'Whereas lawyers cost $250-$750/hr, paralegals can perform some of lawyers' services and charge 5–10 times less'
When it comes to understanding the difference between law clerk, legal assistant, paralegal, lawyer, general counsel — it would be nearly impossible for an average person that consults a lawyer once or twice in their lifetime to know the difference.
Many people are used to calling all individuals practicing law “a lawyer”. Yet, there is a significant difference between the level of their education, expertise, what they can and cannot do, and, yes — how much they charge.
For a new client looking to hire a legal professional to notarize legal documents or to represent them in court, both hiring a lawyer and a paralegal could be valid, winning choices.
This article covers the difference between a lawyer and a paralegal in Ontario, Canada.
There are three educational pathways to become a paralegal in Ontario: a diploma program (2 years), a post-graduate certificate (1 year), or a degree (4 years).
Students may choose from a variety of courses and academic institutions recognized and accredited by the Law Society of Ontario.
While paralegals’ level of education, particularly their Degree, does not give them the same level of proficiency as a Bachelors of Law (LLB) or Juris Doctor (JD) would, paralegals still learn most required skills such as drafting contracts, representing clients in (small claims) court, and helping them with employment, landlord/tenant, or administrative matters, among many others.
To become a lawyer,a candidate would be required to complete a Bachelor of Law (LLB), a 4-year undergrad program, or a Juris Doctor (JD), a 3-year undergrad program.
Similarly to Paralegals, candidates in Ontario must attend a program within an academic institution accredited by the Law Society, to become a lawyer.
Prior to applying for Law School, prospective lawyers must complete the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Each law school accepts only a select number of students each year — usually those with the highest LSAT score.
In order to be practicing law, paralegals need to complete all the licensing examinations required by the Law Society of Ontario, after graduating from an accredited academic institution.
Specifically, aspiring paralegals must complete a P1 licensing exam in Ontario, which is a 7-hour multiple-choice test required to become a practicing paralegal.
After paying their membership dues, and covering various other fees (including insurance), a paralegal may start offering legal services, by joining a law firm, or by setting up their own organization.
For lawyers, the main licensing requirement is to pass a famous Bar Admission Exam.
This 7-hour test is split into 2 sections, and covers questions related to public law, criminal procedures, family law, civil litigation, real estate, business law, wills, trusts and estate administration, and planning. Both sections also take into account a candidate’s knowledge of ethics, and their ability to establish and maintain the relationship with a client.
Paralegals in Ontario are regulated and recognized by the Law Society of Ontario as legal professionals who can represent clients and provide a variety of legal services.
Although their scope is limited to only a few areas of the law, paralegals are valuable legal professionals that can help clients with the following matters:
- Small Claims Court (cases under $35,000);
- Provincial offenses under the Provincial Offences Act, such as fighting speeding or parking tickets;
- Administrative law matters, such as representing clients in front of the Landlord and Tenant Board or Workplace Safety and Insurance Board;
- Certain summary conviction criminal charges under the Criminal Code that take place within the Ontario Court of Justice (including shoplifting, trespassing, fines for up to $5,000 or 6 months in jail time)
- As of August 1, 2020, paralegals can also be appointed Notary Publics to notarize documents.
Unlike paralegals, practitioners licensed as lawyers are allowed to represent clients in all areas of the law. That includes all the services provided by paralegals, and more:
- Family law matters — such as divorce, custody, and separation;
- Criminal law in all levels of the court;
- Civil litigation in all levels of the court;
- Estate matters, such as drafting wills, power of attorneys;
- Real estate matters, including buying and selling commercial or residential properties;
- Administrative law matters, such as appearing in front of tribunals, defending human rights, and representing clients in landlord/tenant disputes;
- Notarizing documents.
Fees they charge
One of the sticking points of the legal industry is the fees that legal professionals charge their clients.
It’s not uncommon for a lawyer who recently passed the Bar Assessmentin Ontario to charge $250/hr. This fee only goes up with every year the lawyer is practicing in the field.
Lawyers are free to set their own hourly rates, and sometimes charge upwards of $500 — $750/hr in areas like Business Law.
This is because not only cases that require more senior lawyers in those areas are sometimes worth north of millions of dollars (think, corporate lawsuits), but because lawyers take on the risk of malpractice and bad legal advice with every new case, as well are required to pay administrative fees to their stuff and to keep their practice running.
Conversely, paralegals charge way-way less.
Paralegals that work for an organization (employed to help an organization rather than to perform client-facing work) earn between $50,000 and $90,000/year in Toronto, ON — or about $15 to $43/hr.
Paralegals that are representing clients, as either working for a law firm, or running their own private practice, may charge $50–$150/hr with only several years of professional experience, and between $150 and $250 with more than 10 years of experience.
Still, these rates are way below what a lawyer with comparable experience would charge for an identical legal request.
Should you hire a lawyer or a paralegal?
A client may choose to hire a lawyer through a law firm, or reach out directly to a paralegal through the paralegal’s private practice.
The decision to hire a lawyer vs. a paralegal depends on a variety of factors: nature of the legal services needed, seniority, experience, and connections required to address the issue, and the budget available to cover those legal needs.
In general, a paralegal is much cheaper than a lawyer with a comparable tenure. Whereas lawyers cost $250-$750/hr, paralegals can perform some of lawyers’ services and charge 5–10 times less, or $50–$250/hr.
Yet, paralegals cannot perform all the services that lawyers are licensed to. For example, family matters (divorce, separation, child custody) and estate services (wills, inheritance) will be outside of the scope of what a paralegal can normally provide.
The decision to hire a lawyer or a paralegal may come down to whether or not it’s a typical issue that falls under a paralegal’s scope. Examples include representing a client in a small claims court, drafting and reviewing typical contracts for business and employment, real estate documents, filing insurance claims, or notarizing documents. In this case, hiring a paralegal would allow solving a legal problem, without paying excessive legal fees.
For more complex issues, it would be recommended to hire a lawyer.