Paralegal vs. Legal Assistant: Key Differences and Who to Hire

Law firms require a wide range of personnel to operate smoothly. However, for those with limited budgets for hiring, it’s important to make the right choices when it comes to staffing. One question you might be asking yourself is whether you should hire a paralegal or a legal assistant. The roles sound similar (and there is some overlap), but they’re not the same. Which is right for your firm?


Let’s start with a discussion of what a paralegal does and how this staff member might benefit your law firm. Paralegals have specialized legal training and education, including a college degree, which might be in paralegal studies or a field related to it. They’re often members of professional organizations, too.

When it comes to tasks within your law office, you can expect a paralegal to focus on things like research and legal tasks. While they’re prohibited from providing legal advice, they can create contracts, interview witnesses, handle case prep, help with trial prep, and a lot more. The bulk of a paralegal’s time is usually spent doing substantive research that cannot be done by someone who is not a credentialed legal professional and would otherwise fall to you, the attorney. This helps save a considerable amount of time you could be spending on other essential, billable work. 

In short, a paralegal is a valued part of your legal team, not just a member of your office staff. 

Legal assistants

Now let’s turn to legal assistants. Unlike paralegals, legal assistants usually have no formal education relating to law or legal studies. They’re also called legal secretaries, and as the name suggests, their focus is more on the administrative side of things. They’re important parts of your larger team but don’t usually handle legal matters. 

Some of the roles a legal assistant might handle within your firm include less substantive research, drafting some legal documents, handling files/filing, answering phones, making appointments, helping with trial prep where appropriate, coordinating with other legal professionals, and providing crucial support for attorneys, paralegals, and the rest of the team.

As you can see, a legal assistant is an essential member of your team, but they play a very different role from a paralegal. You might think of a legal assistant as being closer to an administrative assistant, with some legal experience.

Which is right for your office?

Assuming you don’t have the budget to hire both a paralegal and a legal assistant, which is the better choice for your specific firm? Here are a few tips to help you choose between the two.

Identify your primary pain point

The most important thing to do is determine where you need help the most. Are you struggling to answer all the calls you receive? Are emails going days without a reply? Are you missing appointments with expert witnesses? If that sounds familiar, a legal assistant is probably the best bet for you.

On the other hand, if you’re routinely bogged down with in-depth legal research to the point that you can’t handle your caseload, a paralegal might be the better choice. The same thing applies if you need a qualified individual to handle document creation, draft contracts, prepare notices for discovery proceedings, or interview clients.

Determine your budget

While the roles of paralegal and legal assistant aren’t identical, there is some overlap. Take a look at your hiring budget and realize that paralegals usually command higher compensation rates than legal assistants, thanks to their education, credentials, and experience. 

Depending on your budget, you may need to consider a compromise. For instance, what tasks could a legal assistant take off your shoulders so that you can focus on more important matters? It might mean that you need to handle legal research but don’t have to worry about answering the phone or booking appointments. It’s not an ideal solution, but sometimes tradeoffs are necessary. You can then look at hiring a paralegal as your business grows and your hiring budget increases.

Study the client experience

Your law firm cannot succeed if you cannot provide a positive client experience. What’s it like for clients to work with your firm? Is communication lacking? Does it take you a long time to handle case-related tasks? 

Depending on the client experience, you may be better off hiring either a paralegal or a legal assistant. The ideal option is to choose the staff member that would allow you to make the biggest difference in the client experience. Remember – your clients remember how they felt working with you just as much as they remember the outcomes you deliver.

A path forward without compromise

Law firms with limited hiring budgets traditionally face a compromise. They can’t afford to hire both a legal assistant and a paralegal, so they make the best of a difficult situation. It doesn’t have to be this way. A legal answering service can handle many of the tasks traditionally assigned to a legal assistant for much less, allowing you to hire a paralegal while ensuring that you also have experienced help with the administrative side of things.

For instance,’s experienced virtual receptionists can handle a wide range of tasks that you’d usually assign to your legal assistant. That includes answering the phone, replying to emails, collecting information from leads, taking messages from existing clients, and more. 

However, we can do more than what an in-office legal assistant could offer. We can offer 24/7 answering, so you never miss a call even if it comes in after hours or on a holiday. We can also provide warm phone transfers, instant outbound calls to improve your speed to lead, and robust call intelligence and metadata so you can make more informed decisions about your inbound marketing.

To learn more, schedule a consultation or reach out to

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Written by Tom Armitage

Tom Armitage is a Senior Marketing Manager with

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