An Overview of Legal Professionals and Their Qualifications

If you are in the process of reviewing lawyers and law firms for the possibility of hiring them, you may find yourself getting confused by the variety of degrees and certifications legal professionals can hold. However, understanding these distinctions can help you make a well-informed hiring decision. The following list explains the differences between the degrees, privileges, and responsibilities of various legal professionals.

1. Certified Paralegals

While they are qualified legal professionals, paralegals are not lawyers. Usually, they hold undergraduate degrees in government or related fields, though there are also paralegal degree programs available. Most paralegals hold certifications from either the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) or the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA). These certifications distinguish them as having mastered a body of legal knowledge, but the parameters of these certifications vary by state and law firm.

By law, paralegals are not permitted to give legal advice, represent clients in court, sign documents on behalf of a party, establish attorney-client relationships, or set or collect legal fees. Despite these limitations, paralegals are essential players in any law firm’s success. They can perform critical research, write briefs, contribute to strategy development, and prepare exhibits for trial.

2. Master of Laws

In your research, you may notice that some attorneys have obtained their Master of Laws (LLM) while others have earned their Juris Doctor (JD). This distinction generally signifies where the lawyers were educated. Lawyers with LLM degrees often received some or all their education outside the United States, while JDs are awarded to lawyers educated primarily in the United States.

In the United Kingdom and other commonwealth countries, law degrees are awarded at the undergraduate level. International students who wish to practice U.S. law can become qualified to do so by obtaining their LLMs. For example, a student in Spain could get an online LLM from USC, which would enable him or her to take the California Bar Exam. After passing the bar exam, the student could become a U.S. Attorney at Law.

3. Juris Doctor

Lawyers educated in the United States obtain their Juris Doctor (JD), which is a graduate degree obtained after a bachelor’s degree. Most people who go to law school earn their undergraduate degrees in areas such as government and policy or economics, although no specific degree is required. Usually taking three years to complete, JD degrees give prospective lawyers the knowledge they need to sit for the bar exam. Bar exams vary somewhat by state, but all of them designate individuals as being qualified to practice law.

As mentioned previously, lawyers have the authority to represent clients in court and provide legal advice. In general, it is illegal to practice law in the United States without having passed the bar exam. However, people who have graduated from Wisconsin law schools are permitted to practice law in that state without taking the bar exam.

4. Specializations

Many lawyers choose to limit their practice to certain areas of expertise. For example, some lawyers primarily represent personal injury victims, while others advise and represent clients during litigation proceedings. Lawyers who choose a specialization often do so out of a desire to serve their clients better and enjoy greater success rates. They can delve more deeply into the complexities of one type of law and therefore develop better strategies for reaching the conclusions they desire for their cases.

Knowledge Is Power

Seeking the services of any legal professional can feel daunting, but understanding the distinctions between them can contribute some clarity to the process. Now that you know a bit more about the qualifications and duties of various legal professionals, you may feel more prepared to consider additional factors and eventually make your final decision.


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