Legal assistants and paralegals are two crucial positions within a law firm. Much like the cement pillars that scaffold building construction, legal assistants and paralegals are the support beams that attorneys rely on to perform optimally. 

Both positions assist with time management, research, legal support, and general administrative tasks. That said, when you’re looking for someone to help manage your schedule and assist with small administrative responsibilities, you’re really talking about a legal administrative assistant. If you want a dedicated team member performing deep dives on cases and scheduling hearings, that’s where a paralegal will step in.

Let’s explore the key differences of the legal assistant vs paralegal role, so you can hire effectively. 

Legal Assistants vs Paralegals: Defining the Two Roles

As noted above, there is overlap between these two roles. However, the specific job description and the amount of time or percentage of work dedicated to each vary. So, what is a legal assistant and a paralegal?

  • Legal assistant duties – Legal assistants may support research, case preparation, and client relationship management, but this won’t be their primary focus. Instead, they may be tasked with incoming calls, scheduling, travel arrangements, light bookkeeping, and general office administration.
  • Paralegal duties – Paralegals tend to be more involved with the legal legwork. Attorneys may ask paralegals to assist with current clients and cases, including legal research, evidence preparation, scheduling hearings, and drafting and proofreading any legal document.

Put simply, if you’re looking to fill (or find) a position that is primarily administrative, your best bet is a legal assistant. If you need support for casework and specific legal tasks, a paralegal should be top of mind.

Noteworthy Differences Between Legal Assistants and Paralegals

Beyond the basic responsibilities of each job title, there are a number of other factors that set these two roles apart, including:

  • Education requirements
  • Certifications
  • Salary expectations

#1 Education

Legal assistants can be hired with a high school education, although some employers may require an associate’s degree or certification depending on the specific job responsibilities.

Paralegals, on the other hand, typically require a two-year associate’s degree in a dedicated paralegal program. A bachelor’s degree in any subject combined with relevant work experience or certification may be acceptable for some employers. 

Many paralegals also pursue legal education to join the ranks of their fellow attorneys. To accomplish this, paralegals may spend their evenings studying for the LSAT or taking classes toward their J.D. 

#2 Certification

Certification can provide applicants a leg up in job interviews and provide further opportunities for employment. For employers, certification adds a degree of certainty and professionalism—applicants can hit the ground running.

The certifications for legal assistants and paralegals vary:

  • Legal assistant certification – There is no national organization or certificate specific to legal assistants. Pursuing a paralegal certificate, a legal secretary certificate, or certification related to advanced office administration are all useful enhancements for this legal profession.
  • Paralegal certification – Certification is common for paralegals, and there is a difference between a paralegal and a certified paralegal. Although paralegal work experience or advanced degrees may be substituted, these certificate programs are generally designed to be completed at the end of a two-year paralegal course of study. There are three major organizations that provide comprehensive exam-based certificates. They include: 
    • NALA – The Paralegal Association
    • National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA)
    • American Alliance of Paralegals (AAPI)

#3 Salary

Due to the importance of paralegal work (as it pertains to individual cases), it may come as no surprise that paralegals tend to out-earn legal assistants in terms of salary: 

  • Legal assistant compensation – In the United States, the average base rate for legal assistants is $44,552, though earnings may vary by region and industry.
  • Paralegal compensation – Paralegals earn $51,166 on average in the U.S., or upwards of $90,000  in some industries, depending on their experience.

Note: Employers searching for legal assistant work may also find virtual legal assistant support to be the more valuable option. Not only can virtual legal assistants perform all the duties that’s expected of an in-person hire, but virtual support can also create a team around a 24/7 solution. That way, even late night calls are handled by the legal assistant.

Legal Assistant and Paralegal Similarities

Despite their differences in education, certification, and salary, paralegals and legal assistants require many of the same traits and talents. These include: 

  • A professional demeanor, even in high-stress situations
  • Ability to pivot quickly for urgent needs and changes
  • Excellent verbal communication skills with clients and contacts of diverse backgrounds
  • Strong writing and proofreading skills
  • Expertise with word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and scheduling software
  • Attention to detail, organization, and prioritization

Grow Your Law Firm by Outsourcing Legal Assistant Support to Alert Communications

Just like an attorney, legal assistants and paralegals can best serve their teams when their time is freed up to function at the highest level. Outsourcing law firm administrative support and front-end communications for your practice, and working with a legal call center is an ideal way to accomplish this. Plus, you can increase your client conversion and customer experience exponentially.

Alert provides 24/7 communications across the spectrum—phone, chat, text, web—for a law office including inbound and outbound contact. Our technology offers real-time analytics and our trained, empathic legal specialists handle legal client intake, scheduling, and lead qualification in both English and Spanish. 

Connect with Alert Communications today to find out how we can design an affordable communications plan to fit your needs.


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