Wondering what the difference is between a paralegal and a legal assistant? You’re not alone. There is sometimes a bit of overlap between the responsibilities handled by professionals with these titles. Throughout much of Canada, some places will even use both titles interchangeably. However, since 2007, Ontario has regulated the paralegal profession, imposing new requirements on paralegals. This has resulted in significant changes between the work that legal assistants and paralegals do.
For those prospective students wondering about the differences between these two professions, here is a look at the two main distinctions between legal assistant and paralegal work in Ontario.
Throughout your career as a legal assistant, you may work with lawyers as well as paralegals. This is because in law offices, legal assistants are typically tasked with clerical work and various administrative duties. These can include scheduling, office organization, and coordinating tasks—all things that keep the office running smoothly. Legal assistants can also conduct legal research, and often write up reports meant to inform in-house lawyers on the details of a case. Lawyers can then use these reports to help develop strategies for dealing with cases, making legal assistants a valuable part of any legal team.
While paralegals do document preparation work as well, often the documents paralegals prepare are meant to be read by individuals outside of the office. These can be court officials, or professionals at other law firms. Licensed paralegals are also able to work independently, and in some cases might be allowed to represent clients in court.
Though both jobs sound similar, the work done by professionals with legal assistant training helps to make the office run more efficiently, and involves less of the stressful legal work paralegals deal with on a daily basis.
As a result of Ontario’s new regulations, paralegals who want to practice independently must be licensed in order to work in the province. To become licensed, a paralegal must first complete an accredited paralegal program in addition to passing a licensing exam. Then, they must apply to The Law Society of Upper Canada for licensing. Completion of all these steps takes time, and might not be ideal for students who are passionate about law, but might not want to spend several years as a student.
As the president of the Paralegal Society of Canada, Judi Simms, mentioned in an interview with The Globe and Mail, “They [paralegal students] have to graduate from an accredited college, either in paralegal studies or have a bachelor of arts in paralegal studies –it can be a two- or three-year program – and they will have had to have done their co-op hours, and then they pass an examination.”
On the other hand, a legal administrative assistant course, which can be completed in just nine months, provides all the necessary training for graduates to enter the workforce as a legal assistant. Through instructor-led courses and hands-on training, students learn everything from Microsoft Office Suite applications to legal research, report writing, and beyond. With that training, they graduate ready to work in law firms both big and small, as well as in land title offices and even government organizations.
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