Legal careers are fast-paced and rewarding, but it can be difficult to know if you would prefer working as a lawyer or a paralegal. While these roles are closely related, they have some key differences that are important to understand before pursuing a career.
Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between a career as a paralegal vs. a lawyer, including the salary, education requirements, responsibilities, and more.
What Do Paralegals and Lawyers Do?
A paralegal is an unlicensed legal employee who supports a supervising lawyer for casework. They may assist with different aspects of the case, including interviewing clients or organizing documents. This is primarily to avoid incurring unnecessary costs, as paralegals usually have a lower hourly rate than a lawyer.
There’s often overlap between the work performed by paralegals and lawyers, though some privileges are exclusively for lawyers.
For example, only lawyers can appear on behalf of a client in court and provide legal advice. It’s not lawful for a paralegal to perform certain lawyer duties or present themselves as an attorney.
Paralegal vs. Lawyers: Core Differences
The core difference between paralegals and lawyers is that lawyers are licensed and qualified to practice law and represent clients while paralegals are not. The rest of the differences between them tie back to that concept because lawyers represent clients, they carry greater responsibility, undergo more training, and in return, earn a higher salary.
Paralegal vs. Lawyer: Pros and Cons
There are certainly perks and drawbacks to being a paralegal or a lawyer, so choosing between them largely depends on what kind of career you want, how quickly you want to be working in the field, and what your passions are.
Paralegal Pros and Cons
Less education and formal training: In many states, paralegals aren’t required to have a degree or any professional certification, though it can help them become more favorable candidates. They don’t need an advanced degree or licensing as a lawyer does.
Lower tuition costs: If you choose to get a degree or certificate in paralegal studies or related fields, it’s a much shorter education track — and lower total tuition — than a Juris Doctor.
Varied work: Paralegals wear many hats in law firms and take on different tasks to assist lawyers, so the work is always varied. Paralegals may focus on a certain practice area for a specialized career as well.
Work-life balance: Though being a paralegal can be stressful, the responsibility ultimately falls on the supervising lawyer. Paralegals experience less stress and better work-life balance.
Lower salary: The average paralegal’s salary is much lower than the average lawyer’s, even with a lot of experience.
Limited responsibility and control: Paralegals do the grunt work for lawyers, but they don’t have autonomy with cases or control over their workload.
Can’t practice law: Paralegals are an integral part of the legal team, but they can’t practice law or argue cases on behalf of clients.
Lawyer Pros and Cons
Responsibility and challenges: Only practicing lawyers can practice law and represent clients, which is a challenging but rewarding career.
More prestige: Lawyers shoulder a lot of responsibility, but with that comes a lot of prestige and a promising career path.
Higher salaries: The average lawyer has a significantly higher salary than a paralegal and more earning potential over the course of their career.
More education and training: Lawyers must complete seven years of formal education and pass the state bar exam to practice. After that, they must complete continuing education requirements to maintain their license.
Higher tuition costs: Undergraduate and graduate schools have high tuition costs that can leave lawyers with a lot of student debt as they start their careers.
Less work-life balance: Lawyers work long hours, handle stressful cases, keep up with licensing requirements, and shoulder student debt, leaving them with a lot of stress and less work-life balance.
Licensing requirements: Passing the state bar exam is no easy feat. It requires preparation and may take a few tries to pass and earn a license to practice law.
Possibly more stress: Lawyers often encounter a lot of stress early in their careers, especially in large, competitive firms. As a result, they experience burnout often.
Can a Paralegal Become a Lawyer?
You don’t have to be a paralegal first to become a lawyer, though that is a possible career path. Paralegals gain legal knowledge and experience on the job, giving them a good idea of whether they’d enjoy being a lawyer. Those skills also help them with their legal education.
Paralegal and Lawyer Job Responsibility Differences
Paralegals and lawyers both work in the legal field, but they have different responsibilities, experience, expertise, and tasks. They can also vary in the type of law firm or practice area they work in.
Typically, a paralegal completes tasks as support staff for a supervising lawyer, like managing their calendar. Paralegals are not permitted to provide legal advice without the guidance of a lawyer, though their role is essential to help lawyers prepare for cases.
Here are some of the tasks paralegals may perform for their supervising lawyer:
Managing client communications and updating the case status
Organizing client files
Conducting legal research
Preparing legal documents like drafting discovery notices
Interviewing clients and witnesses
Assisting lawyers at closings or trials
Lawyers are capable of doing any of these tasks, but they often delegate the work to paralegals to reduce the costs of legal fees and free time for the work only they can do, such as:
Giving legal advice
Accepting or rejecting client cases
Setting attorney fees
Representing clients in court
Lawyers also have strict ethical responsibilities that go along with being a lawyer, including how they work with paralegals. ABA Model Rule 5.3 outlines nonlawyer assistance and how lawyers must ensure that their nonlawyer support staff conduct themselves in a manner that’s consistent with professional conduct rules and obligations.
What Is the Job Outlook for a Paralegal vs. a Lawyer?
Both paralegals and lawyers are in demand as the legal industry grows. Paralegals have a slight edge here, however.
Between 2020 and 2030, the demand for paralegals has a projected growth rate of 12%. Lawyers have a projected growth rate of 9% over that 10-year period. This is likely because firms are looking to become more efficient, which requires delegating some work to support staff.
What Is the Difference in Salary Between a Paralegal vs. a Lawyer?
While the salary for lawyers can vary by practice area, experience, location, or firm size, there is higher earning potential for lawyers vs. paralegals.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for paralegals was $56,230 in May 2021. For lawyers in that same period, the median salary was $127,990 per year, or $61.54 per hour.
How Does the Education and Training Requirement Differ for a Paralegal vs. a Lawyer?
There’s a big difference in the education and training requirements, length, and cost for paralegals vs. lawyers.
The ABA allows paralegals to become qualified by education, training, or work experience. Some states require certification in continuing legal education (CLE) training hours for paralegals, but there’s no national requirement.
Typically, paralegals have formal education or training, such as a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies or similar fields. They may also have certifications from the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) to be more knowledgeable and competitive in their field.
Lawyers have more requirements and a minimum of seven years of required post-secondary education. They must earn a bachelor’s degree to be admitted into an ABA-accredited law school and successfully complete it to earn a Juris Doctor (JD).
After that, lawyers must pass the bar exam in the state they intend to practice, which tests their knowledge of the law. Each jurisdiction has a character and fitness evaluation as well, which reviews any past misconduct, legal convictions, or substance abuse problems for approval.
Each state also has an oath to support the laws and the state and federal constitutions. Lawyers who complete all these requirements are granted a license from the highest court in the state.
Lawyers have the option to continue their education to earn a Master of Laws (LLM), it’s not required. The only ongoing training requirements are CLE hours to maintain a license to practice law, which varies by state.
Other Education and Requirements
On the practical side, both lawyers and paralegals must have written and verbal communication skills, organizational and time management skills, and technology proficiency. As more law firms innovate, legal practice management software is becoming commonplace to help firms – and paralegal work specifically – become more streamlined and efficient.
While not required, having these skills is key to being a competitive candidate in the legal field.
Outlook on a Career as a Paralegal or a Lawyer
If you’re interested in a career in the legal industry, paralegals and lawyers have many of the same tasks and responsibilities, but there are key differences in the training and education involved, the salary, and the privileges.
You can become a paralegal faster with less education and lower costs, but you may have limited earning potential and no ability to practice law. Lawyers have the prestige and privilege to practice law with good compensation, but it takes a longer period of expensive and challenging education and requirements to get there.