Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Examining These Two Law Careers

Paralegal vs Legal Assistant

You love the law—every night you’re glued to the TV watching re-runs of Law & Order, soaking up all the courtroom scenes and admiring the prosecutors. Your friends pick you as the go-to person for legal and ethical advice, and you have been strongly considering a career in law for a while now.

However, you know that law school is long and expensive and committing to three extra years of law school on top of everything else you’ve got going on does not sound appealing. We have good news, though, if this sounds like you—being a lawyer is not your only option for a career in law. There are several rewarding careers in law for those who don’t want to be lawyers. Two common options are working as a paralegal or as a legal assistant.

Before delving into one or the other, it’s important to get all the facts straight. We did the research to compare the careers of a paralegal versus legal assistant, so you can understand what your options are for an exciting career in law.

What does a paralegal do?

Paralegals can be thought of as lawyer’s assistants; they do everything from conducting research on laws and cases to drafting legal documents and compiling evidence to be used in court. They help lawyers get ready for trial by writing reports, demonstrating exhibits and filing appeals with the opposing counsel. Because of their extensive work on cases, paralegals are able to bill clients for their work, whereas legal assistants cannot.

In addition, paralegals are able to specialize in certain areas such as criminal law, family law, real estate law and immigration law. Depending on the area in which they choose to work, their duties will vary.

What does a legal assistant do?

The term “legal assistant” is sometimes thrown out interchangeably with several titles, including administrative assistant, legal secretary and even paralegal. For a more comprehensive comparison, we will be using the definition of a legal secretary vs. paralegals, as there are more distinct differences between the two.

Legal secretaries perform more administrative tasks than paralegals. They can be found preparing legal documents such as subpoenas, answering phones, using scheduling software to keep track of appointments and other secretarial duties.

Paralegal vs. legal assistant: Skills needed

For a better understanding of what is required for paralegals vs. legal assistants, we used real-time job analysis software to examine job postings from the past 12 months. The data helped us identify some of the top skills employers are seeking from each position. Here’s what we found:

Top skills employers seek

Top skills for paralegal1 Top skills for legal assistants2
Litigation Administrative Support
Microsoft Office Microsoft Office
Legal Documentation Scheduling
Legal Research Legal Support
Legal Document Composition Data entry

As you can see, there is a slight overlap in skills, but there are different specialized tasks for each position. Paralegals are more involved with the actual technicalities of the law, whereas legal assistants undertake broader tasks. If you are looking for a more hands-on law career, becoming a paralegal may interest you more. However, becoming a legal assistant first could be a great way to find out if you enjoy working in the field before committing to school.

Paralegal vs. legal assistant: Experience

Approximately 58 percent of paralegal job postings ask for three to five years of experience, with 35 percent of job postings being entry level, requiring zero to two years of experience.1 Being a legal secretary is more suitable for those with less experience working in a law firm, with 44 percent of job postings at the entry level (0–2 years of experience).2

“In order to get hired by a law firm as either a paralegal or a legal secretary, often times some type of experience is required,” says Vincent DeLuca of Villani & DeLuca, P.C. Don’t have experience? DeLuca suggests interning during the summer at a legal firm, as some law firms will go on to hire interns full time.

Once interns gain experience, the law field is easier to navigate. “Once placed with a firm, both paralegals and legal secretaries have long tenures with the firm they’re at,” says DeLuca. Lawyers are dependent on their paralegals and secretaries, so once they have someone they know is reliable and trustworthy, they are hesitant to make any changes.

Paralegal vs. legal assistant: Salary & job outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal secretaries report a median annual wage of $44,180. In comparison, the 2016 median annual wage for paralegals was $49,500.3 This salary can increase depending on the employer—for example, paralegals who work in corporate settings can expect to make more than those who work for non-profits that may have limited resources.

Paralegal and legal assistant jobs will see a steady growth as law firms look to cut costs; this is because paralegals bill at a much lower rate than lawyers and can do many of the same tasks as a newly graduated lawyer, but they are a more appealing hire to firms.

“Without question both legal secretaries and paralegals will always be in high demand,” says DeLuca.

Paralegal vs. legal assistant: Education requirements

Whether you’re considering a career as a paralegal or as a legal assistant, the first step you’ll need to take for either is determining what education you need. According to the BLS, paralegals need at least a Paralegal Associate’s degree.

Legal secretaries do not need a post-secondary degree. Forty-one percent of legal secretary jobs only require a high school diploma. For those looking to get a feel for working in law before committing to extra schooling, a job as a legal secretary could be the perfect starting point.

The bottom line

A career in law can be extremely rewarding for the right person, but with several career options available, it’s important to understand which position you’d enjoy most. Now that you know what the differences are between a paralegal vs. a legal assistant, you have already begun your journey to your dream career in law.

Interested in further pursuing a career as a paralegal? Find out what the next step is in our article, “I Want to be a Paralegal … Now What?

RELATED ARTICLES: (analysis of 46,426 paralegal job postings, May 1, 2016 - Apr. 30, 2017) (analysis of 54,319 legal secretary job postings, May 1, 2016 - Apr. 30, 2017)
3Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.

Anna Heinrich

Anna is a Copywriter at Collegis Education who researches and writes student-focused content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes the power of the written word can help educate and assist students on their way to a rewarding education. 

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