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Paralegals, legal assistants, and everything in between

What is the difference between a legal assistant and a paralegal, and how do you progress your career to the next stage? This is a question so often asked by enthusiastic law graduates looking to make their first step into a legal career. It’s also asked by many others at a more senior level and the honest answer is generally absolutely nothing! The terms are often interchangeable, with some law firms favouring one term over the other, but the reality is that a job description of either role will generally be almost identical.


A legal assistant or paralegal will take on a more complex and often fee-earning role than a legal secretary or legal administrator, who in turn will specialise purely in the administrative elements of a department. Paralegal and legal assistant duties typically involve preparing legal documents, research, providing quotes to clients, interviewing clients and witnesses, giving clients legal information, going to court, and sometimes managing their own caseload, as well as some administration.


The minimum requirement to secure a paralegal or legal assistant role will often be some legal qualification – whether that’s the GDL, LLB, LPC or CILEx qualifications. This position can be an important one within a legal team and is sometimes used as preparation for qualifying as a solicitor, as the work often mirrors that of a trainee or recently qualified solicitor. This fact can often be a bone of contention given paralegal / legal assistant salaries are often substantially lower than their qualified counterparts. Average salaries for law graduates seeking a paralegal role could be as little as £14,000 p/a, and rarely much more than £22,000 p/a outside of London. In fact, salaries for paralegals / legal assistants are often a lot lower than for legal secretaries.


Understandably, this is a frustrating issue for those that have worked incredibly hard and financed their way through law degrees, LPCs and other qualifications, but it’s partly about supply and demand. There are so many law graduates desperate to get their foot in the door with a law firm to get that elusive essential “experience”, that firms just don’t need to pay higher salaries at this level. Of course, once you have gained experience in this type of role you will be considered a greater asset and will therefore be able to command a higher salary. It is also considered to be the first step on the legal career ladder and, if successful, will result in progression and increases in pay. On the other hand, a legal secretary role is more static and there are fewer career options, unless you wish to invest in additional qualifications.


The other difficulty that can be encountered at this stage in a legal career is securing a role in a desirable practice area. There are certain practice areas that lend themselves to be more financially viable for the law firms to employ volume paralegals for, for example PI and conveyancing. These are often the roles that are on offer at law firms of all sizes, but it can then often be difficult for individuals to change practice areas. If you’re incredibly passionate about one practice area and are confident that is an area you would want to qualify into, my advice would be to really try and focus on securing your first role in that area of law. Moving practice areas isn’t impossible because you will have transferable skills, however it will often involve a salary cut.


The end game for the vast majority of paralegals and legal assistants is to qualify as a solicitor. Thanks to the new SQE route, there are now a number of ways in which this can be achieved:


  • SQE – requires a degree or equivalent, SQE 1 and 2 assessments, and 2 years’ qualifying work experience
  • Training contract – 2 years of training following completion of the LPC
  • CILEx – a slower route that allows you to work alongside gaining your qualifications

Which route is right for you will depend on a number of factors and is entirely subjective to individual circumstances. To decide on the best route for you I would highly recommend looking into all three in detail using the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and CILEx websites for guides.


For any queries relating to the above or for confidential advice on the paralegal, legal assistant, and CILEx job markets, I would be delighted to assist so please do get in contact with me.



DDI: 0117 917 1874

Mobile: 0792 189 5795


Briony Barber has amassed over 10 years of legal recruitment experience with Chadwick Nott built across South West England, South Wales and the Midlands. Her area of expertise is Paralegal and Chartered Legal Executive recruitment, as well as Secretarial and other Business Support roles within a legal environment. Prior to recruitment, Briony studied Law at Cardiff University and followed this with a role working as a Casework Manager.