December 8, 2020

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

By B&SC Blog Team

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

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.

What is a Paralegal?

Paralegals, according to the American Bar Association, are individuals “qualified by education, training or work experience who are employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, law firm, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and perform specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

What is a Legal Assistant?

This term “legal assistant” is defined by the ABA in the same way as a paralegal. In layman’s terms, this means that both paralegals and legal assistants work alongside lawyers handling tasks such as conducting interviews, doing legal research, preparing legal documents, managing schedules, assisting with jury selection, taking notes in court, and more. However, they cannot give legal advice to a client as this is the lawyer’s responsibility.

It is important to note that legal assistant is also sometimes thrown out interchangeably with the term legal secretaries, even though there are more distinguishable differences between these two job titles. Legal secretaries handle simple administrative tasks like setting appointments, greeting visitors, and taking phone calls, while legal assistants took care of more substantive legal work.

In recent years, the term “secretary” has gone out of style, 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.

Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Education Requirements

As the job market becomes more competitive, education requirements have shifted for both positions. To prepare for a position as a paralegal most pursue a Paralegal Studies Associate Degree. However, some employers may be looking for those with a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in legal studies. Check each employer’s requirements to determine which would be the best fit.

In most law offices, legal assistants have less education than paralegals and can pursue entry-level jobs with a high school diploma or GED as there are no formal requirements for this position. If you want to advance your career, it is recommended that you earn a diploma or an associate degree.

Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Certifications

Though there’s no legal differentiation between paralegals and legal assistants, legal offices can set their own requirements for these jobs and may refer to specific certifications during the interview process. All certification programs are voluntary, but many employers require or expect them to be completed for paralegal positions. Most paralegals complete ABA certification programs issued by the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) and the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) to become a certified paralegal (CP). NALS also 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.

If legal assistants wish to 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 vs. Legal Assistant: Job Opportunities

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.

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.

Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for paralegals and legal assistants is the same at

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