Should you hire a lawyer or a paralegal?

Explore the differences and similarities between a paralegal vs. lawyer in Canada. When do you hire a paralegal? When is a lawyer the better choice? If you’re unsure which one to choose, this article can help

Should you hire a lawyer or a paralegal?

Updated 07 March 2024

Paralegals and lawyers are important legal professionals in Canada who help people with their legal concerns. While each is a respected professional, one may still wonder about the difference between a paralegal vs. lawyer.

This article will discuss these distinctions between a paralegal vs. lawyer, including some of their similarities as to their education, licensing requirements, and work they do.

This article is especially for clients wondering whether to hire a lawyer, a paralegal, or both. Lawyers can also use this article as a client information piece to explain the difference between these legal professions.

What is the difference between a paralegal vs. lawyer?

Paralegals and lawyers are both professionals in legal practice who can perform similar tasks for their clients.

There are still certain differences as to these two, such as their education and licensing, their legal practice, the fees associated in hiring them, and how to find one.

Education and licensing

The education and licensing of paralegals and lawyers in Canada is one of the main differences between these two legal professionals.

Lawyers earn a law degree and are licensed by a bar association of the province or territory to practice law in their jurisdiction.

To become a lawyer in Canada, one must study an undergraduate Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) or Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree (or its equivalent when an international student wants to practice law in Canada).

Part of the process is completing the licensing process of the law society in the province or territory where they would want to practice law. It also includes the law society’s licensing examinations.

Hopeful lawyers must also complete an articling program, including an online professional responsibility and practice course.

On the other hand, paralegals are trained in subsidiary legal matters and have less training. They can still provide legal advice on specific legal areas.

In most cases, paralegals would have completed a legal services program, often at a community college or university.

The regulation of paralegal education applies only for some provinces. In Ontario, the program of the college or university must be accredited by the Law Society of Ontario (LSO). To become a paralegal in Ontario, one must also complete the LSO’s paralegal licensing process, including its examinations.

Learn more about the differences of a paralegal vs. lawyer in terms of licensing under the LSO:

For more resources and articles about becoming a lawyer or a paralegal in Canada, head over and bookmark our page on Legal Education.

Responsibilities and scope of work

Although both paralegals and lawyers can work in all legal practice areas, the scope of work that they can do also differs.

This is because of the differences in the level of training or licensing involved, including the laws and regulations governing these two professionals.

Lawyers’ scope of work

Lawyers are licensed to provide a full range of legal services – from preparing legal documents to representing clients in court and before administrative tribunals.

Some highlights of these legal services that lawyers provide are:

  • advising clients: lawyers can advise clients on the course of action they can take on all matters, in any legal practice area (e.g. family law, wills and estate, etc.)
  • legal documents: lawyers can draft and execute legal documents that can be used in and out of the court
  • court litigation: lawyers can represent clients on civil and criminal matters before all levels of court
  • administrative matters: lawyers can represent clients before tribunals or regulatory bodies for any administrative matters

Paralegals’ scope of work

Paralegals can practice independently or under the guidance of a lawyer, within a law firm, or as part of an organization.

Although they can do some legal work, the scope of work of paralegals is more limited compared to lawyers. Generally, paralegals can perform tasks that are either assigned to them by a lawyer, or as allowed by the law society of their province or territory.

Paralegals can at the very least do the following:

  • assist and interview clients and witnesses
  • investigate the details of the case
  • do legal research as part of the case build-up
  • collect documents from clients and witnesses
  • draft legal documents (e.g. pleadings, legal reports, memos)
  • assist lawyers during trials and other matters

For example, as provided by the LSO, here are some legal matters that paralegals are allowed to independently represent clients for:

  • small claims court
  • prosecution of provincial offences under the Provincial Offences Act
  • tribunals (e.g. Landlord and Tenant Board, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board)
  • some summary conviction criminal charges under the federal Criminal Code before the Ontario Court of Justice

Only Ontario licenses paralegals. All the other provinces and territories do not license paralegals, although their respective law societies regulate them at a certain level.

The work that paralegals can do may also be subject to certain conditions set by the provincial or territorial law societies.

For example, the Code of Professional Conduct for British Columbia of the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) provides that:

  • before employing a paralegal, a lawyer must first be satisfied that the paralegal has sufficient knowledge, skill, training and experience and is of good character
  • a supervising lawyer is professionally and legally responsible for the tasks they delegate to their designated paralegals

Finding a paralegal or lawyer

The methods of looking for a paralegal or a lawyer may be the same. However, there are also other ways that may only apply specifically to a paralegal or a lawyer.

Here are 2 ways for a client to find a paralegal or a lawyer:

Referrals

In most cases, word-of-mouth referrals have been proven to be an effective way to find a paralegal or a lawyer.

The law societies of the different provinces and territories in Canada also offer referral services when a client is looking for a lawyer or a paralegal.

For example, in Ontario, its Law Society Referral Service can also refer paralegals aside from lawyers. After requesting online, the law society will provide the name of the lawyer (or the licensed paralegal).

Should a suitable match be available, the referred licensed paralegal or lawyer will then provide a free consultation. This will help the potential client determine their rights and options as to the legal matter they’re confronted with.

Legal aids

There are also legal aids available in every province and territory in Canada. It is for low-income individuals who need a paralegal or a lawyer for their case.

In most provinces and territories, legal aid offices are established by the provincial or territorial governments, or by other organizations (e.g. non-profits).

These legal aids help with:

  • family problems (e.g. domestic violence) which involve Canadian family law
  • criminal charges and other criminal law-related matters
  • immigration and refugee matters
  • mental health legal issues

These legal aids have their own criteria as to who can be granted free legal representation from a lawyer. This is usually based on the financial capabilities of the applicant.

Hiring a paralegal vs. lawyer

Aside from the points discussed above, there are two more aspects to consider when hiring a paralegal vs a lawyer:

Costs

Paralegals are undeniably cheaper compared to lawyers. This is because a lawyer can do more than a paralegal in terms of scope of work and breadth of legal matters they can handle.

In some cases, hiring a lawyer comes with working with paralegals who are assigned under them.

Experience

Paralegals are more experienced in court filing and procedures. This makes them well-suited to handling smaller legal matters. On the other hand, lawyers have a broader legal knowledge, allowing them to take on the most complex cases. This also applies when the legal matter at hand needs a deeper evaluation or involves more than just one practice area.

How are paralegals and lawyers regulated in Canada?

Another difference between paralegals and lawyers is the way that they’re regulated, such as in terms of licensing.

Currently, it is only Ontario that regulates paralegals and lawyers through the LSO. In other provinces, their Law Societies only regulate lawyers, but also engage paralegals for their career and educational advancement.

As such, regulation of lawyers is stricter than that of paralegals, because lawyers are held to a higher standard due to the nature of their profession.

This regulation also comes into play as it sets the standards for the work of a legal professional, and even in disciplining them when complaints are filed against them.

Paralegal associations

There are national and provincial paralegal associations that paralegals can join. At the national level, there’s the Canadian Association of Paralegals.

Here are some of the other paralegal associations across the other provinces:

  • Alberta Association of Professional Paralegals
  • BC Paralegal Association
  • Ontario Paralegal Association

While these associations are not considered as the regulatory bodies for paralegals, they provide many benefits for their paralegal-members, such as:

  • networking opportunities among paralegals in the industry
  • continuing education through training and mentoring
  • employment support through advertising and listing services
  • access to the association’s information library, insurance plans, and other corporate discounts

These paralegal associations can also refer a paralegal for jobs by checking its listing services.

Law societies

The different law societies in Canadian provinces and territories oversee the legal profession, which includes paralegals and lawyers. Every province and territory differs in their regulation of paralegals.

The LSBC has been pushing for a single legal regulator in their province for paralegals, lawyers, and notaries. Watch this video to learn more about this legal proposal:

Check out our Special Report on the Top Criminal Law Firms in Canada for a list of the best criminal law boutiques in the country.

Law Society of Ontario and paralegals

The LSO is unique because it is the only law society in Canada that licenses paralegals in addition to admitting lawyers into the bar.

To become a paralegal in Ontario, the LSO has two general requirements:

  • academic requirements: graduate from a paralegal education program in Ontario that is accredited by the LSO
  • licensing requirements: pass the licensing examinations, be of good character, and pay the licensing fees

After passing these requirements, a person is given the Class P1 Licence, which will allow them to work as a paralegal in Ontario.

Law societies in other provinces and their paralegals

In other provinces and territories, their law societies only regulate the admittance of lawyers into the bar. At most, paralegals are under the supervision and responsibility of the lawyer, law firm, or organization they’re working for.

For instance, according to the LSBC, lawyers are encouraged to engage the services of designated paralegals. While “designated paralegals” are not a regulated title, they are vital to providing cost-effective services to the clients of the supervising lawyer.

Is it easier to be a paralegal or lawyer?

Education and training wise, it is easier to become a paralegal than a lawyer in Canada. To become a paralegal, one must only take up a bachelor’s degree that is related to law, or other courses in paralegal studies. This will only take up to 3-4 years.

To become a lawyer in Canada, one must:

  • earn a bachelor’s degree
  • take the 4-year law degree itself
  • spend another 1-2 years for articling and bar examinations

In total, it can take up to 8-9 years to become a lawyer.

Can a paralegal become a lawyer in Canada?

A paralegal can become a lawyer after pursuing the educational requirements for a lawyer in Canada. Aside from having no prohibitions, paralegals are also encouraged to do educational advancement since they already have the advantage if they decide to enter law school.

Aside from their knowledge of Canadian laws, their real-life experience can give paralegals an edge over the rest of their law school peers.

Paralegal vs. lawyer: which one to hire?

For those thinking about hiring a paralegal or a lawyer in Canada, it's essential to understand the distinct roles each one plays.

Paralegals offer specialized support and can handle certain legal tasks at a more affordable cost, making them ideal for specific issues. Lawyers, with their comprehensive legal training and broader scope of practice, are suited for more complex legal matters that require deep legal expertise or representation in court.

Your choice should be based on the complexity of your legal needs, the level of expertise required, and the budget you have allocated for legal services.

Head over to our page on Litigation, one of the practice areas that differentiates a paralegal vs. lawyer in Canada.

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