Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Differences and Similarities

We often think of lawyers as the most common professionals in the legal field. However, lawyers collaborate with a team of specialized professionals, including paralegals and legal assistants, who assist in various capacities.

If you have an interest in legal careers, consider exploring alternative opportunities. Learn more about the differences between a legal assistant vs. a paralegal, including education and job responsibilities.

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Comparison by Definition

The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as someone “qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.” The term “legal assistant” was removed from the definition in 1997 to more accurately represent the type of work paralegals perform.

A legal assistant is typically someone who works for a lawyer or in a legal capacity. Due to changes in roles, the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) says legal assistants (PDF, 2.8 MB) “divide their time equally between paralegal tasks, including researching and preparing discovery, and legal secretary tasks, up to and including filing, docketing and assisting their attorney in the practice of law.”

Typically, legal assistants do more administrative work than paralegals, such as scheduling meetings or organizing client files, however this can vary based on their employer and job responsibilities. Note that while the ALA’s definition states legal assistants may perform paralegal tasks, this is usually only possible if they have the education and training.

What is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is a professional in the legal field who performs preparatory work for cases, such as researching laws, drafting legal documents and helping lawyers prepare for trials. They can bill clients for services performed in the same way lawyers can.

The National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) notes that unlike lawyers, paralegals are not able to represent clients or provide legal advice (PDF, 247 KB)

What is a Legal Assistant or Legal Secretary?

Legal assistants also work closely with lawyers. However, they may not perform as in-depth legal work as a paralegal.

Legal assistants work more on the administrative side when assisting lawyers. They may keep track of appointments, prepare documents and assist with financial or operational tasks. Because of their administrative duties, their work is often similar to that of a legal secretary.

Qualifications Requirements for Legal Assistants vs. Paralegals

Comparing Education Requirements 

Educational requirements have evolved for paralegals and legal assistants due to an increasingly competitive job market. Paralegals can be employed with only an associate’s degree. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says many employers prefer paralegals to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Depending on where you wish to apply, you might consider a bachelor’s or master’s degree in legal studies, such as an online Master of Legal Studies.

FindLaw says at minimum, a high school diploma or GED is usually needed to work as a legal assistant. While there are no formal education requirements to work as a legal assistant, you may consider higher education with a degree in legal studies to advance in your career. Paralegal positions typically require more education and previous experience.

Comparing Certification Requirements

You might be surprised to know that no state offers a license to become a paralegal or legal assistant. However, some employers may refer to national or state paralegal certifications when interviewing candidates, such as certifications issued by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). These standards include completion of the Certified Paralegal (CP) exam and graduation from an ABA-approved paralegal education program. All certifications to become a paralegal are voluntary but may be recommended.

Like paralegals, any certifications for legal assistants are voluntary. Some organizations issue certifications for both legal assistants and paralegals. NALS – Association for Legal Professionals offers exams for the Professional Legal Secretary/Certified Legal Professional (PLS/CLP) and Professional Paralegal (PP) credentials. To be eligible for the exams, PP requires five years of work experience; PLS/CLP requires three years. Candidates for PP also tend to have more education.

Comparing Careers and Salaries

Salaries for paralegals and legal assistants are pretty similar, according to the BLS report on paralegals and legal assistants. And the BLS data reflects both occupations together.

Paralegals may earn more than legal assistants due to education and hiring standards. According to the NFPA, a four-year education is the hiring standard in many markets for paralegals. Salary can vary based on location, education, industry and employer. BLS data highlights the median salary for legal assistants and paralegals in these industries:

  • Federal government: $67,080
  • Finance and insurance: $64,190
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $51,030
  • Legal services: $49,630
  • State government, excluding education and hospitals: $46,820

Learn more about paralegal salaries and how experience and education influence salaries. 

While many work in private practice, it’s also common for paralegals and legal assistants to work in real estate, in-house corporate legal departments, health care and nonprofits.

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How Much Do Legal Assistants Make?

Legal assistant salaries vary based on education and experience. The BLS does not distinguish between paralegal and legal assistant salaries in their report above, but the BLS does indicate a median salary of $51,740 for both professions.

Overall, paralegal and legal assistants share a lot of similarities in job responsibilities and daily tasks. However, more education and experience may be required for paralegals in the legal field. If paralegal sounds like an interesting job, read our step-by-step guide on how to become a paralegal.

Information on this page was retrieved in February 2021.