What is the Difference between a Certified Legal Assistant and a Paralegal?

In the legal industry, the proper choice of words can be the difference between a binding contract and an unofficial agreement, so it's understandable that most legal professionals want a clear-cut answer when it comes to their official title. Unfortunately, this is a very gray area. Certified legal assistants and paralegals are technically interchangeable, but many people in this field have strong feelings about which title is more appropriate for their job.

The Official Definitions

The American Bar Association defines legal assistants and paralegals the same. It states that both titles apply to someone "qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible."

In layman's terms, this means that both paralegals and legal assistants work alongside lawyers handling tasks such as conducting interviews, preparing case files, managing schedules, assisting with jury selection, taking notes in court, and more. Legally, the titles are completely interchangeable.

The Legal Assistant Title and Education

Traditionally, legal assistants and legal secretaries were two separate jobs. Legal secretaries handled simple tasks like setting appointments, greeting visitors, and taking phone calls while legal assistants took care of more substantive legal work. However, the term "secretary" has gone out of style in recent years, giving way to the more popular "administrative assistant."

The general distaste for the term secretary led to many professionals previously known as legal secretaries earning an upgrade to the title of legal assistant. Their duties and salary didn't change, but their title was altered to suit the changing times.

While this was great news for legal secretaries, it left many former legal assistants vying for an upgrade to their titles as well. For some, adding the term "certified" gave the job more legitimacy. Legal assistants can obtain certification as an Accredited Legal Professional (APL), Professional Legal Secretary (PLS), or Certified Legal Professional (CLP) from NALS. A Legal Office Assistant Diploma program can help prepare you for these certification exams.

Paralegal Titles and Education

In most law offices, paralegals have more education than legal assistants. You can pursue a Paralegal Studies Associate Degree to help prepare you for a position as a paralegal. Though there's no legal differentiation between paralegals and legal assistants, legal offices can set their own requirements for these jobs, and typically require more of paralegals.

NALS offers a Professional Paralegal (PP) certification for graduates of a legal studies or paralegal studies program. You can also sit for this exam if you have at least 5 years of professional experience as a paralegal, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to land a paralegal job without some form of continuing education.

How to Find Opportunities as a Legal Assistant

If you're looking for a job as a legal assistant, you may find that you can gain entry-level employment with as little as a high school diploma. However, furthering your education with at least a relevant diploma program is highly preferred. Consider searching for "legal secretary" jobs as well as "legal assistant" positions.

How to Find Opportunities as a Paralegal

If you're looking for a position as a paralegal, you should plan to further your education with a college degree. Though you may find some opportunities without a degree, this title usually reserved for those with more education and certifications including specializations like civil litigation, criminal litigation and domestic law. The degree is only the first step. For more tips on how to get a job as a paralegal, click here.

Both paralegal and legal assistant positions will give you access to a lucrative career in law without the time or expense of passing the bar. For more information on programs in the legal field offered at Bryant and Stratton College, click here or call the Admissions office at 1.888.273.2758.