Should I Be a Paralegal or a Lawyer?
Working as a paralegal and working as a lawyer both give you the opportunity to help clients, to participate in the U.S. legal system and to learn a deep understanding of the law. However, there are some significant differences between the two professions. When considering whether to be a paralegal or an attorney, it is important to understand those differences and to decide what career path best suits your personality and your lifestyle needs.
Paralegal vs. Attorney Responsibilities
Attorneys take on a great deal more responsibility than most paralegals. Paralegals are prevented by law from giving legal advice, as doing so constitutes “unauthorized practice of law.” Attorneys need to review case information, craft legal arguments, make predictions on how cases are going to turn out in order to advise their clients and act on behalf of their clients in a vast array of legal matters. Not all attorneys go to court, however, despite common misconceptions - transactional attorneys spend their careers advising clients on how to stay out of court.
Paralegals, on the other hand, support the work done by attorneys. Paralegals may spend a lot of their time doing legal research. While they don’t give legal advice or draw legal conclusions, they have to identify and summarize relevant case law for attorneys to review and they need to be able to present arguments on both sides of legal issues. In most offices, paralegals don’t do the same types of administrative tasks that secretaries do (such as typing letters for attorneys, etc.) but instead focus on practical legal work. Paralegals, therefore, also have a lot of responsibility and interesting work.
Which Job is Best Suited For You?
In deciding whether you want to become a paralegal or an attorney, think about the answers to the following questions:
-Do you enjoy going to school? Paralegal programs usually last two years or less and in some cases, you can train to become a paralegal in just a few months. Lawyers must first earn a bachelor’s degree and then must go on to take an additional three years of law school. The academic program is also extremely rigorous at law school and students are graded on a curve in most schools. If you don’t enjoy going to school and don’t do well in an academic environment, being a paralegal may be a better option for you.
-Are you good at taking tests? Not only do you have to take the LSAT to get into law school, but you also have to pass the Bar Exam to actually practice law. Passing the Bar Exam is extremely challenging (John F. Kennedy Jr. failed the New York Bar twice before finally passing) and if you don’t pass, you cannot practice.
-What type of work/life balance do you want? While some attorneys have a reasonable work/life balance, for many lawyers in large law firms, 80 or 90 hour weeks are standard. While you can start your own firm, this too requires a large investment of time. Working in small firms often gives you a better balance, but your income may suffer for the tradeoff. Paralegals normally have a more normally hourly schedule, whether they work for big firms or small ones.
-Are you good at soliciting business and attracting clients? To advance to partner in a big firm, or to start your own firm, you usually need to bring in new clients. If you aren’t comfortable selling yourself and your services, then you may be better off as a paralegal who supports an attorney rather than trying to be a rainmaker and bring in clients to a firm yourself.
-Do you want to be your own boss? By definition, paralegals generally must work for attorneys and support attorneys. When you are a lawyer, you work for clients of course, but you usually have more autonomy and more responsibility than paralegals do.
-How important is it to make a lot of money? The earning potential for top lawyers is higher than the earning potential for top paralegals- sometimes many times higher.
Ultimately, weighing all of the different advantages and disadvantages of each career path and considering them in light of your own strengths, weaknesses and life goals should help you to make a conclusive choice on which career path is best to pursue.