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What is a Paralegal?

Definition of Paralegal v. Legal Assistant

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Male lawyer with documents in meeting
Cultura RM/Matelly / Collection Mix: Subjects / Getty Images

There is much confusion regarding the terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant”. While these titles are often used interchangeably, the roles of paralegals and legal assistants have become more separate and distinct over the years.

The term "paralegal” is widely understood to describe a person qualified through education, training or work experience to perform substantive legal work and whose work, in the absence of a paralegal, would be performed by an attorney.

The term “legal assistant” is a common title for a legal secretary or paralegal assistant. Many law firms have re-titled legal secretaries as “legal assistants” so they can bill certain tasks of the secretary (such as drafting correspondence or organizing documents) to clients.

These two terms - “paralegal” and “"legal assistant” - are still used synonymously in the legal industry. However, the growing trend is to use the title of “paralegal” for educated and/or certified employees who perform substantive legal tasks.

In the past decade, the title of “legal assistant” has expanded to describe the roles of legal secretaries, law clerks and paralegal assistants.

Many law firms still call their paralegals “legal assistants”. However, the trend is to use the term paralegal” to avoid confusion with secretarial and other legal support roles. Surveys of the paralegal industry have revealed an overwhelming preference by paralegals for the title of “paralegal” over “legal assistant”.

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