While your lawyer might be the face of your case, they are seldom working alone. Behind any good lawyer is likely a legal team enabling the work and strong advocacy your lawyer brings to the table.
It’s likely your lawyer is well aware that he or she can’t juggle it all on their own and therefore they employ a support system in the shape of paralegals and legal assistants to make it all come together. Like they say in show business “there are no small parts,” which really couldn’t ring truer in the context of the law office. You might wonder what the difference is between a lawyer, a paralegal, and a legal assistant. This article should clear up any confusion!
What does a lawyer do?
Lawyers are legal advisors and advocates. There are in essence, two types of lawyers: barristers and solicitors. Barristers take on a more litigious role and are more forward facing. They represent their clients in disputes through arbitration, mediation, trial, etc. Criminal lawyers are predominantly barristers. Solicitors, on the other hand, are more transactional and often deal with matters outside of the courtroom. Either way, they are both educated the same and the distinction usually comes down to a lawyer’s own affinity.
Lawyers are regulated by provincial law societies and must adhere to each law society’s code of conduct. The different law society’s codes don’t change all that much from province to province and lawyers have strict duties to their clients such as solicitor-client privilege, duties of good faith practice, duties of candidacy and transparency, duties of disclosure, and an array of other ethical and moral duties. Lawyers must always, during their practice, be in good standing with the law society. In short, lawyers as your named representative are your key point of contact in dealing with a legal dispute and as you’ll see, paralegals and legal assistants enable, if not make possible, this relationship.
A lawyer’s education stream is the most extensive among the three types of legal roles discussed in this article. That is not to say your paralegals and legal assistants aren’t equally as equipped to practice their role but to say that the privileges and responsibilities of a lawyer are larger-scale.
To be a licensed lawyer in Canada, one must:
- Obtain an undergraduate degree – the bachelor’s degree can be in virtually any field – there exists a misconception that social sciences are the only path to law, however, law schools often appreciate multidisciplinary perspectives.
- Write the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) – The LSAT is an exam that tests a person’s reading comprehension abilities, analytical reasoning, and logical reasoning. The LSAT is scored on a scale between 120-180. Different law schools have different averages for admissions although they all sit around the mid to high 160s.
- Apply and attend law school – In order to qualify for bar membership in Canada (the lawyer licensing body) one must complete either a Juris Doctorate (JD) or a Bachelor of Laws Degree (LLB). Both of these take three years to complete making it at least 7 years of time spent in a classroom for most lawyers.
- Write the Bar Exam or complete a Bar Admissions Course – All lawyers must pass the Bar Exam or take a course equivalency. The Bar Exam is normally two 5-hour long exams (one solicitor and one barrister exam) and is often written before students begin their article (see below). The Bar Admissions Course is typically taken during a law student’s articling term. It is over 400 hours of work and covers an array of modules and topics.
- Article – Finally, all lawyers must complete an 8–12-month article with a law firm or other relevant employer accepted by the province’s law society. This is a law student’s opportunity for practical experience in the field before they became a licensed practitioner. Articles are overseen by each province’s law society and the lawyers and other legal professionals within the articling student’s firm.
As discussed above, a lawyer’s responsibilities can differ depending on whether they lean more into barrister or solicitor work. However, a lawyer’s commitment to his or her client must always adhere to the relevant provincial law society’s code of conduct regardless of their practice.
No lawyer’s day ever looks the same, but here are some of the main responsibilities of a lawyer:
- Advise clients on the law with respect to their rights and obligations.
- Represent clients in mediations, arbitrations, trials, etc.
- Researching legal precedents and gathering evidence.
- Preparing legal documentation such as factums, affidavits, applications, etc.
- Negotiate on behalf of clients.
- Uphold fiduciary duties to clients.
- Act as an executor, trustee, or guardian for a client.
Note that this list is non-exhaustive and there are many less obvious responsibilities your lawyer is likely to take on in your interest. Remember that your lawyer owes you an elevated duty of good faith and a fiduciary duty that may not be as strict as a paralegal or legal assistant.
What does a paralegal do?
Like lawyers, paralegals are also governed by provincial law societies. They too owe a duty of competence to their clients. Paralegals are also obligated to a duty to maintain confidentiality, to be transparent and candid, and cannot put themselves in a conflict of interest. Paralegals often work to assist attorneys with their legal duties, although sometimes they practice alone in a smaller legal capacity. They cannot represent clients in legal proceedings or offer legal advice. Often paralegals are more experienced in areas such as filing and completing legal documents, in administrative duties, and in handling smaller, less complex legal matters.
Generally, the requirement is that all paralegals complete a recognized paralegal education program, pass a licensing exam and submit a Good Character Form to their respective provincial law society. Similar to a lawyer, paralegals are regulated by provincial law societies. Typically, one must earn a certification from an accredited professional society. Often these are two-year long programs and earn the receiver a diploma, however, there are also 4-year bachelor’s programs in existence for paralegals. Education standards for paralegals can differ from province to province, however, a true paralegal will often have obtained a CLA (Certified Legal Assistant) certificate or a CP (Certified Paralegal) certificate.
Some responsibilities of a paralegal include the following:
- Client management such as correspondence, updates, conducting interviews, intakes, etc.
- Filing, documenting, revisionary work etc.
- Investigative duties
- Witness management
- Legal research
- Trial prep such as gathering evidence, assembling evidence, and preparing it for court.
This too, is a non-exhaustive list. Paralegals often take on many duties beyond this that are critical to the smooth operations of a law firm and its affairs.
What does a legal assistant do?
Often the terms paralegals and legal assistants are used interchangeably. Nevertheless, there is a distinction. A legal assistant position is often an entry-level job and does not require any level of education beyond a high school diploma. It is often that firms will offer on-the-job training. Legal assistants take on a more administrative job compared to their paralegal counterparts. However, often duties between the two positions can overlap. Typically, paralegals are a second point of contact past the client’s lawyer and a legal assistant will generally engage more surface levelly with clients through simply taking calls and messages, directing correspondence, scheduling, etc. Legal assistants, unlike paralegals, cannot normally explain substantive legal updates or concerns related to their client’s cases and most definitely are not entitled to offer any legal advice to a client.
As aforementioned, there generally aren’t any educational requirements beyond a high school diploma for becoming a legal assistant. With that said, firms often have experience prerequisites. A voluntary earning of a certificate in legal admin course may help leverage your candidacy. Nevertheless, it is common for firms to hire and provide on-the-job training so that they can mold their legal assistants to fit the needs of their specific firm to align with their systems and processes.
Some responsibilities of a legal assistant include the following:
- Administrative duties such as billing and payroll.
- Client correspondence including emails, taking calls, and managing voicemails.
- Data entry
- Legal documentation and filing
This list is non-exhaustive. Legal assistants take on many different roles and capacities depending on the firm they work for and the way their systems are managed and operated.
How do lawyers and paralegals work together?
Generally, and while there are exceptions to this rule, paralegals work in an assistive capacity and under the direct supervision of lawyers. A lawyer’s reputation is tied to a paralegal’s performance and therefore, it is an incredibly collaborative and co-dependent model. While paralegals can engage in independent legal work, this is rare and limited. Therefore, normally paralegals, as mentioned, will work directly with lawyers. Often there is one paralegal assigned to a few lawyers in a firm. Paralegals are there to assist lawyers in offsetting the weight of a lawyer’s numerous demands and are especially involved where the matter is of higher complexity.
Who should you hire for your legal matter?
In our humble opinion, you should hire lawyers who work with paralegals and legal assistants. A strong lawyer recognizes that representing clients to the best of his or her ability is not a one-man band and any lawyer who appreciates this notion, understands the importance of a solid team backing them. When you hire a lawyer bolstered by a team of professionals, you can find comfort in knowing that your lawyer has in place the support to do his or her job to the best of their ability and their processes are more likely to be streamlined, delegated, and efficient. At Strategic Defence, we work to honour every day, the hardworking and dedicated support staff who make our practice and our success possible!