Legal Assistants vs. Paralegals: What’s the Difference?

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Are you trying to decide between pursuing a career as a paralegal or a legal assistant? If so, you may be wondering about the difference between the two or curious about how they overlap.

This guide outlines some of the similarities and differences between a career as a paralegal and a legal assistant. Read on to learn more about the different duties, education requirements, and potential salary expectations between the two roles.

Difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal

A legal assistant may perform administrative duties and legal tasks, whereas a paralegal focuses more on legal tasks and research. Both require an understanding of legal terminology, procedures, processes, and, depending on the firm, administrative work.

A photo of a paralegal on the phone with a legal translation company

What is a paralegal?

The American Bar Association (ABA) offers a relatively basic definition of a paralegal. Specifically, the ABA states that a paralegal is a qualified person who performs substantive legal work on behalf of a lawyer.

Given how much a paralegal’s role can vary from firm to firm (and even between paralegals within firms!), there is no way to create a singular job description l.

What does a paralegal do?

While paralegals cannot practice law or give legal advice, they can complete a wide array of substantive legal work on behalf of supervising attorneys, including:

  • Managing client communication and keeping clients up-to-date on their cases.
  • Reviewing and organizing client files.
  • Conducting legal research.
  • Preparing and drafting certain legal documents.
  • Conducting interviews with clients or witnesses.
  • Assisting at closings and trials.

Not all paralegals do the same type of work. The roles, responsibilities, and areas of expertise can vary greatly from paralegal to paralegal.

What is a legal assistant

Legal assistants are responsible for performing administrative and customer service duties in a law office.

While legal assistants may help the lawyers research cases in the same way that paralegals do, they generally perform more secretarial work.

What does a legal assistant do?

A legal assistant helps with administrative and customer service tasks. Typical responsibilities include:

  • Collecting and organizing evidence documents
  • Drafting and proofreading legal documents
  • Managing client billing
  • Organizing and maintaining filing systems
  • Maintaining attorney calendars and schedules
  • Communicating with clients and other stakeholders (such as expert witnesses)

Paralegal vs. legal assistant: Case management

Here’s an example of how a legal assistant’s role is different from a paralegal.

In case management, a paralegal will perform research for trials, interview potential witnesses, and prepare statements and arguments for their attorney to use.

A paralegal will take charge of the overall procession of a case, especially for litigation, and make sure that all elements of the case are being collected, maintained, and organized.

A legal assistant’s duties, on the other hand, will be more administrative: organizing files for the trial, scheduling meetings with clients, and setting up meetings with witnesses for the attorney and paralegal.

Job requirements for legal assistants vs. paralegals

Most paralegals have either an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree.

A legal assistant may not need any educational experience other than a high school diploma. However, some law firms prefer to hire legal assistants who have completed a certificate program and, in some cases, further education (such as an associate degree or bachelor’s degree).

Be sure to read our other resources in our paralegal hub page. 

Skills for legal assistants vs. paralegals

Paralegal looking over files outside

The skills required for both paralegals and legal assistants do have some overlap, with varying degrees in specialization.

We captured a simple breakdown of the top skills that attorneys look for in paralegals and legal assistants.

Paralegal skills

  • Litigation. Being able to draft pleadings and discovery, prepare for depositions, mediations, and arbitrations, and assisting at trial is a big skill to have on your resume.
  • Multi-tasking. Litigation moves fast, so it’s important to have the skills to adapt and pivot at a moment’s notice.
  • Attention to detail. You’ll likely be the last to put eyes on important documents before they go to court, so you need to be able to catch the smallest of errors.
  • Organized. Whether you’re working in the cloud or with paper, being organized is highly important so that anyone can find what they’re looking for in litigation files.
  • Technology. Paralegals with advanced technology skills, such as law firm billing, legal case management software, and more, have a competitive advantage.
  • Legal research. Paralegals in all practice areas use research skills to help attorneys, and it’s important to have a system that ensures vital information is never missed.

Looking for a paralegal job? Learn how to write a paralegal resume and cover letter (with examples).

Legal assistant skills

  • Communication. This involves listening, expressing ideas clearly, and interpreting non-verbal cues, but it can also involve clear, concise written communication.
  • Calendaring. A good legal assistant needs to manage and organize attorney calendars effectively. It’s easier when there’s cloud-based software involved.
  • Scheduling. This includes handling office scheduling, but also booking meetings with clients and helping attorneys stay on top of their daily schedule.
  • Legal support. Knowledge of legal concepts, terminology, and principles is crucial when you’re helping with document preparation and case management.

What’s the difference between a paralegal and a legal assistant in terms of salary?

Another way that paralegals and legal assistants differ is in their salaries.

According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a paralegal is between $44,000 and 68,000. However, salary ranges can vary depending on the level of experience, education, and location.

The most dramatic impact on paralegal salary is often the field of law that you work in. In addition, paralegals can earn extra income by taking on freelance paralegal work.

For legal assistants, the average salary falls between $38,000 and 55,000.

Salary ranges vary widely and depend on your city and other factors, such as education certifications, and the number of years in the profession.

Technology skills for paralegals and legal assistants

As the legal profession changes and grows, a need for technological knowledge is high on the list of requirements for legal industry job positions.

In fact, the more technology skills you have in your pocket, the more valuable you are to a law firm.

The most common technological skills that are integral to both of these roles include:

  • Document management
  • Electronic case filing
  • Conferencing
  • Legal research

As a legal professional, it’s up to you to continually seek training and to stay current on all the latest legal technologies. Plus: by making yourself the most tech-savvy person in your firm, you will greatly increase your competitive advantage in the job market.

One of the best ways you can do this is by signing up for newsletters. We’ve compiled a list of 11 paralegal newsletters to help you stay informed.

You can also read up on the latest trends in the legal field.

And, of course, you can sign up for our blog newsletter. Our expert writers publish weekly content that is current and useful, and you’ll get it sent straight to your inbox.

Legal assistant or paralegal: which one is right for you?

Both legal assistants and paralegals do rewarding work; both support attorneys and typically ensure that everything is running smoothly.

If you want to do administrative work in a legal setting, you might enjoy a career as a legal assistant.

If you’d rather play a stronger and more hands-on role in case preparation and litigation, then consider a career as a paralegal.

Whether you’re interested in working as a legal assistant or paralegal, it’s important to stay on top of legal trends and legal technology. To learn more about practice management software like Clio and how it helps law firms become more productive, efficient, and profitable, Watch How Law Firms Use Clio.

Want more?

How to Become a Paralegal

How to Write a Paralegal Cover Letter and Resume

What is a Paralegal?


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