The terms “lawyers,” “attorneys,” and “paralegals” get bantered around as if there is no difference. Then some countries use the terms “barrister” and “solicitor.” Lastly, there are “legal assistants” and “legal secretaries.” What do all these terms mean? Are they essentially the same? For example, is there a difference between a lawyer and a paralegal?
Lawyers and paralegals are people who studied law. Lawyer is technically a catch-all term for anyone that has studied law. Attorneys are licensed by the American Bar Association (ABA) or their country’s licensing board. Attorneys study law longer than a paralegal. A paralegal has no formal licensing.
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The regulations surrounding attorneys and paralegals differ between countries. In addition, inside the United States, there are differences between states. This is because different states have different laws on many matters, including divorce. But generally, a paralegal must work with a licensed attorney for their work to be valid in the eyes of the law.
What is a Lawyer?
The term “lawyer” is often used synonymously with “attorney” as a licensed legal representative of the law. This usage of “lawyer” in reference to an attorney is especially common in the United States, where the American Bar Association (ABA) defines the term as equal to an attorney.
However, technically speaking, a lawyer is only someone who has studied the law. Outside of the United States, there are places where people can call themselves a lawyer, and they are not licensed. Inside the US, a lawyer can be someone who has graduated from law school and has yet to have passed the bar exam.
Lawyers that have yet to pass the bar exam are supposed to work with or for a licensed attorney and not practice alone. Thus, those seeking an attorney would be best to look for a firm or practice with a licensed attorney, sometimes written as “attorney-at-law.” In other countries, you need a solicitor or barrister.
What is a Paralegal?
A paralegal is somebody who has studied the law. There are no national set requirements in the United States. However, the American Association for Paralegal Education (AAfPE) does have guidelines that they should have a minimum of 19 paralegal class semester credit hours.
The ABA prefers that paralegals have gone through programs either at a two-year community college or a four-year degree.
Each firm has its set requirements on what a paralegal’s qualifications need to be to work for them. For example, most US firms require paralegals to have had some internship experience before being considered qualified for a proper position.
Common paralegal associations that have education and certificate requirements:
- American Alliance of Paralegals
- National Federation of Paralegal Associations
- National Association of Legal Assistants
- The Association for Legal Professionals
Some US states do require paralegals to take a competency examination to practice legally. These states include Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.
What Does a Paralegal Do?
Paralegals assist licensed attorneys by drafting legal documents, performing research, and performing day-to-day duties. As a result, they are valuable assets in case preparation and work long hours. In addition, they assist in keeping everything on schedule in the run-up to interviews, depositions, and court appearances.
However, paralegals cannot legally provide advice to clients or represent them. A licensed attorney must then approve any prepared document by a paralegal to be legally valid.
What are Paralegal Firms?
Technically, a paralegal firm can only assist in filling out preexisting forms and providing information regarding the preexisting forms. Legally, paralegals cannot advise clients directly, represent a client, or prepare original documents. Thus, while paralegals are cheaper than attorneys, their ability to assist is severely limited.
What is an Attorney?
An attorney-of-law is someone who has studied the law, graduated from law school, and passed the bar exam. They are licensed to practice law, including drawing up legal documents and advising and representing clients. Like medicine, the scope of the law is wide and varied. Thus, attorneys tend to specialize within their fields, such as family law and criminal law.
There can be overlap of specialties. For example, an attorney who practices family law often will take bankruptcy cases for individuals, families, and perhaps small businesses. Attorneys that focus on bankruptcy generally take on medium-to-large business and corporate cases.
When an attorney or firm’s case strays outside their expertise, an expert within that specific specialty might be consulted.
Again, the types of law an attorney may specialize in is extensive. Examples include:
A focus on animal law involves dealing with veterinarian malpractice cases or wrongful death. Other issues are dog bite defense, landlord-tenant disputes (in regards to animals), estate planning (again, regarding animals), animal cruelty, and purchasing disputes.
The clients an attorney practicing animal law may represent:
- Animal Welfare Organizations
- Animal Service Providers
- Conservation Groups
- Pet Owners
Accident and Personal Injury
Accident and personal injury attorneys are the people who help those who have been injured through no fault of their own. A lot of their work is to gain compensation for the victim to help with medical costs and loss of employment or wages. Even those individuals who do not wish to sue may be forced to obtain legal representation to get their insurance to payout.
Examples of accident and personal injury cases include:
- Traffic Accidents
- Workplace Injuries
Bankruptcy attorneys specialize in clients that cannot pay their debts. Clients can be individual people, businesses, or even large corporations. The paperwork and laws pertaining to bankruptcy can be incredibly complex and usually require legal assistance to navigate
Business and Corporate
Business and corporate attorneys focus on laws that pertain to these entities. For example, this could be on employment law, property, negotiating acquisitions and sales, and overseeing contracts in several areas.
Hollywood loves showcasing attorneys working in criminal law. That said, the real deal is not as glossy as courtroom dramas and involves a lot more paperwork.
Criminal lawyers may deal with various matters, such as:
- Bail Bond Hearings
- Driving Under The Influence
- Drug Offences
- Sex Offences
- Violent Crimes
Divorce attorneys sometimes focus on divorce; others do it as part of their family law practice. Divorce attorneys advocate for their client’s interests and rights. This includes disputes over property, other assets, and children.
Attorneys that specialize in employment law might work for companies in-house, the government, and even unions. Employment attorneys might also assist companies or employees in an employee-employer-related lawsuit.
Attorneys practicing family law deal with laws and processes that impact families. This includes:
- Child Abduction
- Child Abuse
- Child Emancipation
- Custody Disputes
- Juvenile Delinquency
- Living Wills
- Prenuptial Agreements
- Spousal Abuse
Immigration attorneys work in a complex field. They work with those legally in a country trying to update visas or obtain citizenship. They also help those that do not have the legal paperwork to legitimize their status. Immigration attorneys may also work on cases of asylum.
Immigration attorneys often must act as mediators between their clients and the immigration authorities.
Native American Law and Tribal Rights
Native American law, also called tribal law, supersedes most state laws. Many Native American lands fall under the category of a sovereign nation. However, most federal laws do apply, regardless, except when they don’t. Confused? This is why Native American Law and Tribal Rights are a field that requires a specialist. It is fascinating and complex.
Whistleblower attorneys represent an individual, company, or government agency in regard to fraud. Whistleblowers are protected legally and might be owed monetary funds. Attorneys help ensure the whistleblower is protected and given their job back or compensated.
Whistleblower laws differ state by state, despite federal laws. Thus, it requires a skilled attorney in this field to know the rights of both the individual and those being accused of fraud.
Solicitor vs Barrister
Solicitors and barristers are both licensed legal practitioners. Both go to law school and must pass their country’s licensing exams. So they are the equivalent of an attorney in the United States. However, the two roles do have some significant differences.
What is a Solicitor?
A solicitor works directly with clients. They prepare documents and advise per their client’s needs. For example, when buying a house or drawing up a will, a solicitor would be the person to help with such legal matters. Solicitors also do a lot of research for cases.
Solicitors work in law firms and in-house, meaning they work in a legal department for a large company or government entity. Like US attorneys, they tend to specialize in certain areas of the law.
Solicitors are overseen by an organization in their country. For example, in the United Kingdom, that overseeing body is the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
What is a Barrister?
Barristers are often known for their wigs and robes that they wear during formal court appearances. A barrister represents individuals or organizations in the courts and various tribunals. They also prepare written legal advice.
Barristers are often self-employed unless working for the Crown Prosecution Service or in specialist originations. Solicitors generally hire barristers to act as the court representative. The barrister takes a solicitor’s case and creates a persuasive argument to achieve the client’s desired result.
Barristers, like US attorneys and solicitors, often specialize. Those that advocate in divorce courts, for example, are unlikely to work in the criminal courts. To work as a barrister in the United Kingdom, they must pass the Bar Practice Course (BPC).
Legal Assistant vs Legal Secretary
Legal assistants and legal secretaries are both valuable roles within a law firm or practice. Their roles can overlap with each other and, at times, a paralegal.
Legal assistants straddle the roles between a legal secretary and a paralegal. A legal assistant is a more administrative role within the law practice. Thus, the legal assistant does not have as much in-depth knowledge of the law as a paralegal.
Common duties carried out by a legal assistant:
- Administrative Support
- Data Entry
- Legal Support
Some paralegals start as legal assistants before obtaining a paralegal associate’s degree, which many firms do require.
Legal secretaries focus on the clerical side of the firm or practice. However, in some firms, a legal secretary is required to do legal assistant duties.
Common duties for legal sectaries:
- Client Correspondence
- Database Upkeep
- Phone Answering
- Transcription work
- Travel Arrangements
Do Judges First Have to be an Attorney?
Judges generally do have to be an attorney first. Regardless, judges need to gain a bachelor’s degree then go on to law school. After graduating from law school, the future judge will then need to pass the bar exam. Most judges then go on to be a practicing attorney before becoming a judge.
How Does an Attorney Become a Judge?
An attorney becomes a judge by either appointment or by being elected. However, each state has specific requirements that the attorney must have fulfilled before being eligible for either appointment or running in an election. For example, some states do not allow anyone under 35 to be a criminal appeals-court judge.
To be appointed, an attorney must either submit their name or have their name recommended. For certain posts, it is a politician that generally makes the recommendation.
For example, an attorney has to be nominated by the President of the United States to become a federal judge, such as a Supreme Court justice or a judge on the Court of Appeals. After the nomination, there is an approval process by the United States Senate.
For state appointments, it depends on the state and the position. For some states, an attorney can put their name forward through their state’s Bar Association. In other states, the application goes through the Governor’s office.
For some state appointments, the Governor or Bar Association can only approve your application to run for an appointment. In this case, the judge must run for election just like the local mayor.
Examples of types of judges in the United States:
Court of Appeals Judge
In the United States, there are thirteen Courts of Appeals. These judges listen to cases where the original verdict is being appealed. The Court of Appeals does not re-do or re-hear a case. Instead, the judge explicitly looks at the producers of the disputed trial and determines if it was carried out in a fair manner or if an error has been made.
As mentioned previously, federal judges are appointed by the President of the United States. If confirmed by the Senate, the appointment is for life.
US District Court Judge
There are 94 districts spread out over the 50 US states. Each district has judges appointed to it, the number of which is based on population.
To become a state judge, the attorney is elected or appointed by the state’s Governor.
State judge positions include:
- Family Court
- Immigration Court
- Juvenile Courte
- Probate Court
- Traffic Court
US Supreme Court Judge
This is the highest court of law in the United States. It is currently made up of nine justices. The appointment is for life. However, a justice can retire out of the position, should they choose.
Each year the Supreme Court takes on around 130 cases of the approximately 7,000 that are submitted.