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Paralegal vs Law Clerk: A Detailed Guide to Choosing Your Legal Career Path

Published on: Feb 4, 2024

Both paralegals and law clerks play significant roles in supporting a law firm, but the two positions differ in several ways. These differences include the type of work they perform, their career prospects, and the level of education required. Understanding these distinctions can assist individuals in determining which career path to pursue.

This guide will discuss the distinctions between a paralegal and a law clerk to provide a more comprehensive understanding of these positions.

Role of a Paralegal

Paralegals are legal professionals who assist lawyers and others with case development and planning, case management, legal research, gathering facts, and retrieving information. Paralegals are also responsible for drafting and analyzing legal documents and using technical information to provide recommendations to a lawyer.

Support provided to attorneys and legal teams

Paralegals help attorneys and legal teams with a wide range of tasks and responsibilities, including:

  • Case Management:

    Paralegals are responsible for managing case files, organizing critical documents, maintaining calendars, and ensuring that filing deadlines, hearings, and other legal proceedings are met.

  • Communicate with Clients:

    Paralegals are tasked with interacting with clients to gather information, help answer their questions under a lawyer's supervision, and provide updates.

  • Court Filings:

    Paralegals must file legal documents with the court while adhering to procedural rules and deadlines.

  • Assistance with Discovery:

    Paralegals often help lawyers with the discovery process by organizing, collecting, and analyzing critical documents and information that attorneys use in legal proceedings.

Legal tasks and research performed by paralegals

In addition to the support that paralegals provide to lawyers, they are often also responsible for specific legal tasks, including the following;

  • Legal Research:

    Paralegals must research statutes, case law, legal issues, and regulations to help better support lawyers as they build their cases.

  • Drafting Documents:

    Paralegals help other legal professionals with substantive legal work, preparing legal documents such as motions, pleadings, and legal correspondence.

  • Legal Administrative Support:

    Paralegals are responsible for providing administrative support, which includes managing correspondence, scheduling appointments, and handling routine administrative tasks.

  • Technology Support:

    Paralegals often use legal technology and software, such as Clio, to manage documents, obtain case information, and research.

Role of a Law Clerk

Law clerks (sometimes referred to as a judicial assistant) are legal professionals who research applicable laws, review trial records, and draft legal memorandums for attorneys and judges. These individuals are usually third or fourth-year law school students.

Support provided to judges and the court system

Law clerks can work in law firms, but they generally assist judges. As a result, their job duties and routines tend to be more predictable and revolve around the court system. These duties typically include legal research, drafting opinions and orders, preparing bench memos, proofreading orders and views created by the judge, communicating with legal counsel regarding procedure requirements and case management, verifying citations, and assisting the judge before courtroom proceedings start.

Research and drafting tasks performed by law clerks

In addition to the above tasks, law clerks are also often responsible for:

  • Preparing briefs and memoranda

  • Making sure to order case documents 

  • Verifying that legal briefs have accurate information

  • Attending court sessions and recording critical details of the case

  • Supervising the activities of interns

Earning Potential and Job Outlook

The job outlook for paralegals and law clerks is strong. However, various factors can impact this outlook and earning potential. 

Salary ranges and factors influencing earnings for paralegals

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for paralegals is around $59,200 per year, with the lowest 10% earning around $37,690 and the highest 10% earning more than $94,000.

However, several factors can influence the earning potential of paralegals, including the size of the law firm (or legal department if working in a corporate environment), the geographical location of the firm, the education obtained, and the amount of experience the paralegal has. In addition, the paralegal’s role and the industry in which they work may also significantly impact their pay. For instance, the BLS indicates that one of the top-paying legal industries for paralegals is finance and insurance, with the average salary ranging around $73,050.  

Job prospects and growth projections for paralegals

According to the BLS, employment growth for paralegals is estimated to be around 4.2% between 2022 and 2032, with about 38,000 openings for paralegals projected each year for the next decade.

Salary ranges and job outlook for law clerks

Per the BLS, judicial law clerks earn an average of $57,490 annually. The lowest 10% make around $38,850, while the highest 10% earn $106,670. However, salary.com reports that career law clerks in the United States typically make between $98,068 and $122,582 per year. It is important to note that these salaries may vary based on the law clerk's experience, the type of law firm they work for (or job description if in a corporate law clerk role), and the firm's geographical location.

Relationship and Professional Pathways

While law clerks and paralegals perform legal research to assist other legal professionals, paralegals are more likely to help with organizational tasks and administrative duties. In comparison, law clerks tend to work alongside an attorney or a judge and perform more specific case duties.

Advancement opportunities and career progression for paralegals

Paralegals acquire skills that are often transferable, which can lead to career growth and advancement opportunities. However, the path to career development may vary for each individual. Some paralegals opt to continue working in a law office or progress to a paralegal management position. Others choose to pursue further education and transition into a role as a postsecondary educator, become an independent paralegal, join a governmental agency, or attend law school to advance their legal career.

Transition pathways from law clerk to attorney

Although some law clerks may pursue a long-term career in this role, it typically serves as a stepping stone for individuals to gain valuable legal experience in criminal law. However, to legally practice law in their state of residence, they must pass the bar examination.

Educational Pathways for Paralegals

Various educational pathways are available for people who want to start their career in paralegal work. One of the most common ways to become a paralegal is to earn an associate's degree in legal studies. This two-year program provides the fundamental skills to start working as an entry-level paralegal. Associate’s programs are available online or in person through community colleges and universities. Another option for paralegals is to earn a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies, which is a four-year degree. However, some people with a bachelor's degree in a different field can transition into a paralegal career by obtaining a paralegal certificate. This credential can help individuals stand out from other job applicants.

Importance of a paralegal certificate or degree program

While a degree or paralegal certificate may not always be mandatory to secure a paralegal job, as some firms may hire individuals who possess relevant experience, acquiring one can be advantageous. Many employers find that this education demonstrates that an individual who has received a formal legal education therefore, is more likely to be exposed to legal issues they may encounter as a paralegal.

Accredited programs and their benefits

When an individual obtains a degree from an ABA-approved school, it assures employers that they have received the necessary education and training at a program that follows the nationally established standards to become a productive paralegal.

Considerations for online or on-campus programs

Today, there are hundreds of options for pursuing a paralegal education, including online and on-campus programs. However, before choosing a program, it is crucial to take certain factors into account, such as:

  • The need for flexibility when it comes to taking classes

  • Increased networking opportunities, as online courses often let you interact with students all over the world

  • Accessible learning, which is another advantage of online classes since they can provide more opportunities for individuals to obtain the education they need

Continuing education and specialization options

Laws, statutes, and regulations constantly change, making continuing education crucial for paralegals. Fortunately, there are many opportunities for paralegals to continue this education. For example, the Institute For Paralegal Education (IPE) provides hundreds of high-quality courses for paralegals looking to continue their education and gain valuable insight and actionable information.

Additionally, paralegals aspiring to specialize in a specific field of law have numerous options to choose from, including:

  • Estate planning

  • Real estate law

  • Criminal defense law

  • Personal injury law

  • Finance law

  • Family law

  • Immigration law

  • Government law

  • Litigation

  • Intellectual property law

Educational Pathways for Law Clerks

Most individuals who become law clerks or wish to work in this position will complete a bachelor’s degree and then at least one year of law school. If individuals want to work for a federal judge as a law clerk, they will need to be a law school graduate. 

Law clerk preparation programs and their significance

In addition to law school, various law clerk preparation programs are available, which can help law students with their career growth. Depending on the program, more emphasis may be placed on writing, researching, and learning about specific rules and regulations. For example, the Law Clerk Program through the United States Tax Court focuses on tax laws.

Judicial internships and clerkship opportunities

Judicial internships and clerkship opportunities are typically volunteer positions that allow individuals to learn about the judicial world before graduation. For instance, the Judicial Clerkship Program is a program that helps law students perform legal research, prepare legal memoranda, explore legal issues, and defend their position to judges and colleagues. 

This program also:

  • Allows law students and former law clerks to develop close working relationships with judges and other lawyers

  • It helps improve a student’s analytical skills, as well as their legal research and writing skills

  • Can enhance career opportunities

  • Allow new lawyers to have the whole experience of shaping the law

Considerations for law school and bar admission

Before enrolling in law school or signing up for the bar exam, there are various considerations individuals should take into account before making a final decision. 

These factors generally include the following:

  • The Location:

    It is important to note that the law school's location can affect internships and other learning opportunities, networking, and post-grad job prospects. You are also more likely to settle down in the area after graduation, which can influence your bar admission.

  • Costs Involved:

    Law school is expensive. That is why individuals generally look for a school with the best possible return on their investment, including the opportunities the school can provide and even the available financial aid packages.

  • Their Academic Programs:

    If you need clarification on which area of the legal industry interests you, it is crucial to research schools and their course offerings. Clarity can provide you with more opportunities to explore various legal specialties and help you identify the classes you need to take to pursue your desired legal career.

Characteristics and Suitability

Are you interested in helping others? Are you a good reader, writer, and listener? Do you like to stand up for others or help deliver tasks efficiently? While there are various qualities that paralegals and law clerks tend to have, certain traits make a person more suitable for a paralegal and law clerk role.

Qualities and traits that make a person suitable for a paralegal role

  • Excellent listening skills

  • Detail-oriented

  • Dedication

  • Passion for Law

  • Wants to help others

  • Excellent research and writing skills

  • Patience

Qualities and traits that make a person suitable for a law clerk role

  • Interpersonal skills

  • Ability to stay organized

  • Solid research and writing skills

  • Ability to work with a team

  • Analytical skills, such as critical thinking

  • Time management skills

  • Ability to multi-task

  • Good communication skills

However, you must self-reflect on their strengths and weaknesses to truly understand which role is better. Self-reflection can help you figure out what legal pathway suits you best.

Final Recap

Although both paralegals and law clerks need to understand legal terminology and procedures thoroughly, there are differences between the two positions. Where paralegals are often in charge of performing legal tasks and administrative duties, law clerks are often responsible for helping judges and lawyers with case analysis and research.

Regardless of the position you are interested in, exploring the appropriate educational pathways based on your interests and qualifications is always a good idea. This exploration can help you build a strong foundation for your legal career.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kasia Nelson, Esq.

Kasia Nelson is a licensed attorney and skilled legal content writer with years of experience. With a background in corporate immigration law, she is well-versed in the intricacies of producing legally accurate and well-researched work. 


  • Michigan State University, B.S.

  • Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Law Licensures

  • Michigan

Kasia Nelson

Kasia Nelson, Esq.


Education: Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Knowledge: Corporate Immigration Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning