If you’re thinking about a legal career and debating whether you want to work as a paralegal or an attorney, you may want to understand some of the main differences between the two professions before making your decision. Paralegals and attorneys work together to serve the same clients, but their responsibilities, training and salaries are quite different.
Paralegals generally work in law offices supporting the staff of attorneys who work there. Much of the work that paralegals do consists of drafting legal documents, such as contracts, divorce agreements and court filings, for example. They also maintain client files, assist attorneys who are preparing for trials, conduct legal research and even serve as contacts for clients on less complex legal issues. Attorneys, however, are the decision makers and they delegate work to paralegals and legal assistants. Unlike paralegals, attorneys are licensed to practice law, which means they can represent clients in court or before government agencies. They also are licensed to facilitate transactions on behalf of businesses. But most importantly, attorneys are permitted to offer legal advice that’s based on their own interpretations of the law, while paralegals cannot.
Education and Training
The initial paths to becoming an attorney and paralegal are significantly different. Becoming a paralegal doesn’t require that you earn a specific degree or training certificate, though most practicing paralegals do have two- or four-year undergraduate degrees. Others earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Attorneys, on the other hand, typically spend four years in college followed by three to four more years in law school before they can even take their state's bar exam – which they must pass before they become licensed. There are, however, a number of states that allow you to substitute employment in a law office for formal law school training.
Attorney salaries can vary significantly, since earnings depend on whether you work for the government, a law office or a corporation, as well as the area of law you develop expertise in. For example, an attorney who works as a state prosecutor will likely earn less than an attorney who works at a large law firm. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median salary for attorneys of $112,760 per year as of 2011. But despite the differences among attorneys, paralegals traditionally earn less. Paralegals can also specialize in areas of law, raising their earning power. The BLS reported a median salary of $46,680 for paralegals as of 2010.
Adding to the salary differences is the fact that attorneys don’t face the same restrictions that paralegals do. Lawyers have more opportunities to start their own firms and collect fees from clients, to earn large contingency fees based on court or negotiated settlements and most importantly, attorneys aren’t restricted to working in a law office like paralegals are. Attorneys often work in finance roles at banks and investment firms, as in-house counsel at large corporations and in academic positions at colleges and law schools.
Michael Marz has worked in the financial sector since 2002, specializing in wealth and estate planning. After spending six years working for a large investment bank and an accounting firm, Marz is now self-employed as a consultant, focusing on complex estate and gift tax compliance and planning.