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An Introductory Guide to the Paralegal vs Lawyer Career Path

Published on: Jan 19, 2024

If you are considering a job in the legal profession, you might be investigating the role of a paralegal and the role of a lawyer. If so, it is understandable if you wonder about the differences between these two careers. While a paralegal and a lawyer have job features that are similar to one another, the two positions differ markedly in terms of job responsibilities and the minimum required education.

The path to becoming a paralegal and the journey to becoming an attorney require your time and resources. Therefore, before you set out to become one or the other, you should carefully consider which job, paralegal vs. lawyer, best aligns with your career objectives, personality, and skills.

This article will compare and contrast paralegals and lawyers from one another and from other positions, such as legal assistants and legal secretaries. After reading this article, you should have a clearer picture of each career path and which path you should pursue.

Paralegal and Lawyer Roles: A Comparative Overview

You will find paralegals and lawyers at law firms, government offices, legal services agencies, non-profits, and government offices. While they may work side by side and collaborate on legal cases, each serves an important yet distinct function in processing legal cases and other legal matters.

The paralegal plays a supporting role in the activities of the lawyer. You can expect a paralegal to help a lawyer prepare for court hearings, mediation, negotiation sessions, witness preparation sessions, and other meetings. To do this, the paralegal will keep case files organized and updated, conduct legal research, draft letters and memoranda, perform other administrative tasks, and schedule meetings. A paralegal may work with technology such as computers and case management systems to obtain, review, and organize information relevant to cases. By the way, be sure to check out our guide on the typical day in the life of a paralegal

Two of a lawyer's main job functions are two that a paralegal generally cannot perform. First, a lawyer appears in court and represents their client’s interests before tribunals, administrative bodies, and courts of law. Second, a licensed attorney provides substantive legal work and legal advice to clients based on their needs. Beyond this, a lawyer is responsible for supervising a paralegal’s work and may, with a paralegal’s help, draft legal documents such as wills, business agreements, and contracts. These lawyers are also responsible for maintaining attorney-client privilege and helping navigate the legal system. 

The lawyer’s role, therefore, can be viewed as more public-facing than a paralegal’s. While a lawyer may spend their day in court hearings, client meetings, and speaking with witnesses involved in a case, the paralegal will work more with organizing the case file, technology, documents, and evidence. A skilled paralegal’s work can assist the lawyer with their tasks in and out of the courtroom. Similarly, an experienced lawyer will leverage their paralegal skillset to alleviate themselves of the critical but time-consuming tasks of routine case file maintenance, research, and legal drafting. However, it should be noted that a paralegal is not a legal secretary, as these professionals offer different types of legal assistance.

Education Paths and Training

Another contrast between paralegals and lawyers is seen when comparing their legal training, specifically the education required for each position. While a paralegal may not require any formal post-high school education, lawyers in most states must obtain a law degree before they can begin practicing law.

Aspiring lawyers must first pass a law school admission test to get into the school before they can pass the bar exam or be admitted to the bar in each state where they intend to practice law. Every state sets qualifications for individuals who want to sit for the bar exam or be admitted as a lawyer, and in many states, the person must hold a juris doctor (commonly referred to as a JD) degree from a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA). This is a 90-semester hour, post-baccalaureate degree that most students complete in three years of full-time study.

Only a handful of states allow individuals to sit for the bar exam and practice law without obtaining a JD. Washington, Vermont, California, and Virginia allow someone to take the bar exam by “reading the law,” which involves completing a four-year apprenticeship under a practicing lawyer or judge. Maine, New York, and Wyoming allow someone to sit for the bar exam without first earning a juris doctor so long as they have some law school experience.

Thus, the norm is for a lawyer to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree program followed by a three-year juris doctor program before being eligible to sit for the bar exam. Their ability to practice law then depends on passing their state’s bar exam and meeting any other requirements imposed by the state.

Conversely, a paralegal often does not need to complete any formal education past high school to begin working as a paralegal. California is a notable exception, as that state requires paralegals to complete a paralegal certificate program approved by the ABA. 

Although aspiring paralegals may wish to complete a certificate program, an associate’s degree in legal studies (ALS), or a bachelor’s degree in legal studies (BLS), these are often not required to begin working as a paralegal. A Master’s of Legal Studies (MLS) is available for paralegals with a bachelor’s degree, but this degree is also rarely required for entry-level paralegal work. A paralegal can also pursue becoming a certified paralegal.

Lawyers and paralegals have opportunities both within and outside of formal schooling to specialize in various areas of the law or for future career growth. This can include joining a law society or a paralegal association. In addition, both can take elective courses in certain areas of law, such as family law or criminal law, and both careers can also select from various employment options, including working in various state and federal agencies and private industries.

Earning Potential and Job Outlook

The difference between the earning potential for paralegals and lawyers partially reflects the difference in education required for each position and their job duties. 

Paralegal Earning Potential

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for a paralegal in the United States in 2022 was $59,200. This was slightly better than the median wage for all legal support workers ($58,810) and higher than the national median wage for all occupations ($46,310).

According to the BLS’s data, paralegals in the finance and insurance industry had the highest median wage, $73,050. The lowest-paid paralegals, on average, are those working for state governments. These paralegals’ median annual wage is $50,310.

Attorney Earning Potential

The BLS reports that the annual median wage for all attorneys in 2022 was over twice that for paralegals: $135,740. Attorneys and barristers working for the federal government had the highest median annual wage ($158,370), while those working for state governments had the lowest median wage ($97,640).

In addition to the type of employment a lawyer is engaged with, for some employers, the length of time that a lawyer has been practicing can affect a lawyer’s compensation. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice primarily bases its attorneys’ compensation on the number of years the attorney has been practicing.

Job Outlook for Attorneys and Paralegals

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a continuing need for paralegals and lawyers over the next ten years. Overall growth in all legal-related occupations is expected to grow by six percent between 2022 and 2032, far greater than the expected change of three percent for all occupations. The need for lawyers is expected to grow by eight percent, while the need for paralegals is projected to increase by four percent over the same time period.

Job Satisfaction and Work-Life Balance

There may be a stereotype that all lawyers are miserable and hate their jobs, but this may be just a rumor. A survey of 1,300 attorneys conducted by Law360 found that:

  • 83 percent of attorneys reported feeling stressed at least some of the time

  • 71 percent of those surveyed would not change jobs if they had the chance to

  • 15 percent worked more than 60 hours per week and 27 percent worked between 51 and 60 hours per week

  • 68 percent of attorneys surveyed stated they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs

For paralegals, U.S. News and World Report assigned an overall score for the paralegal profession in various categories, including salary, future growth potential, stress, and work-life balance. The scores range on a scale of one to ten, with ten being considered a good score and one being considered a poor score. According to U.S. News, paralegals enjoy:

  • An overall score of 6.1, reflecting a job that is slightly better than average

  • The score for stress is 6, meaning paralegals experience slightly less stress than other workers

  • The work-life balance for paralegals is also scored as a 6, indicating paralegals enjoy a work-life balance that is slightly better than the average worker

The publication also ranked paralegals as its Number 8 occupation in the social services industry and its Number 68 job on its list of the Top 100 occupations.

Another consideration you should make when deciding whether to pursue a career as a paralegal or as an attorney is the amount of independence you wish to have in your work. According to the BLS, the work of a paralegal supports and assists attorneys, so paralegals may find themselves receiving direction from lawyers.

Conversely, lawyers are expected to act much more independently, handling complex legal tasks and proceedings. However, attorneys with few years of experience will likely receive support, direction, and supervision from a supervising lawyer they work with, if one is available.

Future Growth Opportunities for Paralegals and Lawyers

U.S. News and World Report gives high marks to paralegals and lawyers for future growth potential. According to U.S. News, both occupations score 8 out of 10, indicating that individuals in either profession can expect opportunities to take on greater responsibilities and challenges as their careers progress.

For attorneys practicing in a private firm, one of the chief milestones in their career is transitioning from associate to partner. Each private firm has its own criteria for when this transition should occur and what the lawyer must do to achieve it. Still, it usually follows several years of solid work performance and demonstrated commitment to the firm. 

Attorneys serving in public institutions and agencies can expect to progress to supervisory roles wherein they oversee one or more subordinate attorneys and support staff. Seasoned lawyers may head an entire legal division for a public institution or agency, assist in crafting legally sound policies for the organization, and appear in court and public on behalf of the organization.

Paralegals can also expect to attain supervisory roles as they gain experience. In these roles, they may supervise additional paralegals or legal assistants. In such roles, they could train newer legal assistants and paralegals in the office and supervise these employees’ work products.

Personal Considerations and Career Fit

Before deciding whether to pursue a career as a paralegal or lawyer, you should consider your personality and the skills you bring to the job. Aspiring paralegals and lawyers should be able to understand and apply legal terminology and principles and be able to maintain confidentiality. Both will also need to be highly organized and self-motivated, as each is often expected to ensure tasks are completed on time with minimal moment-to-moment supervision.

An analytical mind and the ability to apply principles to new situations are also helpful for both professions. Because paralegals and lawyers have clients, the ability to talk with others who are in distress or stressful situations and empathize with them is also an asset.

However, as attorneys must represent their client’s interests in court, before administrative bodies, or at negotiation tables, it is especially beneficial for lawyers to be able to remain calm during stressful conversations and hearings. Lawyers should also be comfortable giving advice that can significantly affect their clients’ finances, businesses, and marriages.

Because of the skills required to succeed in either career, alternative career options are available for paralegals and lawyers who do not feel the legal industry is a good fit. Paralegals will experience success as an administrative assistant or executive assistant, a project manager, or in the real estate or insurance industries. 

Lawyers who want to leave the practice of law likewise have many options, including working as a mediator, policy advisor, investigator, or paralegal. 

Consider Your Options Before Deciding on a Career Path

Deciding whether to become a lawyer or a paralegal is significant and one that you should make only after considering both careers carefully. A career as a lawyer offers a more substantial earning potential and options for alternative careers, but it does take a considerable amount of time to become a lawyer. Conversely, you can begin a career as a paralegal quickly and still have options for alternative careers if you do not like the job.

Take your time deciding on your career, and be bold and reach out to schools, programs, and even practicing paralegals and lawyers to learn more about each career path.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

Kevin Salzman is the elected county prosecutor for Ford County, Kansas. Prior to taking office in 2017, he worked for six years as an assistant county attorney across southwest Kansas, prosecuting crimes ranging from traffic offenses to first-degree murder cases. Kevin got started in legal content writing in 2014 and enjoys the opportunities it affords to explore new and changing areas of the law. He believes solid content writing helps people understand the law and how it can help them overcome the challenges they face. He is a 2010 graduate of St. Louis University School of Law.

Kevin Salzman portrait

Kevin Salzman, Esq.

Contributing Author

Education: St. Louis University School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Criminal Prosecution

Reviewed 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