I Say Law Clerk, You Say Paralegal, Who’s Right? It Depends.

When sharing that you are studying to become a law clerk in Ontario, people often feign understanding, pause, and then immediately ask, ‘what exactly is a law clerk?’ As recent law clerk graduates, it’s a question that we have answered more times than we care to count and expect to continue answering throughout our careers as it has become apparent that few outside the profession understand what it means to be a law clerk in Ontario. For those with some exposure to the legal profession, one way to answer their query is replying that, ‘it is like a paralegal…’ which is often accompanied by nods of understanding. However, this paralegal reference does not typically bring clarity for people unfamiliar with the inner workings of the legal profession and may raise additional questions. At its simplest, a law clerk and a paralegal are titles used in Ontario for two separate and distinct roles within the legal field that serve different purposes but ultimately provide various forms of legal support for clients. However, that explanation does not address the fact that the term ‘paralegal’ means law clerk throughout the rest of Canada and the law clerk title refers to an entirely different role in the US. To help shed some light on the lack of understanding and confusion, we are going to explore the definition of a law clerk, how to attain the appropriate qualifications and similarly, what a paralegal is in Ontario and how that term is applied throughout the rest of Canada. 

The Evolution of Law Clerks and Paralegals in Ontario

To better understand what we mean by a law clerk and a paralegal, we’ll first examine how the professions evolved in Ontario. Let’s start with the official definition of a law clerk provided by the Institute of Law Clerks of Ontario (ILCO), a professional association incorporated in May 1968, providing continuing education, fellowship and networking for its members. ILCO defines law clerks as “a person, qualified through education, training or work experience, who is employed ... under the ultimate direction and guidance of a Lawyer ... [doing work of an] administrative or managerial nature, and/or of specifically-delegated substantive legal work which requires a sufficient knowledge of legal concepts that in the absence of a law clerk the Lawyer would perform.” In 1968, the Upper Canada Law Society (or Law Society of Ontario) established the term ‘law clerk’ and permitted the use of the title to those who fit the definition provided by ILCO. In this profession, there are a range of career options available, such as through large and small private law firms, in-house corporate legal departments, financial institutions, court and registry offices, legal software companies and more. 

According to the Ontario Paralegal Association, paralegals started off in Ontario in the 1980s as ‘agents at court’ representing people in provincial courts for traffic offenses, the Small Claims Court, Family Court, and various tribunals. The Law Society of Ontario (LSO) sought to regulate these agents who, at first, they did not recognize as legitimate legal practitioners. Eventually, the Access to Justice Act was passed and the LSO started issuing licenses to paralegals in 2008. In accordance with current LSO regulations, paralegals may represent individuals in Small Claims Court lawsuits (up to $35,000), provincial offenses, statutory accident benefit claims, hearings before administrative tribunals and boards (such as the Landlord and Tenant Board and the Human Rights Tribunal), and in certain criminal offenses (such as assault and harassment). This makes access to justice more affordable for millions of Canadians who might not seek justice due to the expense of a lawyer.

Education and Training

In terms of education and training, prospective law clerks can attend a program offered at an accredited learning institute that is typically two years in length and is available for students right out of high school, or take courses through ILCO, if they have attained some experience in the legal profession. If the college route is taken, certain institutions such as Seneca College offer an accelerated option, allowing students with some post secondary education to complete the program in one year. Since the authors of this article are all university graduates, we elected to take the accelerated program and were thankful that our previous degrees primed us for the onslaught of lectures, projects and intensive study. Both program streams are designed to prepare students to work under the supervision of a lawyer in a fast-paced legal environment. The main focus of the program is on learning about substantive law, legal principles and ethics, collaborative teamwork and hands-on training to advance technical skills and document drafting that will let the graduated law clerk hit the ground running in the workplace. Since law clerks can support any area of a law practice under a supervising lawyer, the curriculum focuses on different areas of law compared to the paralegal program including real estate law, corporate law, contract and torts, family law, litigation, and wills and estates. In addition, most programs include a field placement to ensure that the graduate will have ‘working’ knowledge and experience so they can easily acclimate into a new place of employment and deliver value day one.  

Becoming a paralegal involves one more step than a law clerk due to licensing requirements, but first, one must attend an LSO accredited paralegal program which is typically two years in length and hosted by many colleges throughout Ontario. Subjects addressed include small claims court, administrative law, criminal summary convictions, provincial offenses, immigration law, employment law, landlord-tenant law, litigation, and tribunals. Students also learn about advocacy, legal research and writing, ethics, and other skills to help them in starting their own legal services business. All accredited programs offer a field placement which is a requirement of the licensing process. 

Secondly, they must procure their P1 license governed by the LSO. Steps include applying for registration, paying a fee, and submitting transcripts and proof of field placement completion from an accredited program. Similar to a lawyer, there is a ‘good character requirement’ which is proven through supporting documentation that indicates whether the applicant has been found guilty of or convicted of any offence under any statute, has been discharged from any employment where the employer has alleged that there was cause, misconduct from a post-secondary educational institution, and more criteria as listed on the LSO website. The next step is passing the licensing exam and then a petition must be filed with the LSO to be issued a class P1 license.  

Career Fit and Opportunity

Now that we have defined each profession and associated education, let’s explore the differences between a practicing law clerk and P1 paralegal in terms of career fit and opportunity. We have outlined some personal reasons why someone might choose one rather than the other.

We chose the law clerk path for several reasons including:

  • Desire to work in the legal field as an employee in a structured environment without having to start own business;
  • An abundance of employment opportunities suited to both those fresh out of school and for those changing career paths armed with a law clerk diploma;
  • Interest in the areas of law in which law clerks are typically employed; 
  • Challenging roles, responsibilities and activities presented in job descriptions; and
  • Ability to leverage skills and knowledge already acquired in previous education and/or professional experience including technical abilities, organizational and interpersonal skills.

When asked why they chose a paralegal program, recent graduates cited:

  • An interest in the areas of law that paralegals often enter, such as employment law, disability law, and criminal law; 
  • The ability to advocate for their clients in court and tribunals; and
  • An expressed interest in gaining more exposure to the law and using paralegal studies as a stepping stone towards ultimately becoming a lawyer.

Due to their expansive training, law clerks are well suited to find employment in a number of different positions such as corporate law clerk, securities law clerk, real estate law clerk, litigation law clerk, e-discovery law clerk and family law clerk, amongst many other roles. As previously indicated, law clerks work under the supervision of lawyers but they still are responsible for essential tasks with minimum supervision. A well-rounded law clerk will be able to carry out administrative tasks such as organizing meetings and file management to support the department but that is just one part of a varied role. In addition, law clerks attain substantive, specialized knowledge and skills that are required to carry out complex processes and transactions within their given area of law such as drafting motions, maintaining company records, drafting separation agreements or wills and preparing closing documentation for real estate deals. Common areas of responsibility often cited on job descriptions include interviewing clients, preparing documents, performing legal research, drafting legal correspondence, and general duties that help lawyers support their clients. 

On the other hand, paralegals in Ontario are educated and licensed to provide representation for their clients in areas of law such as immigration and employment law. In terms of career paths, paralegals may become a provincial offences prosecutor, a Small Claims Court legal representative, legal researcher, or may choose to start their own paralegal practice. Paralegals also provide important advocacy services for clients appearing before specialized tribunals such as the Landlord and Tenant Board, and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Ultimately, if you are trying to decide between a career as a law clerk or a paralegal, a few areas to consider are subject matter, the type of employment you desire, and what type of service you would like to provide. Paralegals and law clerks often go into different areas of law, so deciding what suits your interests is a good first step. Next, decide if you prefer being employed by someone or if you want the ability to start your own business. Lastly, one must consider that the primary role of a paralegal is to provide legal advice and the primary role of a law clerk is to provide a legal service; determine where your comfort levels lie.

It is interesting to note that in a LinkedIn search on an incognito browser (read: no history and not logged into an account) the first 75 results after searching ‘law clerk’ in Ontario, produced a full 75 law clerk positions. When conducting the same test for paralegals, only 21% of results produced paralegal positions, with the remaining 79% producing legal assistant and law clerk positions, amongst other titles. At a quick glance, it appears that the demand for law clerks outpaces the current demand for paralegals. 

Confusion Continues Outside Ontario

So now that we have explored the two distinct roles in Ontario, the real confusion between the two terms begins when we look at the use of these terms in other jurisdictions. What we know as ‘law clerks’ in Ontario are referred to as ‘paralegals’ in the remainder of Canada and the United States, including the French translation ‘parajuriste’ in Québec. In the United States, the term “law clerk” is used but is not employed in the same sense as it is in Ontario. In the United States, a “law clerk” is the same as a judicial clerk. These individuals are either lawyers or recently graduated law students providing legal assistance to judges in court. Hence, there is much confusion surrounding Ontario’s unique use of both the term ‘paralegal’ and ‘law clerk.’ 

This confusion is heightened by misleading job boards, pop culture, and the lack of conversation surrounding the topic. It is not unheard of to find a posting for a paralegal in Ontario describing the work of a traditional law clerk. The source of this incorrect usage could be the use of the paralegal term in other jurisdictions, but it could also be a result of Ontarians watching popular American television shows such as Suits, where a corporate paralegal is a main character. The way Suits uses the word ‘paralegal’ is correct in their context and Wall Street setting, yet, if the setting was a firm on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, the character would be classified as a corporate law clerk. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the law clerk position and its associated value is not widely known outside of the legal profession and to a certain extent in the legal community. We know that law clerks have a lot to offer, yet, where there is a lack of clarity in the role and general awareness of the profession, there will be a lack of utilization and recognition. To leverage their status within the legal field, law clerks must bring attention to the value they bring to their position by highlighting their knowledge, skills and abilities and distinguish their expertise from P1 paralegals. 

Becoming a Law Clerk

If this brief glimpse into the world of legal professionals has tweaked your interest and you are contemplating becoming a law clerk like the authors of this article, consider these next steps and the fundamentals that will help lead you to succeed in this growing and dynamic field. Education is first and foremost and you have several options to choose from as discussed above. Make sure to equip yourself with the right tools and technology. At a minimum, become an expert in Microsoft’s productivity suite, and then start building up your legal application experience by learning solutions such as Athennian’s Entity Management to file and maintain corporate records, become efficient in DivorceMate if working in a family law practice or familiarize yourself with Teraview® for managing real estate transactions. It is highly recommended that you become a member of ILCO to grow your network of law clerk peers and potential mentors, and expand your knowledge of the law clerk profession. Hint: You can even join as a student member during your education phase and early years of your career for a special membership fee.

We hope this article has helped provide some clarity regarding  what the term ‘law clerk’ means in Ontario and other jurisdictions, so the next time someone tells you they are going to school to become a law clerk or states, “I’m a law clerk”, you can nod and smile acknowledging what they do with some level of confidence. 

About the Authors

Kellie Burdon, Jina Ahmad and Susan Taylor-Kusek are recent graduates of the Seneca Law Clerk (Accelerated) Program in Ontario. They participated in Athennian’s internship program and were provided the opportunity to work as corporate law clerks utilizing Athennian’s Entity Management software to maintain corporate records and build virtual minute books for Canadian and international clients. The authors were collectively referred to as the ‘Seneca Hooterns’.

Continue reading

Talk to an expert.

Data migration doesn't have to hold you back. Let's talk about what's right for your team.
Request Pricing

"Very easy to use, modern interface, excellent support. Athennian has an amazing conversion team. They helped us migrate all of our data and the training was very good."

Megan W, Director

“When we were reviewing other entity management systems on the market, in some cases, we were not comparing apples to apples. But with Athennian, there was really no comparison. The paralegals were so excited to come on board.”

Linda Escobar, Senior Paralegal

"There are so many things I like about this program, but the one thing that really stands out is the user friendly interface. The program is fast and allows me to enter corporate information very quickly and efficiently. I would also like to note that Athennian provides the most the fantastic customer service."

Kelly R, Corporate Law Clerk