Should You Become a Paralegal or a Law Clerk? 5 Key Differences

Updated June, 2021.

Toronto is an excellent place to start a legal career. The city is a major hub for law firms, lobby groups, community organizations and businesses, offering a wide range of employment options for a variety of legal professionals. 

Becoming a lawyer is not your only option. Toronto is full of successful paralegals, law clerks, legal assistants, and immigration consultants. 

Which path should you choose? 

In this post, we’re breaking down the main differences between two very popular professions: paralegal and law clerk (or legal assistant). 

Understand what these roles entail, and key distinctions between training requirements, job descriptions, where you can work, and licensing rules. 

Get a clearer idea of which legal career is right for you and exactly how to get started. 

 

1. Training Requirements: Paralegal VS Law Clerk

There are several key differences in the training requirements to become a paralegal versus a law clerk. The first is program length. 

Paralegal training is typically longer than law clerk training. At most schools, Paralegal is a 2-year program. Law Clerk typically takes about 1 year to complete. 

At Herzing, we offer an accelerated 12-month Paralegal program. It’s fast-paced and intensive, but offers a much quicker entry to the workforce. It all depends on your priorities as a student, and what other commitments you’re juggling outside of school. 

The other key difference is curriculum. Paralegal programs in Ontario are designed to prepare students for licensing with the Law Society of Ontario. The curriculum is based on the topics covered in the exam. 

These include all the areas of law you can practice as a licensed paralegal in Ontario, plus courses on managing an independent practice.

All accredited paralegal programs have the same curriculum, which includes: 

☑️ Statutes and By-Laws 

☑️ Torts and Contracts 

☑️ Small Claims Court 

☑️ Tribunal Practice 

☑️ Provincial Offences 

☑️ Criminal Summary Conviction Procedures 

☑️ Legal accounting 

☑️ Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) 

☑️ Consumer Protection Law 

☑️ Employment Law 

 

Law clerk training is much narrower in focus. Student learn legal office procedures, such as client billing, appointment scheduling, and administrative tasks.

The law clerk program also teaches students how to prepare legal documents related to real estate transactions, wills and estates, commercial law, and litigation proceedings. 

 

See a course list for accredited Paralegal training

 

 

2. Scope of Practice: Paralegal VS law clerk

Licensed paralegals have a special status in Ontario, which allows them to represent clients independently in certain legal matters.

Legal assistants and law clerks do not have this right. They work under the direct supervision of a lawyer, providing valuable support with case research, trial preparation, and practice management. 

A licensed paralegal can represent clients in small claims court, administrative tribunals, and for certain criminal matters.  

If you’ve dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but don’t want to spend years at university and law school, paralegal is an excellent alternative. 

Take a closer look here: Paralegal Versus Lawyer: 7 Main Differences 

 

3. Career Paths: Paralegal VS Law Clerk

The primary difference here is that licensed paralegals in Ontario can represent clients independently (similar to a lawyer). This means their career path may include starting a private practice or joining a firm of other independent paralegals. 

Many Toronto paralegal firms specialize in a specific area of practice, such as motor vehicle offences or landlord-tenant disputes.
 

Paralegals can also pursue careers with: 

☑️ Lobby groups  

☑️ Government agencies  

☑️ Corporate legal departments  

☑️ Non-profit organizations  

☑️ Law firms 

 

Law clerks cannot represent clients independently. But they certainly have a range of other career options, which include working at: 

☑️ Private law firms 

☑️ Corporate legal departments 

☑️ Government agencies and offices 

☑️ Financial institutions 

☑️ Real estate companies 

☑️ Court and registry offices 

 

4. Licensing: Paralegal VS Law Clerk

Law clerks are not required to pass a licensing exam. Once you complete your training program, you can get straight to work. 

On the other hand, paralegals who want to represent clients independently are legally required to get licensed. 

They must pass the Law Society paralegal licensing exam—a challenging, 7-hour multiple choice test. Candidates can attempt the paralegal licensing exam 3 times, over a 3-year period.  

It’s important to note that not all paralegal graduates choose to take the exam. More on this next. 

 

5. Employment Flexibility: Paralegal VS Law Clerk

Here’s the most important difference: Paralegals can work as law clerks and legal assistants, but law clerks and legal assistants cannot work as independent paralegals. 

Paralegals have greater employment flexibility. You have the option to get licensed and start your own practice—or join a law firm in a support role. 

In a support role, you would be assisting lawyers with trial preparation, case research, drafting legal documents, client interviews, and administrative tasks. 

We’ve had several recent graduates take this path. Sadique Alexander graduated from Herzing’s Paralegal program last year, and was offered a legal assistant position at a Toronto law firm. 

He now specializes in the area of personal injury. This topic isn’t included in paralegal training, but Sadique had a strong enough legal foundation to transfer his skills and knowledge to a new area of law. 

“I completed my internship in March 2019 at Diamond and Diamond Lawyers LLP. It was an interesting experience, because I chose to intern at a firm specializing in an area of law we didn't cover in the program (personal injury). 

I made this decision so I could gain more knowledge, and also test how well I could adapt the knowledge and skills I'd learned at Herzing. I was offered a permanent position at Diamond & Diamond Lawyers LLP before I even graduated from the Paralegal program. 

I accepted the position and joined the accident benefits department of the firm, working exclusively in the area of personal injury.” 

 

See Sadique’s complete review of the Paralegal program here: Meet Sadique Alexander: My Experience in the Paralegal Program at Herzing. 

It was a similar story for Majeeda Khan, who completed the Paralegal program at our Ottawa campus last year.

She graduated with honours and passed the paralegal licensing exam, but chose to join a law firm instead of launching a private practice. 

She started as an intellectual property clerk, and has since moved on to become a legal assistant at Smart & Biggar, Canada’s largest and highest-ranked intellectual property firm. 

“In my new role, I'll be assisting five lawyers...and I'm really excited to get started. Intellectual property is something new to me, but my paralegal background helps me understand what is going on in the litigation files.” 

 

Read the full story: Meet Majeeda: My Review of the Paralegal Program at Herzing 

 

Which legal career should you choose? 

Still not entirely sure which legal career to choose? Want to know more about training options?  

We strongly encourage you to speak with an Admissions Advisor. Narrow down the top 2-3 legal colleges in your area, and reach out to Admissions at each school. 

An Advisor is best qualified to explain the differences between legal programs, career paths, and which program would suit you best. 

This is also an excellent opportunity to learn about tuition costs, financial aid options, class schedules, and admission requirements for different legal programs. 

Get started by exploring the accelerated Paralegal program offered at Herzing College Toronto. This 12-month diploma is accredited by the Law Society and includes an internship. 

Chat live with an Admissions Advisor to discuss your options. Or click below to explore the program in more detail. We're here to help!

Learn More About Paralegal Training at Herzing