On a day to day basis, lawyers collaborate with a team of specialized professionals, including paralegals and legal assistants, who assist in various capacities.
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.
Legal assistants 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. 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.
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.
For a legal assistant, at minimum a high school diploma or GED is usually needed to work. While there are no formal education requirements to work as a legal assistant, higher education with a degree in legal studies can be helpful.
No state actually offers a license to become a paralegal or legal assistant. However, some employers may refer to national or state paralegal certifications when interviewing candidates. 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.
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.