Paralegal vs Lawyer: What’s the Difference?


Lawyers are not the only professionals in the legal field. This may have you wondering what’s the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer. Both have different roles within the landscape of the legal system.

A lawyer has studied law, and therefore, has the authority to practice it as a counsel to clients. A paralegal provides professional services related to law but has taken a much shorter course compared to a law degree.

Essentially, paralegals are legal professionals who assist lawyers with their work. They’re often seen as a less expensive alternative to hiring a lawyer, but that’s not always the case.

In this article, we’ll look at the main differences between lawyers and paralegals, including their abilities to practice law, responsibilities, required qualifications, and more.

Overview of Paralegal vs. Lawyer

Paralegals and lawyers are the two most common legal practitioners in the world. While they work in the same industry, paralegals and lawyers have different roles and responsibilities within the legal system. Still, they both play important roles in the field of law.

What Is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is a professional who provides legal assistance to lawyers. You can them find in law firms, courts, government agencies, corporations, schools, and other organizations where there is a need for legal services but not enough lawyers to perform all duties required.

Paralegals may also assist lawyers by performing certain tasks, such as researching cases, preparing documents for court, and conducting interviews. While they are not considered licensed attorneys, paralegals are qualified through education and/or training and have sufficient knowledge to carry out legal work. However, paralegals must work under an attorney’s supervision at all times and cannot provide legal advice or represent clients before courts.

What Is a Lawyer?

On the other hand, lawyers have the authority to practice law as independent professionals under their state’s bar association. They have the jurisdiction to represent clients in court and before administrative agencies or legislative bodies. This pertains to all matters, ranging from criminal defense to corporate transactions.

Lawyers must graduate from a law school and clear the Bar exam. This training prepares them to use legal methods to solve problems for their clients. Whereas, paralegals provide support services for lawyers, such as conducting research for case law or statutes and preparing briefs or court filings on behalf of clients.

Similarities Between a Lawyer and a Paralegal

Paralegals and lawyers have a lot in common in the legal profession. They both are expected to do research and draft documents and legal briefs for the cases they are working on.

Differences Between a Lawyer and a Paralegal

There are a lot of differences between these two professions, such as:

  • Licensing Requirements: Paralegals do not need any license by a state agency or bar association. Lawyers have more formal requirements and must meet certain educational, training, and licensing requirements to practice law.
  • Education and Training: Lawyers generally graduate from accredited law school, while paralegals have an associate’s degree in paralegal studies or criminal justice.
  • Experience: Paralegals typically have less experience than lawyers. Some lawyers might have decades of experience under their belts, while most paralegals only stay with their firms for about five years before moving on to another position or getting their law degree.
  • Ability to Practice Law: A paralegal is an assistant to a lawyer who provides legal services for clients. A lawyer serves as an advocate for clients, representing them in court proceedings.
  • Tasks and Responsibilities: The work of a paralegal involves conducting research on case law, preparing documents, interviewing witnesses, and collecting evidence. On the other hand, lawyers prepare pleadings, negotiate contracts, and represent clients at trial.
  • Compensation: While becoming a lawyer requires more education (and possibly law school debt), there is a higher earning potential compared to that of paralegals. Even entry-level lawyers earn significantly more than paralegals.

Licensed Attorney vs. Lawyer

Oftentimes, the terms “attorney” and “lawyer” are used interchangeably. However, there is a technical difference to note.

Someone who got a law degree from an ABA-accredited law school is considered a lawyer. But, a Juris Doctor (JD) degree alone does not qualify you to represent clients in court. You are only considered a licensed attorney if you graduate from an accredited law school, pass the bar exam, and are licensed to practice law in the state. A practicing attorney is officially licensed to represent clients in court.

Lawyer vs. Paralegal: Education and Training Requirements

Becoming a lawyer requires you to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and followed by a law degree. It takes around three years to complete law school. A law degree allows you to work as a paralegal or lawyer, depending on your interests and career goals.

As mentioned earlier, if you want to practice law as an attorney, you must pass the bar exam after graduating from law school. You’ll also need some practical experience under your belt before you can take the bar exam (usually gained through working in a legal office).

On the other hand, paralegal education requirements entail a college degree in paralegal studies or a similar major. You must also meet state licensing requirements before you can work as paralegal. Overall, paralegal programs typically take one year to complete. Students should expect to spend an additional year or two working as interns before getting a full-time job as paralegals.

The educational requirements for becoming a paralegal vary by state. In most states, graduates must pass the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) exam to become licensed paralegals. However, some states require additional training or testing after graduating from an accredited paralegal program.

Lawyer vs. Paralegal: Skills, Tasks, and Responsibilities

What Do Paralegals Do?

Paralegals are legal professionals who perform tasks such as legal research, interviewing clients and witnesses, drafting documents, and assisting lawyers in preparing for trials. They may also assist lawyers with administrative tasks such as billing clients or ordering supplies.

The scope of a paralegal’s responsibilities is defined by state law or court rules in the jurisdiction where they have an operating license. The specific tasks vary greatly depending on whether you work in criminal or civil law, but some of the everyday tasks include:

  • Drafting and reviewing documents such as pleadings or briefs.
  • Researching cases or statutes related to a matter under consideration by a judge or jury (e.g., preparing for trial).
  • Assisting lawyers with administrative tasks such as scheduling conferences and meetings with clients.
  • Taking notes during depositions or hearings.
  • Drafting correspondence for an attorney’s signature.
  • Assisting clients with certain administrative-based legal matters (e.g., filing petitions for divorce).

It’s important to note that paralegals are NOT lawyers, but they are still experienced in law. A paralegal is a person who helps lawyers with basic legal tasks, like research and writing. They can also assist with certain aspects of a case that are going through the court system.

Some paralegals specialize in certain areas of law, such as family or bankruptcy law, while others can assist in many law areas. Paralegals cannot give legal advice to clients or represent them in court. They can only provide procedural guidance based on their knowledge of the law, court procedures, and certain legal services.

What Do Lawyers Do?

Lawyers are some of the most critical professionals in the legal field, per labor statistics. They are responsible for interpreting and applying laws and representing clients during legal proceedings.

A lawyer is an individual with specialized training on legal matters and can practice law on their own or with other lawyers. Individuals or businesses can hire a lawyer to help them solve legal problems or disputes.

Every lawyer must interpret the law. Here are some additional job responsibilities that lawyers typically carry out:

  • Working with clients on legal matters
  • Writing contracts or agreements for clients
  • Negotiating settlements between two or more parties
  • Preparing briefs for appellate cases (or other appearances before courts)
  • Representing clients at trials

Additionally, a lawyer must be licensed by the state bar association to practice law and represent clients in court within the jurisdiction. Most also complete an internship with a law firm to learn practical skills.

Overall, a lawyer’s main job is to represent clients in court and make sure that they are fairly represented by the law. Lawyers also provide legal advice to clients by reviewing contracts and advising them on how best to proceed with a given situation.

Other Types of Legal Professionals

A paralegal is a general job title for those interested in legal careers. You can work as a paralegal without having a state license or law degree, but an attorney must supervise you at all times. This ensures your work complies with the law.

However, trained paralegals are not the only support-related jobs available within the legal services industry.

  • Legal Assistants: Handle administrative tasks like answering phones, organizing files, and maintaining databases.
  • Case Managers: Help lawyers manage their caseloads
  • Litigation Support Staff: Performs research on behalf of attorneys and specializes in litigation, like personal injury cases.

Where Do Lawyers Work?

Lawyers can work in various fields and environments. For example, a lawyer might work for a law firm, a private company, non-profit organization, the government or court system, etc.

Lawyers are often tasked with providing legal advice, preparing documents, and representing clients in court. Because of this, they often work in offices where they can meet with clients face-to-face. Some lawyers prefer to perform their jobs remotely via phone calls or online video chats.

Where Do Paralegals Work?

Paralegals also work in a variety of environments, including:

  • Law Firms: Paralegals usually work for law firms, where they perform many of the same tasks as lawyers but at a lower cost.
  • Government Agencies. Paralegals will find plenty of career opportunities with government agencies, such as the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency. These entities hire them to do legal research and assist with lawsuits.
  • Corporate Legal Departments. Corporate legal departments employ paralegals to handle administrative duties like organizing files or preparing briefs for trial attorneys.
  • Legal Departments at Non-Profit Organizations, such as hospitals and universities, often employ paralegals because they need help handling their caseloads.

Paralegal Vs. Lawyers – Final Takeaways

Paralegals and lawyers are both law professionals and help individuals or businesses with legal issues. However, their education, training, and responsibilities are different.

Paralegals are not considered licensed attorneys, but receive some sort of formal education in the law. They often work with lawyers as assistants and researchers. They help prepare legal documents, conduct research on their cases, and handle the paperwork for legal proceedings.

A lawyer has studied at an accredited law school and an attorney is licensed by the American Bar Association (ABA). Lawyers and attorneys often have a greater degree of responsibility for legal work. This is because a supervising attorney is the one responsible for a paralegal’s work.

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