Most people have no idea what paralegals and legal assistants really do. They know they both work in law firms, and most people probably understand that they help lawyers. Beyond that, a lot of people are completely mystified at the distinction. Even some lawyers don’t know the difference. In general, it’s just a matter of training and roles. In this post, we’ll provide an overview of a legal assistant vs a paralegal, so you can know which is right for the job at hand.
Two Careers – One Field
The legal field is far broader than many people realize. Attorneys work in all sorts of settings, and so do their staff. For instance, paralegals and legal assistants can both be found in:
- Solo attorney law firms
- Medium sized private firms
- Large firms
- Federal agencies
- State offices
- Prosecutor’s offices
- Public defender’s offices
- Probation offices
- Circuit Clerk offices
- Private corporations
- Human resource departments
- Hospital risk management offices
- Insurance companies
- Much more
So, if they both work in many of the same offices and businesses, what’s the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal?
A paralegal usually goes to college and obtains a 2-year or 4-year degree. In some states, paralegals must become certified in order to hold the title. In general, a paralegal serves as a close assistant to an attorney, often drafting complex legal forms and pleadings for court, communicating with opposing attorneys and their paralegals, and coordinating the many tasks that a lawyer must arrange. In many ways, a paralegal works with an attorney the way a nurse works with a doctor to serve the client (or patient).
The legal assistant’s title is a bit deceiving, because both a legal assistant and paralegal technically “assist” lawyers. However, legal assistants typically do not require a formal certification or college degree—though many do choose to pursue college degrees.
A legal assistant is often in charge of handling more administrative tasks, such as mailing, calling, scheduling, client management, and so forth. In this way, a legal assistant is much like a doctor’s medical assistants and other staff. They are there to handle billing, time management, and other non-legal work. Of course, in smaller offices, a legal assistant may wear many hats.
Perhaps the four biggest distinctions that set the two professions apart are:
- Paralegals frequently do legal research, whereas legal assistants rarely do
- Paralegals are more likely to draft documents and court pleadings
- Legal assistants more likely serve multiple functions (and multiple attorneys)
- Paralegals often hold certifications (though some states make this voluntary)
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