Skip to content
Home » Law Office Study Blog » Should You Study to Be a Paralegal or a Lawyer? Get the Facts

Should You Study to Be a Paralegal or a Lawyer? Get the Facts

  • by
Lots of law books to study

Many people want to pursue a career in the legal profession because it’s highly rewarding. However, the optimal area or role in the landscape of a law career can take time to find. If you can’t decide between being a lawyer or a paralegal, you might wonder what the difference is between the two. There are various factors to consider, and the best choice for you depends on your personal and career goals, situation, and unique skills.

To help with the decision-making process, this guide outlines the differences and similarities between a career as a lawyer or paralegal. For example, you learn about the duties required, salary expectations, and education requirements, such as law school or a paralegal education.

If you think you have a personal injury case against a negligent person or entity, please call for a free consultation.

Difference Between a Paralegal and Lawyer

Let’s begin by clarifying what paralegals can do to give you a better understanding of the differences between lawyers and paralegals. Paralegals can complete some of the legal tasks that lawyers do. However, they can only do so under a supervising attorney and on their behalf.

While both legal professionals must complete legal work, there are a few important differences between them. Let’s look at them now:

  • Ability to practice law – Licensed lawyers are the only ones who can practice law. A paralegal degree has fewer formal requirements.
  • Responsibilities and tasks – Most legal careers come with stress, but lawyers have a greater responsibility for legal work. The supervising attorney is responsible for whatever the paralegal does.
  • Qualifications – Lawyers have to meet specific educational, licensing, and training requirements. For example, they attend and complete law school. A paralegal education has fewer formal necessities. While they complete paralegal programs, they don’t have to go to law school and can finish an undergraduate degree.
  • Compensation and salary – Becoming a lawyer requires significantly more education, but there’s a higher return on investment. The earning potential of a lawyer is higher than paralegals, which we discuss later.

Difference Between an Attorney and Lawyer

In the US, the terms attorney and lawyer are actually used interchangeably. According to the ABA (American Bar Association), “attorney” is just another name for the lawyer. However, there’s a technical distinction between the two.

A lawyer is someone who earned their law degree (Juris Doctor degree) by graduating from a law school accredited by the ABA. However, a degree alone doesn’t qualify them to represent clients in a courtroom. An attorney at law is someone who graduated from law school and passed the bar exam to become licensed to practice law in that state. Therefore, they can represent clients in court.

In a sense, attorneys are always lawyers, but a lawyer might not be an attorney.

Can Paralegals Practice Law or Become a Lawyer?

Yes, paralegals can become lawyers with the right training and education. In the paralegal profession, you gain the legal knowledge and experience needed to see if being a lawyer is right for your personality and skills.

You may still need to go to law school while you work as a legal assistant, but you have a greater understanding of how the law works. Your experiences could make it easier to get through legal studies. However, experienced paralegals must complete the same licensing and educational requirements to practice law.

Job Responsibilities for a Paralegal and Lawyer

It’s important to understand that the roles of lawyers and paralegals vary significantly based on factors like the law firm type, level of experience, and practice area. However, let’s compare the general job responsibilities and duties for both career paths.

Sometimes, it’s hard to differentiate between the responsibilities because paralegals can perform legal tasks on behalf of the attorney. Plus, a paralegal’s duties are similar to that of a lawyer, which is the benefit of hiring paralegals.

For example, paralegals often do these tasks for the supervising attorney:

  • Interviewing witnesses and clients
  • Document management
  • Prepare legal documents like pleadings and discovery notices
  • Case preparation
  • Crafting legal documents
  • Preparing transaction documents
  • Conducting legal and factual research
  • Organizing and reviewing client files
  • Managing communications and updating clients about case status
  • Assisting the attorney for trials and closings

Though attorneys can do the tasks listed above, they have other responsibilities that paralegals can’t handle, such as:

  • Setting attorney fees
  • Representing clients in court
  • Rejecting and accepting client cases
  • Giving legal advice

Plus, lawyers are bound by ethical codes, including how they work with paralegals.

Ethical Rules for a Lawyer Working with a Paralegal

The ABA Model Rule 5.3 states that lawyers have to make reasonable efforts to make sure non-lawyer employees conduct themselves in a consistent way with the professional conduct obligations and rules the lawyer is bound to. Therefore, a paralegal must abide by the attorney-client privilege.

Difference Between a Lawyer’s and Paralegal’s Salary

Lawyers have a big advantage over legal assistants in terms of earning potential.

Factors like firm size, practice area, geographical location, and experience impact salary ranges for both careers. However, lawyers tend to earn significantly higher incomes than a paralegal.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that the median salary for paralegals in 2020 was $52,920 a year. Be aware that the Bureau of Labor Statistics combines legal secretaries and paralegals, but there’s a variance between those roles. Still, the Bureau of Labor Statistics median salary for lawyers in 2020 was about $126,930 a year, which is over double that for legal assistants and paralegals.

Job Prospects for the Legal Profession (Lawyer vs. Paralegal)

What job outlook is there for a lawyer or paralegal? A career within the legal industry is a sound bet because the BLS shows growth for both.

However, there’s a projected growth rate of 12 percent from 2020 to 2030 for legal assistants and paralegals, so that’s slightly better than for lawyers (9 percent in the same 10-year period).

The BLS claims that there are more job prospects for paralegals because law firms want to be more efficient and streamlined. Paralegals assist lawyers with various tasks at lower costs while driving innovation. Therefore, they are and should continue to be in high demand for the following years.

Differences in Training and Education Required

Most people understand that there’s a difference in educational requirements. While a paralegal program works well for most paralegals, that’s not enough for a lawyer. Let’s learn what legal studies are needed for both options:

Paralegals – Education, Experience, and Certification

The ABA claims that paralegals can be qualified through training, work experience, and education, but most paralegals use a combination of all three. Technically, there are no formal education requirements. Some states require that paralegals are certified and complete CLE (continuing legal education) training hours each year.

For example, California has a state paralegal association and requires a total of eight CLE hours every two years – four for general and four for ethics.

Most of the time, paralegals get an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree in criminal law justice, paralegal studies, and similar fields. They may also take a particular paralegal certification program, though it isn’t required for paralegals.

Still, many paralegals feel that it improves their prospects, and a paralegal certificate program is easy to find in almost any state. However, the reputation and quality of the certifications may vary.

If you want to become a paralegal and be certified, NALA (National Association of Legal Assistants) or NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations) provide reputable paralegal programs. Otherwise, you may want to stick with an undergraduate degree with a focus on the legal system or legal services.

Lawyers – Law School and Other Requirements

The key answer to the difference between lawyers and paralegals is the education required for attorneys.

Lawyers have a standardized minimum requirement for training and education. Individual states may change them, but the ABA professional requirements say that before you are licensed and practice law, you must:

  • Earn a Bachelor’s Degree – Before you start your legal career, you must complete an undergraduate degree or a Bachelor’s degree in any field. This is a four-year degree program and is required to be admitted into a law school that’s ABA-accredited.
  • Graduate from Law School – Law students must attend law school and complete three years after earning their undergraduate degree.
  • Pass the State Bar Exam – Students must study for and pass the bar exam, which tests their law knowledge. You may do it while still in law school or wait until you’ve finished your degree. It also focuses on responsibilities and ethics, which you’ve got to uphold as you practice law.
  • Pass the Jurisdiction’s Fitness and Character Evaluation – The evaluation requires you to fill out an in-depth questionnaire to disclose details about your past (misconduct, convictions, and substance abuse problems.) You must then be approved before becoming a lawyer.
  • Take the Attorney’s Oath – Each state has its own version of the oath, but you have to swear to support the federal and state constitutions and laws.
  • Get a License – When you’ve finished the state bar admission requirements, the highest court in your state (often the supreme court) grants you a license.

It’s a good idea to research your jurisdictions and rules before becoming a lawyer.

After Becoming a Licensed Lawyer

Once you’re a lawyer, there are ongoing training requirements and fees required to maintain a law license. You must finish a specific number of CLE hours each year and annually renew your license. Often, law schools help students understand these things before sending them off into the world.

Advantages and Disadvantages – Lawyer vs. Paralegal

There are drawbacks and benefits of being a lawyer or paralegal, and they depend on your passions, goals, and background. Here are some general pros/cons for each career choice:

Pros for the Paralegal Profession

  • Less formal training and education – It costs less (time and money) to become a paralegal than for being a lawyer. You may start with an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree instead of going to law school.
  • More job opportunities – With the job outlook on the rise, there are more jobs available for paralegals. Plus, there are career advancement opportunities, as well.
  • Challenging and interesting work – Paralegals have varied daily tasks to help supervising lawyers and the law office. You may create a specialized career by focusing on a specific area of law, such as legal research.
  • Fewer responsibilities – Paralegals are crucial for the legal team, but the responsibility falls to the supervising lawyer. Therefore, you may have lower work stress levels and a good work-life balance.

Cons for the Paralegal Profession

  • Less income potential – A paralegal’s salary is much less than a lawyer’s.
  • Less control over work – Paralegals work for lawyers, so they don’t have authority over their workloads and decision-making, which can lead to burnout.
  • Not a practicing lawyer – If you want a legal career to practice law and argue for clients in court, you shouldn’t be a paralegal.

Lawyer Pros

  • Higher earning potential – The average salary for a lawyer is much higher than a paralegal. Therefore, becoming a lawyer is the best option if you want to maximize your potential earnings as a legal professional.
  • More prestige – Lawyers have many responsibilities, but this career path also gives them higher respect and prestige.
  • Practice Law – Only lawyers who are licensed can argue cases in court and give legal advice. That’s because they’ve attended law school and passed the bar.
  • No research – While lawyers sometimes have to do their own legal research, they often pass that off to a legal assistant.

Lawyer Cons

  • More training and education – Lawyers must earn a Bachelor’s degree first, which takes four years to complete. However, they aren’t done because they need more formal education from law school. Therefore, students often have a lot more debt, which offsets the higher earning potential early in their careers. This isn’t always a bad thing; just make sure this is the career path you want.
  • Pass the bar – Prospective lawyers can’t practice until they pass the bar exam, and it’s not easy to do. Therefore, this might not be the ideal career path for everyone. However, to be a practicing lawyer, it’s a requirement. If you attend an unaccredited law school, you may also be required to take the baby bar exam.
  • More responsibility and stress – The long hours, challenging clients, and training requirements can cause lawyers to be very stressed out. Lawyer burnout is a thing, so it takes a strong person to keep their heads up, do their job well, and apply critical thinking at all stages of the game.

Both Work at Law Firms

After completing your paralegal studies, you work at a law firm. Many paralegals start out in family law, but almost every office requires a legal assistant to help them.

Therefore, your legal studies allow you to get the academic credentials necessary to tackle administrative tasks and be part of the legal system. Without you, most lawyers couldn’t take on as many cases as they do. Since undergraduate degrees are required, you can become a paralegal with an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree, which takes less time and gets you in the door of the legal world.

You work closely with attorneys, must be detail-oriented, and have various advancement opportunities in your career. In fact, you could choose to take on more higher education and become a lawyer. Many lawyers started out as paralegals, worked for a few years, and then decided to shift to lawyer status.


If you’re thinking of a career in the legal industry, it’s crucial to understand the options available to you. That way, you don’t waste time going to law school if it isn’t the best decision. Most people choose the paralegal path because they tackle mundane tasks, don’t have to set fees, and don’t worry about billable hours. The legal field includes all types of people.

Therefore, if four-year degrees are more your style, the job market is ready for you to become a paralegal and enjoy all that it entails.

While lawyers and paralegals perform similar tasks, there are large differences between them. It takes less time to become a paralegal, and there’s less education involved. However, you can’t earn as much as a lawyer because you don’t do the same things. With that, you can’t practice because you’re not licensed to do so.

Attorneys practice law and are compensated well for the work they do. However, it’s more expensive to become a lawyer, and you must pass various tests to become licensed. Whether you decide to be a lawyer or paralegal, it’s rewarding to work with clients, earn a living, and use your skills.

Those who have legal matters to attend to now should call Receive a free consultation to determine if you have a case and what it might be worth. Michael Ehline hires paralegals to assist with various tasks and supports people’s rights to choose their occupations based on what works well for them.