The legal profession is filled with jargon and other formal terminology. The professional titles held by those in the legal profession are likewise confusing. Where does one start making sense of the differences between ‘lawyers’, ‘attorneys’, ‘legal administrators’, and ‘paralegals’, for example?

To help you figure it out, we ask:

What exactly is:

A lawyer?

The term ‘lawyer’ is often used to refer to a broad spectrum of legal professionals. Generally speaking, though, a lawyer is anyone who has been trained in law. Anyone who has attended law school, and attained an LLB (Bachelor of Laws) degree, is a lawyer.

What this means is that if you are only a lawyer, without any additional qualifications or professional designations, you cannot represent a client in a court of law. What your legal training does qualify you for is acting as a legal consultant or policy advisor, or giving legal advice.

An attorney?

To become an attorney, you first need to complete your theoretical legal training (i.e. your LLB degree). You can then do your articles (a form of internship) with a practicing attorney for a specific period of time. Once you finish your articles, you need to write a Board Exam. If you pass, you can apply to the High Court to be admitted as an attorney.

An attorney can specialise as a conveyancer, patent attorney, litigator, and more. They can, in certain circumstances, represent clients in a court of law. While all attorneys can be referred to as lawyers, all lawyers are not necessarily attorneys.

An advocate?

An advocate is a specialist lawyer who represents clients in a court of law. Unlike an attorney, an advocate does not deal directly with the client – the attorney refers the client to an advocate when the situation requires it. While attorneys can only represent clients in the lower courts in South Africa, advocates can appear on behalf of clients in the higher courts as well.

To become an advocate, one has to become a member of the General Council of the Bar.

A paralegal?

A paralegal works in a legal office, and is generally responsible for performing certain legal work on behalf of a lawyer or attorney. Paralegals, essentially, are legal assistants.

A paralegal can do work such as:

  • Interviewing clients
  • Conducting research
  • Drafting legal documents
  • Filing legal documents

A legal administrator?

Legal administrators are part of the legal office environment, and are responsible for the administrative duties in the office.

Legal administrators are not the same as ordinary office administrators. Becoming a legal administrator takes specific training, as the role requires working knowledge of legal practices, processes, and terminology. Some of the functions of a legal administrator might include:

  • Filing
  • Typing legal documents
  • Liaising with clients regarding administrative issues
  • Ordering office supplies
  • Taking minutes
  • Managing the lawyers’ schedules

Why does it become confusing?

As neatly as the different roles are set out here, in reality it can become somewhat confusing. This is largely due to the fact that the differences are often technical, and professional duties can overlap in practice. A paralegal, for example, might be required to perform the duties of a legal administrator as well.

Another source of confusion is that in different countries there are not only different rules for entering the different professions, but also different titles. For example: An attorney is called a solicitor in certain countries, while an advocate is called a barrister. A legal administrator is sometimes called a legal secretary, and a paralegal is sometimes referred to as a law clerk.

Where to start your career

Not everyone who wants to become an attorney or advocate can afford to go to law school and put their lives on hold for four (or more) years. There is another way to do this, however.

It is possible for a legal administrator to study an LLB degree part-time – which gives him or her the added benefit of gaining practical work experience while he or she is still busy studying.

It is also possible for an attorney to decide to become an advocate, and to seek admission to the Bar after having worked as an attorney for some time.

What this means is that if your dream is to become an attorney or advocate one day, but you can’t go to university straight away, you can still keep your dream alive by becoming a legal administrator and taking it from there.

Want to find out how you can start your career in legal administration?

Click here to view the legal administration courses that are available at Oxbridge Academy.