyboard, and wait those never-ending nanoseconds for the search results. Drats! You are only given links to articles about paralegal careers, or ones titled something to the effect of, “what do paralegals and legal assistants do.”

Doesn’t anyone on this planet know that they are not the same thing, you scream to the skies in frustration. A paralegal and a legal assistant live in the same building, but in two different apartments. Sigh.

Someone once said, “If there’s something you want to know and you can’t find it on the internet, write it.” Ok, so that Toni Morrison quote has been heavily paraphrased. The point is, we heard you, and we’ve got your back.

We are going to answer your question about the distinct differences between paralegals and legal assistants once and for all. Ready? Here we go.

What are paralegals versus legal assistants?

Both of the professions work in a law office or law firm. They both interact with lawyers and clients. But that’s pretty much where their similarities end.

Schooling:

Paralegals have to get, at the very minimum, an associate degree in paralegal studies. However, more hiring managers are leaning toward bachelor’s degrees as the entry level point for paralegals. P.S., you can also specialize within the field. It can take anywhere from 2-4 years depending on the degree type.

Legal assistants, or legal secretaries, need a high school diploma or GED, working knowledge of computers, and a some degree of organizational skills. Other than that, they’re trained on the job to run all the administrative tasks in the office.

There are certifications available for both professions. They give your resume an extra layer of umph, and they give employers some added confidence when hiring—certifications prove you know your stuff.

Duties

Let’s look at what they do all day.

Paralegals meet with clients, but aren’t really allowed to give legal advice to them. What they can do is explain the documents to their clients to make them more understandable. They also help their attorney employer work up a case, meaning they do a lot of the heavy research, interview witnesses, and help prepare the arguments the attorney will use during trial.

The legal assistant does a lot of administrative work. They’ll organize all those files the paralegal and attorney worked hard on. They’ll also put together files for the attorney to take a gander at. And, they do meeting scheduling to keep the attorney and paralegal on track and on time. Basically, they run the place.

Salaries

Oh, the salaries. You’d think if they were similar careers, the salaries would be the same, too. But, they aren’t. Not even close.

Paralegals, depending on where they work and what they specialize in, can make up to $100K.

Legal assistants, on the other hand, bring in around $40K.

Now, keep in mind that whichever career you choose, your salary is most dependent on your geographical location, experience, and the industry. So, what’s being advertised on the interwebz probably isn’t going to reflect exactly in your paycheck. You could make way more, or much less.

Why are they lumped together as one all over the internet?

Let’s say this together, legal assistants and paralegals are not the same career. Paralegals are lawyers’ assistants, while legal assistants are lawyers’ secretaries.

Sure, in some firms, the paralegal is also the legal assistant; but the legal assistant, unless already a paralegal, can’t be both. Paralegals without any experience may find it easier to get their foot in the door by working as a legal assistant.

Why these two careers show up together in anything other than an article about what makes them different is beyond anyone’s guess. Paralegals are not the same thing as legal assistants, and vice versa.

Now, if you were to ask if legal assistants and legal secretaries are the same thing, that would be answered with a resounding YES! Because, yes.

There is one thing to be aware of, however. While bls.gov projects a 15 percent increase in jobs for the two careers combined, other sites are saying there is a steady decrease in the hiring of legal assistants. One can only surmise it’s because the paralegal is able to do both the administrative tasks, along with those specific to the career. And, if that’s the case, then lawyers, who may be extremely budget conscious, are only hiring paralegals. But don’t panic; there are still plenty of legal assistant positions out there! Whatever career choice you prefer, rest easy in your pick. These are both great separate career choices that deserved the settling of this argument. The jury may rest.

scroll to top