By Sarah Stevenson
If you're considering an online paralegal degree as the next step in your education, you might be a bit confused by the terms "legal assistant" and "paralegal," which are often used interchangeably. What's the difference as far as your career is concerned?
The truth is, as far as technical definitions go, the two sound nearly identical—the American Bar Association defines both a legal assistant and a paralegal as a person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.
But the fact is, even those in differing fields such as legal secretaries have acquired the moniker of legal assistant, even though their focus usually remains on more administrative tasks such as recordkeeping and correspondence. To confuse things further, many legal assistants and secretaries do perform some of the same jobs as a paralegal.
What, then, are the day-to-day tasks of a paralegal? Essentially, it could be anything that a lawyer assigns to you, as long as it falls outside the scope of directly practicing law. Here's a short list of typical responsibilities:
- Help lawyers prepare for hearings and trials by investigating the facts of a case and conducting research into relevant laws, articles and legal decisions
- Prepare reports, legal arguments, draft motions, tax returns and other documents
- Use specialized computer software for legal research, billing and other tasks
- Conduct investigations and interviews under the lawyer's supervision
Of course, your daily routine will also depend heavily on where you work and whether you earned an online paralegal degree in a particular specialty.
An online paralegal degree can be a great choice if you're looking for a program with flexible hours and the ability to learn outside of a traditional classroom setting. More and more schools are offering accredited online paralegal programs at the certificate, associate's degree and bachelor's degree levels.
Why the focus on accreditation? It isn't simply an issue of prestige, but one of educational value. If you earn your online paralegal degree from an institution that has been properly accredited, you can ensure that it meets U.S. Department of Education standards of quality and rigor.
Because a properly trained paralegal can be highly valuable to a business or a law practice, job prospects should be good, if you have the right education and experience. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook, job growth through 2024 is expected to be 8 percent growth, which is about as fast as average. However, it's also a very competitive field. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.
Besides earning an online paralegal degree, one of the best ways to increase your marketability and leave the competition behind is to acquire professional certification, such as the Certified Paralegal (CP) credential granted by the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA).
Sources: National Association of Legal Assistants.