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Paralegal vs Legal Assistant

Published on: Jan 23, 2024

If you are considering a job as a paralegal or a legal assistant, it is important to note that suitable candidates will often be hired in as little as ten days. More importantly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),  it is estimated that each year, there are about 45,800 openings for paralegals and legal assistants across the country. However, before you start your job hunt in the legal industry as either a legal assistant or a paralegal, it is crucial to understand what these roles entail and the differences between them.

In this article, we will provide a comprehensive understanding of the differences between a paralegal and a legal assistant, including their unique job duties, earning potential, and job outlook in order to provide you with the insight and motivation you need to determine your next steps when it comes to enrolling in a legal assistant or paralegal program.

Role of a Paralegal

A paralegal is an individual who is qualified by education, work experience, or training to work for a law office, attorney, governmental agency, or other organization that performs legal work. These legal professionals work under the supervision of an attorney and often perform tasks related to legal research, assisting with client communication, and drafting documents. While paralegals possess legal knowledge, it is important to note that a paralegal is not a law clerk who is typically a law school student aspiring to become a lawyer or a recent law school graduate.

The Paralegal's Background and Job Duties

Paralegals usually require an individual to hold a degree or a certificate in paralegal studies, and some may even specialize in a particular type of law, including family law or corporate law. While paralegals cannot represent clients or provide legal advice, they do play a critical role in the legal industry, mainly because they help make sure that legal issues and matters are handled correctly.

Some of the more standard tasks that paralegals are responsible for include the following:

  • Work closely with attorneys and offer assistance with several types of legal tasks, such as researching legal issues, reviewing documents, filing motions, and interviewing witnesses

  • Preparing, maintaining, and organizing legal documents 

  • Drafting legal documents for a lawyer to review

  • Preparing reports to help an attorney get ready for trial

  • Drafting pleadings and discovery notices 

  • Assisting lawyers in the courtroom and with other legal proceedings

As a result, a typical day in the life of a paralegal involves completing substantive legal work that would otherwise be done by a licensed attorney, including researching case laws and even attending court hearings. Furthermore, paralegals must also strive to maintain the highest degree of competency regarding professional responsibility.

Different Paralegal Job Specializations

Those who want to enter the legal field as a paralegal will have several options regarding the type of work they can become involved in. For instance, some of the more common paralegal job specializations include litigation paralegals, real estate paralegals, government paralegals, corporate paralegals, estate planning paralegals, immigration paralegals, healthcare paralegals, and intellectual property paralegals. 

Each of these paralegals will be responsible for different tasks depending on the type of law they are involved in. Where criminal law paralegals will have to assist attorneys in criminal defense cases by preparing documents and helping the legal professional prepare for trial, immigration paralegals will assist immigrants in applying for Visas and Green Cards.

Role of a Legal Assistant

A legal assistant is an individual who offers administrative and clerical support to legal professionals and attorneys. The duties of a legal assistant are often geared to providing organizational and administrative tasks in support of a law firm's daily operations. While these tasks will usually depend on the law firm where the legal assistant is working, some of the more common tasks they perform include the following: 

  • Managing files and legal documents

  • Scheduling court dates and other types of appointments

  • Communicating with clients involved in legal matters

  • Preparing documents for certain proceedings

Legal assistants are often called legal secretaries or administrative assistants, as they usually help with administrative duties and customer service tasks. However, a legal assistant should not be confused with a legal administrator, who also works in a more general and administrative scope, as their job duties often differ.

The position of legal assistant may also be considered an entry point for individuals looking to enter the legal profession, as the duties overlap with other legal positions but tend to have less responsibility.

Earning Potential and Job Outlook

While the term paralegal is sometimes referred to as a legal assistant, there are usually significant differences between these two roles. For instance, not only are a paralegal's job duties different, but paralegals will usually hold a degree or a certificate in paralegal studies, while legal assistants tend to have a high school diploma or some college education and legal studies background. Furthermore, the income paralegals tend to receive is generally higher. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual income for a paralegal position averages between $59,200 and $94,960, with a projected job growth of 4.2%.

In comparison, per salary.com, the average salary for a legal assistant is around $55,502. However, these salaries often range between $48,450 and $63,503, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects this position to grow by 4% from 2022 to 2032

Personality Traits and Suitability

The paralegal profession has expanded in recent decades to include a significant variety of positions and roles, making it challenging to determine which personality traits are essential for the job. However, it is common for individuals in this position to exhibit certain attributes, which often include the following:

  • Highly organized

  • Great writing and research skills

  • Solid communication and computer skills

  • Attention to detail

  • Able to work independently and under pressure

Quality Traits of a Legal Assistant

It is not uncommon for the characteristics of a legal assistant to overlap with those of a paralegal. As a result, the following traits are often found in those working in the legal assistant position:

  • Strong organization skills

  • Detail-oriented 

  • Able to clearly communicate with clients 

  • Ability to multi-task

Legal assistants will often have to deal with a range of activities, including answering phones, organizing critical documents, and handling clients coming and going. In many instances, all of these things can be happening at once, so those in the role of a legal assistant should be able to not only handle all of these issues simultaneously but thrive during these hectic times. 

If you are interested in pursuing a career as a paralegal or legal assistant, it is important to review these roles and their duties in detail and look into which role aligns better with your personality and interests.

Educational Pathways for Paralegals

Completing a paralegal education program can offer many benefits, even for those who have gained skills through on-the-job training or short-term certification programs. While it is possible to become a paralegal without a certificate, completing a paralegal certificate program can allow paralegals to earn a higher salary and advance their careers. 

Accredited Paralegal Programs and Their Benefits

When individuals decide to attend an accredited paralegal program, these students will walk away with an understanding of the law, the professions involved, and the legal process. They will also gain the knowledge required to use the appropriate technology that is expected in the legal community and acquire the skills needed to demonstrate workplace readiness, such as legal research, writing, critical thinking, and problem analysis.

Paralegal Certification 

It is important to note that a paralegal certification is not the same thing as a degree. While getting certified is proof that a person passed a specific type of course, such as the Certified Paralegal exam through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), a degree in paralegal studies is often obtained through a university or college.

Those who want to obtain a paralegal certificate can get it from an institution, whether online or on-campus, that offers a program to obtain this certification. These programs can range in timelines from six weeks to two years. However, there may also be more extended programs that offer additional types of training.

Deciding On Your Educational Options

Deciding which educational pathway is right for you should depend on what you want to get from this position and the education you have already obtained before starting your paralegal career journey.

Continuing Education 

While continuing education may not always be needed for paralegals, it can help paralegals remain competitive in the field. Continuing education also allows paralegals to learn more about the latest laws and best practices that apply to their work and stay knowledgeable regarding these changes. 
Depending on the state, paralegals may also be required to complete continuing education courses each year to remain a paralegal in the state. Moreover, those who become certified paralegals may be required to complete continuing education courses in order to maintain their credentials.

Educational Pathways for Legal Assistants

Legal assistants will often have an associate degree from a post-secondary institute in paralegal studies or something similar. However, some employers may require legal assistants to have a bachelor's degree, which is why it may be a good idea to take your education as far as possible to remain competitive in the field. These degrees train students in different types of law, as well as legal writing and research, which can help them on their legal career path. 

Legal Certification

State Bar Associations may offer legal assistant certifications. Although this certification is not always required to get a job, employers may give more preference to those individuals who have become certified legal assistants (CLA). To obtain this certification, you will need to complete a specific education program and sit for an exam. However, for the specific requirements of this certification, it is vital for those interested to contact their state's Bar Association. 

Practical Experience

Legal assistants often work in fast-paced environments and are required to work with a team of lawyers who are handling multiple types of cases. That is why gaining experience as a legal assistant can be critical for your future success. These opportunities can be found through internships or other entry-level work settings where administrative duties will need to be attended to, such as managing the calendar, working in Excel, collecting data, and filing and creating invoices.

A Final Recap

Although most people think that attorneys are the most common profession in the legal field, there are actually a variety of specialized legal professionals who help these lawyers complete their tasks, including paralegals and legal assistants. While legal assistants are often tasked with more administrative duties than paralegals, these job responsibilities will often depend on the employer and what is required from the position.

If you are considering a career path in the legal field as a paralegal or legal assistant, consider pursuing the educational pathway that is based on your interests and suitability. Both professions continue to be highly sought after, and the future of these legal careers is strong, providing many exciting opportunities.

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