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paralegal vs. law clerk

Law clerks and paralegals are two integral roles in the legal profession which provide valuable support and assistance within law firms and courtrooms. It is the work of these legal professionals that helps to ensure fair and efficient legal proceedings.

However, due to the number of similar and overlapping duties that law clerks and paralegals have, there is often confusion around the key responsibilities and nature of these two positions, and how they differ from one another.

For those considering a role in the legal profession, this lack of clarity around the two roles can make identifying the correct training program or educational route needed to start a career in the field all the more tricky.

In this article, we want to solve that problem. We’ll be clarifying exactly what’s expected from both paralegals and law clerks, and what sort of training you’ll need to undertake to land one of these two sought-after, rewarding, and varied legal roles.

What is a paralegal?

A paralegal supports a lawyer or legal team by performing tasks such as data entry, answering the phone, organizing and filing documents, and preparing for court hearings. In Ontario, licensed paralegals have a special status which means that in addition to this work, they are also allowed to represent clients independently in certain legal matters.

paralegal representing client

 

What is a law clerk?

The primary function of a law clerk is to relieve a lawyer of routine legal and administrative tasks. They work under the direct supervision of a lawyer or team of lawyers, providing valuable support with case research, trial preparation, and practice management.

Training requirements

Despite the similarities in the duties of paralegals and law clerks, there are several differences in the job training and licensing needed for those wishing to launch a career in one of these fields. It’s also worth noting that training requirements for these roles can also vary from employer to employer.

Paralegal

In Canada, paralegal licensing law stipulates that aspiring paralegals must complete an accredited paralegal education program. Those wishing to enter the profession can choose from either a certificate program, a diploma, or a degree.

Certificate programs

Paralegal certificate programs are typically undertaken over the course of a year and are often designed with working people in mind. Courses can be completed online, in the evenings, or at the weekends to accommodate the different lifestyles and commitments of those hoping to change careers later in life.

Diplomas

Paralegal diplomas are courses made available to aspiring paralegals who have already completed some post-secondary coursework or have proof of work experience in the legal field. Paralegal diplomas can usually be completed in around two years.

Degrees

Paralegal degrees include both general education courses and paralegal specific courses. Degrees can usually be earned in four years from accredited universities or educational establishments.

Law clerk

For those hoping to become law clerks in Canada, there are certificate programs and college diploma courses available to provide the specific training needed to land a job.

College diploma

A college diploma to become a law clerk typically takes two years and is a full-time course of study. Upon completion, students receive a diploma as a law clerk and can then apply for their licence.

Certificate program

A more flexible option is to take a certificate program to become a law clerk. A certificate program usually takes around 51 weeks, and equips students with the everyday skills required to perform office procedures under a lawyer’s direction. Upon completion, students receive a diploma enabling them to work as a law clerk in different areas of the legal field.

Flexibility and scope of work

 

paralegal law clerk job duties

There is a wide range of tasks and activities expected of paralegals and law clerks working both independently and within law firms which make these roles varied and impactful to those with the right training and skills to perform them.

Let’s take a look at the flexibility and scope of work for paralegals and law clerks.

Paralegal

Although paralegals are primarily concerned with supporting lawyers, there are numerous activities they need to perform in order to fulfill this overarching role.

Some responsibilities paralegals might be expected to perform:

  • Taking witness statements
  • Interviewing clients and relaying important information to senior colleagues
  • Researching to support cases
  • Submitting applications to a judge
  • Assisting the lawyer in court case preparation, potentially presenting/writing the open and closing arguments for a case
  • Managing client caseloads and filing documents
  • Drafting contracts, agreements, and formal communication
  • Administrative tasks such as answering the phone, replying to letters, and ordering office supplies

Law clerk

Law clerks undertake similar activities to paralegals but always under the supervision of a lawyer. Their tasks generally include:

  • Interviewing clients and witnesses
  • Collecting together documents, preparing trial briefs, and organizing trials
  • Writing and preparing will documentation, real estate and employment contracts, trial reports, and other legal and transactional documents
  • Performing research to support the lawyers in court
  • Drafting legal communications
  • Performing office and administrative duties as required by the whole legal team

Career paths

The training required to succeed in both of these legal professions creates numerous work opportunities for skilled and motivated individuals. We’ve put together a list of alternative work environments where the expertise of paralegals and law clerks are needed that you may not have considered.

Related: 4 Traits Law Firms Look for When Hiring Legal Training Grads

Paralegal

Although many paralegals choose to set up their own practices, there are numerous other career paths open to those with these skills and qualifications.

Public sector

A paralegal can work in the public sector, in courthouses, as well as for provincial and federal departments. They can also offer their services to lobby groups or legal aid organizations.

Corporations

Large corporations also need paralegals. In this capacity, a paralegal might provide support to an in-house legal team, draft contracts, mergers and acquisitions, or offer assistance with licensing and trademarks.

Private law firms

Another option for paralegals is to work within a private law firm, supporting a lawyer (or team of lawyers) with research and administration in relation to court proceedings.

Law clerk

Those holding a law clerk qualification have numerous work environments to choose from when deciding on their career path.

Here are just some of the places a law clerk might choose to build his or her career.

Legal firms

A law clerk can provide routine administrative and legal support to a single lawyer, or to a large team within a legal firm. In this role, depending on the size of the company, there may be a whole team of law clerks, both junior and senior, supporting the company.

Commercial and industrial corporations

Law clerks working for corporations ensure the company complies with regulations and meets its filing requirements. A law clerk may also be asked to provide support to other departments like public relations, advertising, or marketing, particularly when a company is making large-scale public announcements.

Local, provincial, and federal governments

Law clerks who work in the public sector support agencies in ensuring internal procedures and practices are adhered to.

Salary

Having clear expectations of your earning potential in a particular role is an important part of the decision-making process when considering a new career. Let’s take a look at what you might earn in each of these roles, at both junior and senior levels.

Paralegal

Recently qualified paralegals in Canada can expect a starting salary of $35k per year. This can rise to as much as $73k per year depending on an individuals’ experience and number of years in the field.

Law clerk

Law clerks in Canada earn on average $49K per year, and for those with a number of years experience working at a senior level, salaries can reach $71k per year. However, it’s important to note that for those who are recently qualified, or in their first few years of practice, salaries are typically closer to $40k per year.

How to become a paralegal

Many states in Canada require you to become licensed in order to work as a paralegal. Here’s how to get the education, qualifications and license you need.

  • You’ll need to graduate from an accredited paralegal training or certificate program, as well as complete the required field placement.
  • Next, you’ll need to apply for a license. To gain your license, you’ll need to:
    • pass the Law Society licensing examination
    • complete an application for a P1 license.

Candidates have three years to complete all of these steps.

How to become a law clerk

Here are the steps you’ll need to take to qualify and work as a law clerk in Canada.

  • Complete a full-time college course to obtain a diploma as a law clerk, or complete a certificate program and pass one (or all four) of the provincial law clerk examinations.
  • Unlike paralegals, law clerks are not required to pass a licensing exam. Once training has been completed, graduates can begin applying for law clerk positions immediately.

Conclusion

desk for a paralegal or law clerk

While paralegals and law clerks undertake similar supportive tasks their roles and training have distinct differences. In addition to supportive legal roles, licensed paralegals are allowed to represent clients independently and set up their own practices, while law clerks will always work under the direct supervision of a lawyer or team of lawyers.

As we have seen, there are numerous similarities and differences in the education, careers, and working environments of paralegals and law clerks. We hope we have provided clarity on how these two professions differ, and what you can expect from a career in either field. Before you decide on an educational option, be sure to know what you want out of your career in law, and take the time to research the areas you’ll have to study in order to land the specific role you’d like to pursue.