Paralegal vs. Lawyer: The Guide to Help You Decide

Question: What’s the difference between a lawyer and a paralegal?

Answer: The number of jokes made about them ... ha ha ... cricket ... cricket ... OK, moving on.

We decided to compare paralegals and lawyers to highlight the differences in salary, career outlook, job duties and education required for each. The roles differ significantly but our research suggests that thousands of people every month confuse the two.

At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide which route into the legal field is right for you.

Paralegal vs. lawyer: job duties

The duties performed by paralegals and lawyers have a fair amount of overlap—both conduct research and prepare legal documents. Paralegals often do a lot of the legal legwork in preparation for a court date like investigating the facts of cases and writing reports to help lawyers prepare for trials.

Both lawyers and paralegals can expect to work long hours with short deadlines, so if you don’t hold up well to pressure you might be in the wrong field.
One major difference in duty is in the courtroom, where lawyers are front and center when addressing the judge, jury or witnesses. The high profile nature of being a lawyer brings a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pressure as one small mistake can make or break a case.

That’s not to say being a paralegal is stress-free—mistakes in your prep work can be just as detrimental, but you typically have a layer of protection in the form of a supervising attorney. Also important to note is that only lawyers can set fees, give legal advice, appear in court and sign legal documents.

This means that even though a paralegal may have done a significant portion of the prep work, the recognition (positive or negative) falls on the lawyer presenting the work. 

Paralegal vs. lawyer: salary & career outlook

The 2010 median annual salary for lawyers ($113,530) is more than double that of paralegals at ($46,990), according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The difference in pay is substantial, but that’s only part of the equation.

Lawyers can make a lot of money; but, the competition for jobs is stiff as there are currently more law school graduates than positions available. The projected growth for the paralegal field is 17 percent, which is larger than the 11 percent projected growth for all legal positions. Large law firms and corporations looking to lower their expenses have been hiring paralegals and temporary contract lawyers to do a higher percentage of legal work. The overflow of law school graduates has placed some strain on paralegal jobseekers as some unemployed lawyers have started to apply to paralegal positions in an effort to find legal work.

Paralegal vs. lawyer: education required

Becoming a lawyer requires much bigger commitments of both time and money than what it takes to become a paralegal. Most lawyers spend seven years in school (assuming four years for an undergraduate degree and another three years of law school) while paralegals typically have at least a two year degree.  

After earning their bachelor’s degree, would-be lawyers are required to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) as part of the application process. It’s not a given they’ll be admitted either—many of the top law schools have an acceptance rate under 25%. The tight job market for lawyers is reflected in the competitive nature of law school as students are jockeying for position at the top of their class with hopes of landing a job at a prestigious firm.

The step up from undergraduate learning to law school also poses a challenge, with a fair percentage of law students dropping out. According to the Law School Admission Council, several schools have attrition rates over 15%. No matter the school’s attrition rate, you can expect a substantial increase in difficulty when it comes to academic work, so don’t take it lightly if you choose to enroll.

The takeaway

Lawyers and paralegals have a lot of overlapping duties, and though lawyers earn more and have a more prestigious job title, there are definite drawbacks.

The large investment of time and money that come with becoming a lawyer, along with potential roadblocks like dropping out, lack of employment opportunities and stringent admissions requirements, makes becoming a lawyer a bit of a gamble.

If you know you want to work in the legal field but aren’t sure if you’re willing to take on the extensive personal and financial commitment, a paralegal associate degree may be your most cost effective alternative.You could be as little as one year away from working in the exciting legal field!


External links provided on are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced.

Will is a Content Marketing Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen College. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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