Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: What is the Difference?

In the past, the job titles “paralegal” and “legal assistant” were used synonymously. Not only do they handle similar job responsibilities at times, but the courts and bar associations rarely distinguish between the two. For example, statutes, industry guidelines and court rules often use the terms interchangeably. Despite this, there are real differences between the two jobs that must be mentioned.

The history of paralegals and legal assistants

Up until the last few years, legal assistants were referred to as legal secretaries, primarily at private law firms. In keeping with the nationwide trend toward calling secretaries administrative assistants or executive assistants, law firms rebranded the role. While some firms and court systems still hold onto legal assistant and paralegal as being the same position, most professional legal organizations have taken long-term steps to differentiate between them.

Industry leaders pushed for this change because many legal professionals preferred the title of paralegal to legal assistant, while legal secretaries preferred to be called legal assistants. This article will use the term legal assistant in place of legal secretary.

Some law firms call their secretaries legal assistants to justify billing clients for the hours the employees’ worked, even though the duties are more limited than that of a paralegal or an attorney.

Paralegals and legal assistants must be familiar with legal terminology, basic legal procedure, law office protocol and state and federal court filing requirements. They must possess excellent dictation and transcription skills, be extremely deadline and detail-oriented and highly organized. In the past, legal assistants might have required extensive experience filing paper documents, though now with the rise of modern technology, they must be proficient using office and legal software.

As many law firms have switched nearly entirely to electronic filing records, legal assistants must exude excellent computer skills. They also must be comfortable using spreadsheets and word processing tools, along with creating presentations and drafting documents electronically. The most common traits any skilled assistant should possess are reliability, efficiency, patience, kindness and discretion.

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To further expound upon the various differences between the two roles, here are four key categories:

1. Job responsibilities

Two of the primary differentiating factors between the two roles are the amount of client contact and job responsibilities. Paralegals may meet with clients and directly assist in pre-trial proceedings, while legal assistants hold more administrative roles. Aside from not being able to practice law or give clients legal advice, paralegal’s daily job duties more closely align with attorneys than legal assistants.

Paralegals and legal assistants both handle office paperwork and documentation, such as summonses, motions and court appeals. The key difference is paralegals will focus more on big-picture tasks, such as legal research and preparing cases to go to trial, while legal assistants will perform daily clerical functions that are required to keep an office running smoothly.

Paralegals normally do not bill clients, set appointments, schedule court appearances or events and take phones calls, as these responsibilities are turned over to the legal assistants. These legal assistants might take client calls, but they are usually not qualified to answer their questions and instead will draft them in a memo to pass on to the attorney. This helps the attorney know exactly what their clients’ concerns may be when they return the call.

Both paralegals and legal assistants are not legally able to provide counsel or defend clients in court. However, paralegals communicate with attorneys, other paralegals, vendors, opposing counsel and other staff members, unlike legal assistants.

Experienced assistants often move into senior secretarial positions or even paralegal roles within certain law firms, depending on their level of expertise and educational background. Most paralegals come from paralegal studies or political science backgrounds, while legal assistants come from clerical or secretarial backgrounds.

2. Work environment

One of the more noticeable differences between the two roles is the work environment. While the vast majority of paralegals find work at law firms, they can also find work at government agencies, in the nonprofit sector, at large corporations and even at real estate companies. Essentially, any company that needs legal help, paralegals can find work there. With legal assistants, however, the job offerings tends to be more limited.

Most legal assistants work at larger law firms, as they have the most need for someone with knowledge of legal terminology. This is because most corporations, government offices or other companies tend to hire administrative assistants to fulfill the same role, and then turn to paralegals to support their in-house attorneys. However, certain judicial offices often hire legal assistants.

3. Program requirements

This category offers another key difference between the two roles. For paralegals, there are numerous educational journeys someone could take to enter into the field. Many paralegals complete certification programs or earn an associate’s degree, though most employers prefer at least a bachelor’s degree. A master’s in paralegal studies provides paralegals with the advance skills, knowledge and abilities they need to succeed.

For example, George Washington University’s Master’s in Paralegal Studies online program curriculum emphasizes oral and written communication, task management and relevant technology paralegals will need in the legal field. The program balances courses in the history of law, political theory and practical skills so students can gain a deep understanding of the field in which they want to work. This high-level teaching approach pushes and prepares students above and beyond traditional certification or degree programs.

Meanwhile, some legal assistants get certified with national associations, as this may enhance their career advancement opportunities. For example, the National Association for Legal Professionals gives out an ALS designation for legal assistants who complete an extensive examination. Overall, while the educational background is not as critical for a legal assistant position, it is important to have expertise in legal studies, whether that means a working knowledge of legal terminology or past experience in the field.

4. Salary

According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistic (BLS) figures, the average annual salary for paralegals was $53,180, though this figure varied significantly based on the industry. For example, paralegals working in the federal branch of the government made $67,530, while those in electronic manufacturing earned an average of $84,240 a year. The size of the firm and years of experience also greatly impacted salary offerings, as well, because the Internet Legal Research Group (ILRG) found paralegals at large law firms at a senior level position earned anywhere from $70,250 – $96,750.

Meanwhile, legal assistants, referred to as legal secretaries at BLS, reportedly earned $47,900 a year. This varied depending on the industry, with the highest salary average being $76,030 in the field of natural gas distribution. The ILRG also found that legal assistants with 12 years of experience or more at large law firms earned anywhere from $61,500 – $73,500 each year.

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Ready to make a smart career move into the legal arena? People looking to make a change or further their career advancement opportunities should consider George Washington University’s Master’s in Paralegal Studies online program.

As one of the few paralegal master’s degrees in the country, the program will equip current or future paralegals with the skills, experience and knowledge they need to succeed. Contact one of our program representatives today to learn more about our rigorous curriculum that you need to be prepared to enter into the legal field, along with our flexible online offerings to meet the needs of your busy schedule.


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