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If you are considering starting a career in the legal field, there are two popular job positions including paralegal and lawyer. With either option, you can help individuals through some of the most exciting or difficult times in their lives. You can assist clients in a variety of situations, from seeking estate plans or help starting a business to divorce representation or criminal defense.
In this article, we’ll take a look at paralegal vs lawyer careers so you can decide which one is the best option for you.
Responsibilities of a Paralegal vs lawyer
Paralegals and attorneys both perform important work for their clients, and there is often an overlap of duties between the two roles. Below we examine the main responsibilities of paralegals and lawyers.
What does a paralegal do?
Paralegals work under the supervision of lawyers to assist with day-to-day legal tasks. Paralegals can work in law firms or on legal teams in corporate offices, banks, healthcare organizations, and insurance companies.
Typical duties for a paralegal may include:
- Conducting investigations and investigations
- Drafting legal documents
- Interrogate witnesses
- Interviewing and communicating with clients
- Summary testimonials and testimonials
- Assisting lawyers in hearings, statements and trials
What does a lawyer do?
Lawyers offer their clients various legal services. Their responsibilities typically include:
- Advising clients on legal matters
- Conducting research
- Analyzing and interpreting laws, regulations and other legal information
- Advocate for their clients in court
- Preparing and filing wills, lawsuits, contracts and other legal documents
How are they similar or different?
Paralegals often do the work of drafting legal documents and preparing cases. Lawyers can do these things too, but they often use information prepared by paralegals when working on cases or other client work.
When comparing paralegals vs attorneys, the main difference is that paralegals cannot provide legal advice or represent clients in court. Only certified lawyers can perform these tasks. There are also different training and licensing requirements for paralegals and lawyers.
How to become a paralegal
Each state sets its own training and certification requirements for paralegals, so you need to know your state’s requirements. If you want to learn the basics on how to become a paralegal, let’s take a look at the typical requirements below.
Paralegals are usually not required to obtain certification or licensure, but paralegal certifications do exist. While not required, earning a voluntary paralegal certification can make you more competitive in the job market, validate your skills, and even lead to increased earning potential.
Unlike other states, California requires its paralegals to meet specific experience 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 earn certification through their state counters. In California, Arizona and Washington, paralegals are allowed to work independently (without the supervision of a lawyer) to provide services such as preparing legal documents, but they must be registered, certified, or licensed to do so.
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 organizations offer voluntary certification for paralegals.
NALA grants the Certified Paralegal (CP) designation. NFPA administers the Core Registered Paralegal (CRP)™ certification for entry-level professionals and the Registered Paralegal (RP)® credential for experienced paralegals.
Each state has its own training requirements for paralegals and there are no nationally recognized training requirements. It is common for paralegals to have college degrees, and many have bachelor’s degrees.
Certifying bodies for paralegals may also set their own training requirements. For example, if you want to earn certification through NALA or NFPA, you must first complete some sort of paralegal training.
NALA requires paralegals to complete at least one of the following educational experiences to qualify for the Certified Paralegal designation:
- An American Bar Association (ABA) approved paralegal program
- An associate degree in paralegal studies
- A graduate certificate in paralegal studies
- A bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies
- A paralegal program of at least 60 semester hours, 15 of which are “substantive legal courses”
As for NFPA, the CRP credential requires candidates to have at least a high school diploma or GRE certificate plus five years of substantive paralegal experience. NFPA reduces these experience requirements for CRP candidates with more advanced degrees.
The RP certification requires candidates to have at least an associate degree plus seven years of substantive paralegal experience. However, with a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, candidates need only 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 to complete. Each state has its own requirements for attorney education and licensing, 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 have pre-law majors, 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 can get a degree in finance.
Pass the LSAT or GRE
The typical path to becoming a lawyer is to pass the LSAT, the traditional standardized exam for prospective law students. However, in recent years, many universities have started accepting GRE scores instead of LSAT scores. If you have already taken the GRE and you choose one of these universities, you do not need to take the LSAT.
Go to law school
Plan to study law and earn your Juris Doctor (JD) degree at an ABA-accredited university. Earning this degree will help you prepare for the bar exam by teaching you the fundamentals of the law.
Earning your JD is the most common educational route 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. Legal readers study under the supervision and mentorship of a lawyer or judge.
Maine, New York, and Wyoming also do not require lawyers to have a JD, but these states do require some law school degrees. Wisconsin allows JDs to become lawyers without taking the bar exam.
If your state doesn’t require lawyers to earn their JD, you may be wondering, is law school worth it? Please note that it is very uncommon for lawyers to skip this step in their career.
Lawyers must obtain a license to practice law. Below we discuss typical licensing requirements. Keep in mind, however, that each state determines its specific licensing requirements.
Pass the bar exam
The bar exam assesses an attorney’s ability to practice as a lawyer in the US, and most states require attorneys to pass this exam before they can practice. Passing the bar exam demonstrates that you have the required knowledge to become a licensed attorney.
Each state can choose its own bar exam, but most states have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The UBE is administered the same way in every state where it is available, meaning your scores can be transferred to other states that use the exam.
Possess good character and mental fitness
Bar examiners will interview you to learn about your academic integrity, criminal history, substance use history, and mental illness, among other details about your background. Examiners then use this information to determine whether your character and mental fitness are sufficient to practice the legal profession.
Take your oath
After meeting all other requirements, you must take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, faithfully discharge your responsibilities as an attorney, and maintain a high level of integrity. Each state determines the language in its oath.
Paralegals vs. Attorneys: 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 in demand because of their high-quality legal knowledge and lower wages.
Paralegals and legal assistants earned an average annual salary of $56,230 as of May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Employment for paralegals and legal assistants is expected to grow by 14% from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the average expected growth rate of 5% for all occupations across the country. This growth is partly due to law firms trying to cut costs by relying more on paralegals to complete the work that lawyers would normally do.
Lawyers earned an average annual salary of $127,990 as of May 2021. The BLS expects employment for lawyers to increase by 10% between 2021 and 2031. This strong growth has been attributed to anticipated retirement and the need to replace lawyers transitioning to other professions.
Consider the education and certification requirements, duties, salaries, and prospects for both professions when considering careers as a paralegal versus attorney. If you want to work with clients to help them resolve complex legal issues, a career as a paralegal or attorney may be right for you.