If you’re considering starting a career in the legal field, two popular roles include paralegal and attorney. Both options allow you to help people through some of the most exciting or difficult times in their lives. You could assist clients in a variety of situations, from researching estate plans or helping start a business to representing divorce cases or criminal defense.
In this article, we will discuss paralegal and attorney careers so you can decide which is the best option for you.
Responsibilities of a Paralegal vs. a Lawyer
Both paralegals and lawyers do important work for their clients, and there is often an overlap of duties between the two roles. Below, we explore the main responsibilities of paralegals and lawyers.
What does a paralegal do?
Paralegals work under the supervision of attorneys to help with day-to-day legal tasks. Paralegals can work in law firms or as part of legal teams in corporate offices, banks, healthcare organizations, and insurance companies.
Typical duties of a paralegal may include:
- Conduct research and surveys
- Drafting of legal acts
- Interview witnesses
- Interview and communicate with clients
- Summary of depositions and testimony
- Accompanying lawyers to hearings, depositions and trials
What does a lawyer do?
Lawyers provide a variety of legal services to their clients. Their responsibilities typically include:
- Advise clients on legal matters
- Conduct a search
- Analyze and interpret laws, regulations and other legal information
- Argue in court for their clients
- Prepare and file wills, lawsuits, contracts and other legal documents
How are they similar or different?
Paralegals often do the legwork to create legal documents and prepare for cases. Lawyers can also do these things, but they often use information prepared by paralegals when working on cases or other work with clients.
When comparing paralegals to lawyers, the main difference is that paralegals cannot give legal advice or represent clients in court. Only licensed attorneys can perform these tasks. There are also different educational and licensing requirements for paralegals and lawyers.
How to become a paralegal
Each state determines its own training and certification requirements for paralegals, so you should find out about your state’s requirements. If you want to know the basics of becoming a paralegal, we explore the typical requirements below.
Paralegals are generally not required to obtain certification or licensure, but paralegal certifications do exist. Although not required, earning a voluntary paralegal certification can make you more competitive in the job market, validate your skills, and even lead to higher earning potential.
Unlike other states, California requires its paralegals to meet specific experiential and educational qualifications. California paralegals must also meet continuing education requirements.
Most paralegal certifications are state-based. In Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, and Florida, paralegals can obtain certification through their state bars. In California, Arizona, and Washington, paralegals are permitted to work independently (without the supervision of an attorney) to provide services such as the preparation of legal documents, but they must be registered, certified, or licensed to do so. TO DO.
If your state does not offer a paralegal certification program, you may be able to obtain certification through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). Both of these organizations offer voluntary certification for paralegals.
NALA confers the designation of Certified Paralegal (CP). The NFPA administers the Core Registered Paralegal (CRP)™ certification for entry-level professionals and the Registered Paralegal (RP)® certification for experienced paralegals.
Each state sets its own educational requirements for paralegals, and there are no nationally recognized educational requirements. It is common for paralegals to have an associate’s degree, and many have a bachelor’s degree.
Paralegal certification bodies may also set their own training requirements. For example, if you want to get certified through NALA or NFPA, you must first complete some type of paralegal training.
The NALA requires paralegals to complete at least one of the following educational experiences to qualify for its Certified Paralegal designation:
- A paralegal program approved by the American Bar Association (ABA)
- An Associate’s Degree in Paralegal Studies
- A Graduate Certificate in Paralegal Studies
- A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
- A paralegal program consisting of at least 60 semester hours, 15 of which are “substantive legal courses”
As for the NFPA, the CRP credential requires applicants to have at least a high school diploma or GRE certificate plus five years of substantial paralegal experience. The NFPA reduces these experience requirements for CRP candidates with more advanced credentials.
PR certification requires applicants to have at least an associate’s degree and seven years of substantial paralegal experience. With a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, however, applicants only need two years of paralegal experience.
How to become a lawyer
Becoming a lawyer involves several steps, which can take at least six to seven years. Each state sets its own attorney education and licensing requirements, so check with your state if you’re wondering exactly how to become a lawyer.
Earn a bachelor’s degree
If you want to become a lawyer, start by getting a bachelor’s degree. Lawyers are not required to major in pre-law, so you can choose a major that reflects your interests and is relevant to your future legal career. For example, if you plan to work in tax law, you could pursue a degree in finance.
Take the LSAT or GRE
The typical path to becoming a lawyer is to pass the LSAT, which is the traditional standardized exam for prospective law students. In recent years, however, many universities have started accepting GRE scores instead of LSAT scores. If you have already taken the GRE and choose one of these universities, you will not have to take the LSAT.
Attend law school
Plan to attend law school and earn your juris doctor (JD) degree from an ABA-accredited university. Earning this degree helps you prepare for the bar exam by teaching you the basics of law.
Earning your JD is the most common educational path to becoming a lawyer, but some states offer other options. California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington allow aspiring lawyers to skip law school and become law readers. Law readers study under the supervision and mentorship of a lawyer or judge.
Maine, New York, and Wyoming also don’t require lawyers to hold a JD, but those states do require law school. Wisconsin allows JDs to become lawyers without taking the bar exam.
If your state doesn’t require lawyers to get their JD, you might be wondering: Is law school worth it? Keep in mind that it is very rare for lawyers to skip this step in their career.
Lawyers must obtain a license to practice law. Below we discuss typical requirements for licensing. Keep in mind, however, that each state determines its specific licensing requirements.
Pass the bar exam
The bar exam assesses a lawyer’s ability to practice law in the United States, and most states require lawyers to pass this exam before they can practice law. Passing the bar exam demonstrates that you have the knowledge required to become a licensed attorney.
Each state can choose its own bar exam, but most states have adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The UBE is administered the same way in all states where it is available, which means your scores can be transferred to other states that use the exam.
Possess good character and mental fitness
Bar examiners ask you about your academic integrity, criminal history, substance use history, and mental health issues, among other background details. Examiners then use this information to determine if your character and mental fitness are sufficient to practice law.
take an oath
After meeting all other requirements, you must take an oath to uphold the United States Constitution, faithfully fulfill your responsibilities as an attorney, and maintain a high standard of integrity. Each state determines the language in its oath.
Paralegals vs Lawyers: Salary and Job Outlook
Lawyers and paralegals work closely together in law firms. Lawyers rely heavily on paralegals to help them with their work, but paralegals earn significantly lower salaries than lawyers. That said, paralegals are particularly sought after because of their high-level legal knowledge and lower pay rates.
Paralegals and legal assistants earned a median annual salary of $56,230 as of May 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to increase by 14% from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the projected average growth rate of 5% for all occupations nationally. This growth is due in part to law firms trying to cut expenses by relying more on paralegals to do work that lawyers would normally do.
Lawyers earned a median annual salary of $127,990 in May 2021. The BLS projects that employment of lawyers will increase 10% from 2021 to 2031. This strong growth is attributed to expected retirements and the need to replace lawyers who move on to other professions.
When considering the careers of paralegals versus lawyers, consider education and certification requirements, job duties, salaries, and outlook for both professions. If you want to work with clients to help them solve complex legal problems, a career as a paralegal or lawyer may be the right decision for you.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.