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Paralegal vs. Lawyer: What's the Difference?

Uncover the key differences between paralegals and lawyers and make informed career choices.

9 min


Oct 26, 2023
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The legal profession offers diverse and rewarding career paths. For those drawn to law but not ready for the extended schooling of becoming an attorney, paralegal work presents an excellent alternative option. Paralegals play a vital role in law firms and legal departments, helping attorneys manage mounting paperwork and enforce tight deadlines. 

Unlike attorneys who act as direct legal counselors and representatives for clients in courts of law, paralegals provide behind-the-scenes support through tasks like drafting correspondence, conducting research, collecting evidence, and ensuring paperwork is accurate and filed properly under attorney supervision. A four-year degree is not required to become a paralegal, opening the door for those interested in legal work earlier in their career journeys.

This article will compare paralegals and lawyers based on their definitions, pros and cons, salary, career path, responsibilities, education, and types.

What Is a Paralegal?

A paralegal is a trained legal professional who assists lawyers in their work. They are not licensed to practice law, but they provide support to lawyers and help them deliver high-quality legal services. Paralegals work in a variety of settings, including law firms, government agencies, and corporate legal departments.

Paralegals perform a range of tasks, including:

  • Conducting legal research
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Assisting with court proceedings
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Preparing and organizing case files
  • Maintaining databases and files
  • Assisting with trial preparation
  • Providing support during trials

Paralegals work under the supervision of lawyers and must have a strong understanding of legal concepts, procedures, and ethics. They must also have excellent communication and organizational skills and the ability to work well under pressure.

Why Are Paralegals Different from Lawyers?

While paralegals and lawyers often work closely together on various legal matters, there are important distinctions in their roles and responsibilities. Paralegals play a vital support function within a law practice, assisting with many day-to-day tasks.

A key difference is the level of education attained. Paralegals typically hold an associate's degree or certificate in paralegal studies, allowing them to gain practical knowledge of the law.

On the other hand, lawyers are required to complete a bachelor's degree followed by a Juris Doctor program from an accredited law school.

This educational background translates to paralegals being unable to perform certain legal duties. Paralegals cannot offer legal advice, represent clients in court proceedings, or negotiate on behalf of clients. Their work involves gathering information, drafting documents, and conducting research to support an attorney's case.

Can a Paralegal Become a Lawyer?

Yes, a paralegal can become a lawyer. The main requirement is obtaining a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a law school accredited by the ABA-accredited law school. After graduating from law school, you must pass the bar exam in order to practice law.

The bar exam is a standardized test that all law school graduates must pass to practice law. Each state's bar association administers the bar exam, and the requirements for passing the bar exam vary from state to state.

Pros and Cons of Being a Paralegal

Being a paralegal

A career as a paralegal can be quite rewarding. Some key benefits include:

Pros of being a paralegal:

  • Challenging and varied work assisting attorneys with cases and legal processes without obtaining a law degree first.
  • Opportunity to learn directly from experienced lawyers and get a first-hand understanding of legal practices.
  • Career growth potential through gaining specialized skills and advancing to supervisory positions over time.
  • Work-life balance compared to attorney roles, as paralegals often have more predictable schedules without billing responsibilities.

However, as with any career, there are also disadvantages to consider, such as:

  • Limited career ceiling without becoming an attorney, as top management roles are usually reserved for those with law licenses.
  • Moderate pay range depending on location and experience level, with salaries often capped below those of entry-level lawyers.
  • Tasks tend to involve more routine administrative work compared to attorney duties, which can seem less personally impactful.
  • No ability to directly represent clients or appear in court as licensed attorneys can do.
  • Potential for high stress during peaks in case activity.

Pros and Cons of Being a Lawyer

Being a lawyer

Becoming a lawyer is a major decision that comes with its benefits, including

  • Opportunity to make a significant impact in the lives of clients
  • Intellectual challenge and continuous learning in the field of law
  • Potential for high earning and financial stability
  • Prestige and professional recognition within the legal community
  • Variety of career paths and specialties to choose from within the legal profession

While the prestige and earning potential can be alluring, the following drawbacks are worth considering.

  • High levels of stress and pressure, especially when handling complex cases
  • Long working hours and demanding schedules, including weekends and evenings
  • Emotional toll due to dealing with sensitive and often contentious legal matters
  • Significant financial investment in legal education and ongoing professional development
  • Potential for work-life imbalance and challenges in maintaining personal relationships

Paralegal vs. Lawyer: Salaries

When considering a legal career, one of the key factors is earning potential. Both paralegals and lawyers can have lucrative careers, but there are differences in average salaries. This section will explore typical income levels for each profession.

— How Much Do Paralegals Earn?

Paralegals earn competitive salaries, especially since less schooling is required than traditional law degrees. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual pay for paralegals and legal assistants is $59,200. Factors impacting paralegal pay include location, experience, firm size, and practice area.

— How Much Do Lawyers Earn?

Lawyer salaries vary based on school, firm, specialty, and experience. According to the BLS, the average annual salary for lawyers is $135,740. But what does this mean for you? Whether you're a law student considering your career options or an experienced attorney looking to switch firms, it's important to understand the salary landscape.

We've analyzed the BLS data and broken it down by practice area, so you can see what you can expect to earn in different fields. If you want to know more about lawyer salaries or how to make money as a lawyer, then check out our blog.

Paralegal vs Lawyer: Career Path

Paralegals and lawyers have distinct career paths within the legal profession. Here's a brief overview of the career options for both roles:

Paralegal career path:

  1. Legal assistant: Paralegals can work as legal assistants to lawyers, providing support with case preparation, research, and other legal tasks.
  2. Legal document specialists: They can specialize in preparing and reviewing legal documents, such as contracts and pleadings.
  3. Court clerk: They can work as court clerks, assisting judges and lawyers with court proceedings and administrative tasks.
  4. Legal investigator: Paralegals can also specialize in conducting investigations and gathering evidence for legal cases.

Lawyer career path:

  1. Associate attorney: After completing law school and passing the bar exam, lawyers often start their careers as associate attorneys, working under the guidance of experienced lawyers within a law firm or legal department.
  2. Partner: With experience, expertise, and a proven track record, lawyers can aspire to become partners in law firms, sharing ownership and management responsibilities.
  3. In-house counsel: Lawyers can join corporations or organizations as in-house counsel to provide legal advice, handle contracts, and ensure compliance with laws and regulations.
  4. Public sector lawyer: Lawyers can work in government agencies, prosecuting or defending criminal cases, providing legal advice, or representing public interests.
  5. Judiciary: Some lawyers pursue a career in the judiciary, becoming judges or magistrates, presiding over legal proceedings, and making decisions based on the law.

Paralegal vs. Lawyer: Responsibilities

Let's explore what lawyers and paralegals typically do, focusing on court and desk-related duties. 

​​Paralegals and lawyers both provide valuable services within the legal field. However, their job duties differ because lawyers are licensed to practice law independently, while paralegals serve in a supportive role.

In terms of court duties, lawyers are responsible for directly representing clients. They examine witnesses, give opening and closing statements, argue motions, and more in court proceedings. Paralegals assist lawyers by organizing documents, performing legal research, and helping prepare court filings or exhibits.

Paralegal vs. Lawyer: Education

Education plays a vital role in becoming a paralegal or a lawyer. The education and training requirements for each profession are below. 

— How Do You Become a Paralegal?

To become a paralegal, individuals typically need to complete a paralegal education program or obtain a bachelor's degree in paralegal studies. These programs provide comprehensive knowledge of legal principles, research methods, and practical skills. Some paralegals also pursue voluntary certifications, such as the Certified Paralegal (CP) designation, to enhance their credentials and demonstrate their expertise.

— How Do You Become a Lawyer?

How to become a lawyer

Becoming a lawyer requires a more extensive educational journey. Here are the general steps:

  1. Bachelor's degree: Aspiring lawyers typically start by earning a bachelor's degree in any field. While there is no specific major required for law school admission, coursework in areas like political science, history, or English can be beneficial.
  2. Law school: After completing a bachelor's degree, aspiring lawyers must attend law school and earn a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. Law school usually takes three years of full-time study and covers various legal subjects and practical skills.
  3. Bar examination: Following law school graduation, individuals must pass the bar examination in the jurisdiction where they intend to practice law. The bar exam assesses the candidate's legal knowledge and their ability to apply it.
  4. Licensing: Once the bar exam is successfully passed, aspiring lawyers must apply for a license to practice law in the state where they wish to work. Each state has its own licensing requirements, which may include a character and fitness review.

Types of Paralegals

There are several different types of paralegals that specialize in various fields of law. The type of paralegal work can depend on the legal setting and practice area.

  1. Corporate paralegals work within companies, ensuring compliance with regulations and reviewing contracts. Their work involves assisting with business transactions and little court interaction. The median salary for a corporate paralegal is $55,000.
  2. Litigation paralegals help lawyers prepare cases for trial. Their responsibilities include organizing evidence and client files, interviewing witnesses, and assisting in the courtroom. Working in a fast-paced environment, litigation paralegals earn around $50,000 on average.
  3. Family law paralegals aid attorneys handling issues like divorce and child custody. They communicate regularly with clients and complete legal filings related to family matters. The average salary for a family law paralegal is $48,000.
  4. Real estate paralegals assist with real property transactions such as home purchasing and refinancing. Their work involves processing closing documents and coordinating between the parties involved. The typical salary for a real estate paralegal is $46,000.
  5. Intellectual property paralegals specialize in patent, trademark, and copyright law. They conduct research on IP issues and help file related applications. The average annual salary for an intellectual property paralegal is $54,000.

Both Paralegals and Lawyers Have Great Career Opportunities in Front of Them

While the paths of paralegals and lawyers differ in the scope of practice and educational requirements, both careers offer rewarding work in the legal system.

As the body of law expands in complexity, the need for legal professionals to navigate its intricacies will only increase. Paralegals play a vital role in allowing lawyers to focus on higher-level tasks by handling important organizational and client-facing responsibilities. This leaves ample career opportunities for paralegals to take on more demanding roles with experience. Some may eventually manage an entire team.

For lawyers, possessing specialized knowledge in a certain practice area can open the door to leadership positions like partner or judge. There will also always be a demand for qualified legal counsel. Personal drives and strengths will influence the extent to which individuals climb professionally.

At Grow Law Firm, we understand the significance of these roles in the legal ecosystem and are here to support paralegals and lawyers in their professional journeys. Explore our law firm SEO services to discover how we can help you grow in your legal career.

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