There are many careers in the legal industry that don’t require you to go to law school. Among those careers are jobs with titles such as “paralegal” and “legal assistant.” As you continue to explore your career options, you’re likely to have more questions about these job titles. The distinctions between paralegal and legal assistant are so slight that, in many cases, they don’t amount to any practical difference at all. However, these subtle variations may indicate differences in scope of work and required education.
Interchangeable Titles, Minor Distinctions
People often use the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” interchangeably. In fact, the jobs are so similar that the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies them under the same occupational group. There are, however, slight differences between the roles of paralegal and legal assistant. Generally, the term “paralegal” conveys more work of a legal nature, while legal assistant may involve more duties typical of an administrative assistant.
Paralegals do “substantive legal work,” as the American Bar Association refers to it, as delegated by an attorney. In certain circumstances, paralegals are permitted to bill for that work just as an attorney would – albeit, at a more economical rate – but legal assistants generally are not. However, in law firms and other employment settings where paralegals are paid a salary, this distinction may mean little. In practice, the difference between job titles “paralegal” and “legal assistant” may distinguish level of education, with paralegals being expected to have a more thorough formal education – usually, including a college degree – compared to legal assistants.
Differentiating between paralegal or legal assistant and legal secretary is a little easier. Legal secretaries typically perform work of a secretarial, clerical or administrative nature. Since their work is the least specialized, they tend to earn less than their colleagues who complete a paralegal certification program – often by as much as $5,000, $10,000 or more.
Paralegals are more likely to handle administrative duties than legal secretaries are to perform legal work, while positions with the job title “legal assistant” may fall somewhere in between the scope of a paralegal and a legal secretary.
A Paraprofessional Role
Paralegals are a type of paraprofessional. In other words, they are not licensed as an attorney – just as paraprofessionals in the field of education are not licensed teachers – but they may be delegated some professional tasks or parts of tasks by the licensed professional. Legal secretaries, on the other hand, aren’t considered paraprofessionals but rather administrative support staff.
As a paraprofessional, paralegals don’t need a license to work in this occupation, as lawyers do. Certification through regional and national organizations is voluntary, according to the BLS. However, not having the appropriate certification can hold you back in your career, because many employers look for candidates with prior training.
For some candidates, a paraprofessional role is a precursor to a career as a licensed professional. Aspiring attorneys may choose to work as paralegals to start networking with lawyers in their area and acquire experience working in a law firm.
Differences Between Legal Assisting and Legal Studies Degree Programs
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When it comes to degree programs, the curriculum of a legal assisting program will have some considerable differences compared to that of a legal studies program. Generally, legal studies programs, sometimes called pre-law programs, are intended for students who plan to go to law school. They often include coursework in the theories of justice and of law, the sociology of law, the history of law and law as it pertains to public policy and economics. Completing this interdisciplinary course of study sets the stage for graduate-level coursework in the practice of law.
Paralegal studies and legal assisting programs, on the other hand, place greater emphasis on learning the practical skills of legal work that an attorney is likely to delegate to a paralegal. Although many paralegal programs include coursework that exposes the student to different areas of legal practice, the fundamental goal of such a program is to develop proficiency in job duties such as legal writing, legal research and office coordination. In a paralegal program, you won’t learn how to develop a legal strategy that is right for representing your client, but instead the hands-on skills needed to carry out the strategy of an attorney’s choosing.
Earning your undergraduate degree in legal studies isn’t required to get into law school. In fact, some experts recommend against majoring in pre-law and suggest majoring in philosophy, journalism or economics instead, according to U.S. News & World Report.