There are several differences between a paralegal and a lawyer, although both work within the legal field. You might wonder what those differences are – beyond the job titles and descriptions you can find online. Paralegals can do much of a lawyer's work but are limited in specific ways. For instance, you might think you need a lawyer for a particular legal task, but a paralegal might be a better fit.
To help you learn about the differences between these fields, we’ve compiled the significant differences between a paralegal and a lawyer. Here are the critical differences that you need to know.
The Main Difference: Paralegal vs Lawyer
The most significant difference between a paralegal and a lawyer is what a paralegal can do versus what a lawyer may do. Although paralegals may take on and complete many of the same legal tasks that a lawyer does – aside from those proscribed by law – paralegals may only undertake these tasks on behalf of and while under the supervision of a licensed lawyer.
One of the most significant differences between paralegals and lawyers is that only a licensed lawyer may practice law. Conversely, there are not as many formal requirements for the practice of law as you think – although these might depend on your locality and will be touched on later in this post.
When it comes down to becoming a licensed lawyer, they must meet a stringent and specific set of requirements, including education, training, and licensing. Now, to compare, far fewer formalities are involved in working as a paralegal.
Now, it’s essential to know that the job responsibilities of a paralegal and a lawyer will vary greatly and depend upon several factors, including their area of practice, level of experience, and the specific law firm. However, there is a general definition of the job duties and responsibilities associated with each profession.
It can get a little confusing when it comes down to the responsibilities of a paralegal, as they frequently take on legal tasks on behalf of a supervising lawyer. Plus, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two regarding job responsibilities.
On behalf of their supervising lawyer, a paralegal might take on and perform the following activities:
- Managing communication with clients and keeping clients updated on their case’s status
- Organizing and reviewing client files
- Conducting legal research and other research-related tasks
- Preparing and drafting legal documents, which might include the drafting of discovery notices and pleading while also covering the preparation of documents for a variety of transactions
- Case preparation
- Managing documents and drafting legal documents
- Interviewing both witnesses and clients
- Assisting their supervisor with closings and trials (i.e., gathering case information)
It’s important to know that lawyers do many of the above tasks, particularly if they don’t have a paralegal to assist them with their work. However, lawyers also have additional responsibilities that paralegals aren’t allowed to perform, which include the following:
- Providing clients with legal advice
- Rejecting or accepting clients’ cases
- Representing clients in court
- Setting attorney fees.
Lawyers are, in addition, bound by a variety of ethical responsibilities that are associated with the practice of law and the role of an attorney. And this includes their working relationships with paralegals.
Paralegals: Experience, Certification, and Education
There are a couple of ways that a paralegal can become qualified: by education, training, or work experience – although it’s more common that they become qualified by some combination of all three of the above. Technically, however, there are not any formal educational requirements for paralegals on a national level. It’s important to know that certain states require that paralegals be certified and have completed a continuing legal education (CLE) training course.
In practice, most paralegals possess a combination of formal education, training, and certification specific to their field. Their education typically includes either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, criminal justice, or a related field.
Now, although certification isn’t a requirement for a paralegal, it’s relatively common for a paralegal to improve their career prospects. Various paralegal certification options are currently available, but the quality and reputation of these certifications vary wildly.
For those looking for reputable certifications for a paralegal, then the NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) both offer respected certification programs. Additionally, both organisations also provide further resources for paralegal education and training.
Lawyers: A Minimum of 7 Years of Post-Secondary Education and Additional Requirements
To answer the question “what’s the difference between a paralegal and a lawyer,” the most critical aspect of the answer is the education and requirements required to become a licensed attorney.
Lawyers require a minimum of specific educational and training requirements, all of which are standardised. Now, although individual states might have particular standards that a practising attorney must fulfil, there are a couple of complex requirements that you must complete, which include:
- Earning a bachelor’s degree or equivalent education
- Graduate from a recognised law school
- Pass the state bar exam
- Pass the character and fitness evaluation for your jurisdiction
- Take an attorney’s oath
- Be granted a license by your state.
Once you have fulfilled these requirements, you may begin to operate as a licensed attorney.
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