A lawyer (or attorney/counsel) is professionally licensed to advise and represent others in legal matters. Lawyers have studied the law—at law school in most scenarios—and have been admitted to the State Bar Association where they practice. Typically (but definitely not always), lawyers attend a 3-year law school after having completed a bachelor’s degree for a total of at least 7-years of post-high school schooling.
A paralegal is professionally trained to assist lawyers and cannot give legal advice or represent others. Instead, a paralegal has to work under a licensed attorney. In most states there is no specific schooling requirement, but you are unlikely to get a paralegal job without at least an Associate’s degree, ideally in a field such as paralegal studies. Most employers prefer, or even require, applicants to have a Bachelor’s degree though the specific degree matters less.
Lawyers and paralegals work in the same field, often work closely together, and even work on the same cases and problems. Both Lawyers and Paralegals have to have strong communication, interpersonal, organizational, and research skills.
The biggest three differences are training, responsibility, and income. In order to really help you make the decision if you should become a lawyer or a paralegal and learn about each as careers, we can dive more into those three differences.
First, the training/schooling required to do the job. Except in a few states, lawyers have to go to law school, and they need a bachelor’s degree to do so. This means paying for college and then paying for law school. On the other hand, Paralegals often have a Bachelor’s degree and only need an Associate’s degree.
Next, lawyers have more responsibility than paralegals. Paralegals always work under lawyers and do not represent clients directly. This means that only lawyers represent people in court, so if you will never see a paralegal speaking on someone’s behalf in front of a judge.
Finally, earning potential. Highly paid lawyers make more than highly paid paralegals. Also, the average lawyer makes more than the average paralegal. However, there are plenty of paralegals that make more than plenty of lawyers, and that is before you even consider the fact that lawyers have to pay for law school.
The question we get the most is about who makes more money, lawyers or paralegals, so I will expand a little on that. The short answer is that overall lawyers make more money than paralegals. A slightly more thorough answer is that many paralegals make more money than private sector and public service attorneys.
You might be asking yourself: “But how? Lawyers make a TON of money.” Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. Shows like Suits and jokes about lawyers have created this skewed perception that everyone who goes to law school makes hundreds of thousands of dollars as soon as they graduate. In reality it is only a small fraction of law school graduates who make that kind of money. Also, lawyers have to go to law school and pay for it! This means that on average someone is out of work for 3 years when they are in school plus they (probably) have to borrow money to go which has to be paid back. AND this assumes that they pass the bar and get a job, which is a pretty low percentage of graduates at many schools.
In order to get a little more detailed, let’s compare the decision for someone who already has a bachelor’s degree and is deciding between becoming a paralegal or going to law school.
For the example we will use the nationally average paralegal income, from paralegal411, and compare that to the median person who goes to a lowly ranked, but still ABA accredited, law school. For this example we will use Campbell University.
So what is the outcome? The average paralegal makes $1.2M over 20 years of working while a median student from a lowly ranked law school makes $1.4M. There is some math and an explanation at the bottom of this article if you are interested.
So the Lawyer does make more money, but not that much over the course of 20 years, AND the paralegal had made more total money all the way up to year 15 when you subtract out debt payments.
Money isn’t everything. This comparison is not meant to push you towards being a paralegal. Instead, it is simply there to compare the options, and to question the assumption that many Americans have that going to any law school means you are going to be living like Harvey Specter from Suits, and therefore that it is always the best choice.
For both paths we assume that they get a 5% raise every year which aligns with the data available. We assume that the median lawyer passes the bar (even though only 90% did in 2021), we assume that the person finds a job as a lawyer (even though only 35% did in 2021), and we assume that the lawyer took out loans (like 82% of the grads do), that they have the average amount of debt, and that they have federal loans so it is about a 6% interest rate.
I am the half of LSD that didn't take the LSAT, or go to law school (Sorry about that). But I did go to MIT business school while surrounded by law students and lawyers, so I am somewhat qualified to talk about the intricacies of law school apps and finances.
Windsor (the dog) didn't write this but he WAS a Resident Tutor and career advisor at Harvard College with me, so deserves some credit.