Scales of Justice - metaphor for legal studies

What’s the Difference Between Paralegal and Legal Studies?

These two terms sound similar, but they are for two very distinct roles in the legal system.

Paralegal studies and legal studies are both part of the legal field. However, paralegal studies prepare students to become a paralegal; legal studies are a broad overarching term that can include many paths, including studying to become a lawyer, or paralegal programs, or both.

Because law school is a long and arduous process, some students begin their legal career by earning a paralegal certificate, with the option to pursue law school afterwards.

To learn more about the distinctions between legal studies and paralegal studies, read onwards, as we explore the similarities and differences of each.

What is a Paralegal?

Paralegals do legal preparation work under the supervision of an attorney, but a paralegal is not allowed to give legal advice or practice law. The supervising attorney is responsible for the work the paralegal does for them. Usually, the paralegal does various clerical, legal preparation, and administrative work that help attorneys prepare for a case or to file documents with the court.

According to the American Bar Association,

“A paralegal is 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 and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”

Paralegal vs Lawyer

There is some overlap in what lawyers do and what paralegals do on a daily basis. They both can do legal research, prepare legal documents, or write reports. Typically, paralegals do much of the preparation work, while only lawyers are allowed to practice law or advise clients.

Lawyers can appear before judges in hearings, select and present to jury members, or examine witnesses. Paralegals cannot do any of these things. Paralegals do the majority of their work behind the scenes, preparing documents and conducting research for a case. The supervising lawyers are responsible for the work the paralegal does, so this offers some protection to the paralegal if a negative outcome occurs. Lawyers are also allowed to sign legal documents and set fees, while paralegals are not.

Differences Between Paralegal Programs and Law School

The path to becoming a paralegal is much quicker than the journey towards becoming a lawyer. Paralegal studies programs are usually no more than two years. Law school is usually a minimum of three years, on top of the four years it takes to earn an undergraduate degree. Law school students must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) after earning their Bachelor’s degree in order to attend law school.

Lawyers are also required to pass the bar examination after law school to practice as an attorney. Paralegals must graduate from an accredited paralegal studies program and pass a certification exam. It usually takes about two years to become a paralegal, and at least seven years to become a lawyer.

Paralegals vs Legal Secretaries

Paralegals can perform a wide range of legal preparation duties, as well as clerical and administrative tasks. Legal secretaries usually only perform clerical duties. Another key difference between paralegals and legal secretaries is that paralegals usually have an Associate’s degree or higher, while legal secretaries can work with only a high school diploma in most states. Because of these differences, paralegals usually earn more than legal secretaries.

Coursework for Paralegal Studies

Some of the things that students learn in Paralegal Studies include:

  • Legal Terminology
  • Legal Analysis and Writing
  • Ethics
  • How Litigation Works
  • Personal Injury Torts
  • How to Conduct Legal Research
  • Contract Law Principles
  • Administrative Law

Is Paralegal Studies a Difficult Program to Complete?

The requirements to become a certificated paralegal may vary from state to state. In California, paralegal studies students must complete a Paralegal Studies program of at least 24 credits, finish an ABA-approved paralegal program, or have one year of paralegal experience after earning a Bachelor’s degree in any field.

Most paralegal studies programs are about two years in length, as there are many things to learn, but four year paralegal programs are uncommon.

What Are Some Things You Can Do with a Paralegal Studies Certificate?

Earning your paralegal certificate allows you to work as an entry level paralegal in the licensing state. Most paralegals work in law offices, with a substantial number also working in government, corporate law, or real estate law.

Take The First Steps Towards Becoming a Paralegal

The A.A. Online Paralegal Studies program at MTI College is open to students residing in California who have already completed 54 quarter units (36 semester units) in general studies and business from an accredited institution and have an Associate’s degree or higher. This fully online program will let you fast track your education to becoming a paralegal in California. For more details, or to talk directly to our friendly Admissions department, call (916) 339-1500 or fill our contact form today. A representative from MTI College will be in contact with you shortly afterwards.

If you reside in the Sacramento area, you can also attend our Paralegal Studies Associates Degree program, in our OnlinePlus format. This format allows student to complete most coursework online, with minimal in-classroom required days. Our Admissions team can give you details on our paralegal programs.

Want to learn more about MTI’s programs?

Our admissions team will help you find the perfect program to meet your goals. Financial aid is available to those who qualify.

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