Updated January, 2021
Know you want to pursue a legal career, but can't decide between paralegal and legal assistant training?
If you live in Ontario, there are several important differences between these two legal careers. In this post, we cover four of the most significant distinctions: training requirements, typical responsibilities at work, career options, and provincial licensing rules.
After exploring what sets these two professions apart, we hope students will have a clearer sense of which path suits them best.
Length of Training
One of the most obvious differences between these two legal careers is the length of time it takes to earn a diploma. While program duration may not be a deciding factor for some students, it's helpful to know that paralegal training takes at least 12 months to complete, while legal assistant programs usually run for about 9 months.
In order to accelerate training, both paralegal and legal assistant programs tend to be intensive—meaning they require students to attend several hours of class each day during the week (usually about 20 hours per week of class).
Scheduling varies across colleges, and some may offer evening or weekend options, but no matter which legal program you choose, you can expect to really dive into study for those 9 or 12 months.
Scope of Practice
The disparity in program length highlights the most important difference between paralegals and legal assistants: scope of practice.
In Ontario, paralegals can actually represent clients in small claims court and before certain tribunals (such as the Human Rights, Landlord and Tenant, Immigration and Refugee, and Workplace Safety tribunals).
As such, paralegals are prepared to handle cases independently from start to finish. Their training covers all of the legislation, legal practices, and procedures relevant to the areas of law in which they can legally practice in Ontario.
On the other hand, legal assistants are trained to provide administrative support to lawyers—or paralegals. They work at private law firms, corporate legal departments, and in government, ensuring daily operations run smoothly.
In addition to administrative work (such as maintaining files and scheduling appointments), legal assistants often help prepare legal documents, court reports, real estate transactions, and wills. They may also assist a lawyer, or several lawyers, with case research.
Provincial regulation is another key area of difference between these two legal careers. In Ontario, paralegal is a regulated profession. This means that after earning a paralegal diploma, students must pass a licensing exam administered by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Paralegals cannot practice in the province without first passing the exam and becoming members of the Law Society.
Legal assistants do not have to take this additional step after completing training, as their profession is not regulated in Ontario.
Opportunities for Entrepreneurship
Envision becoming your own boss some day? Because they are trained to represent clients independently in certain areas of the law, paralegals can open their own private practice, or partner with other paralegals to start a firm. Many paralegal grads take this route and become entrepreneurs.
Legal assistants do not have this option, as they are trained to collaborate with and support lawyers, and cannot represent clients on their own.
What's the bottom line?
Paralegals must invest more time in training and licensing, but enjoy the satisfaction of practising law independently, and possibly even starting their own business.
Legal assistants don't have to spend as much time in school, and can still enjoy playing a key role at a law firm or legal department. However, their scope of practice is limited to supporting lawyers and paralegals.
Both of these legal careers are fast-paced, demand excellent analytical and communication skills, and a genuine desire to help others.
If you're struggling to choose between paralegal and legal assistant programs, here are a few things to consider:
- the role you wish to play in the legal system
- the depth of study you wish to undertake
- whether you're interested in starting a business
- whether you want to represent clients directly, appear in court, argue cases, etc.
Looking for more guidance on which legal career is right for you?
Start by speaking with an Admissions Advisor. Click below to explore the accredited Paralegal program offered at our Toronto campus and chat live with an Advisor.