27 February 2012 | By Laura Manning
The Legal Services Act and the economic climate are forcing law firms to reconsider the way they use their resources, hiking the status of the much-maligned paralegal in the process.
Despite once being considered the poor relation of the UK legal family, the status of the paralegal is beginning to improve as a number of law firms assess the way they utilise their resources in light of the Legal Services Act (LSA) and the looming legal aid cuts.
As the need to provide low-cost, high-quality legal services becomes vital as a result, law firms are using paralegals to fill the gaps.
“The role of the paralegal is changing hugely and in a sense it’s both detaining and broadening what paralegals do,” insists the Institute of Paralegals (IoP) chief executive James O’Connell. “There are more paralegals doing more types of roles, and what they are doing is becoming more and more complex.”
The price is right
Paralegals can offer law firms a win-win situation. First, the smaller salaries give firms an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency through the delegation of procedural work, freeing up associates and partners to concentrate on the substantive legal issues.
Second, although paralegal client time is typically billed at only a fraction of what lawyers charge, their lower pay bracket allows for a return, while the lower client fees help firms achieve one of the key objectives of the LSA: putting consumers first.
Also, O’Connell says: “A general benefit of paralegals, apart from lower costs, is that firms can get very good people to do good work without the hassle brought with solicitors, such as requirements for continuing professional development, professional indemnity insurance (PII) and close Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) scrutiny.”
PII sits at a maximum of a few hundred pounds for paralegals, while lawyers’ PII
cover costs several thousands of pounds.
“What we’ll end up with in a decade is a hollowing out of the profession. Like accountancy firms, solicitors will be managers, while most of the foot soldiers will be paralegals,” O’Connell asserts. “It’s the whole commercialisation of the law – solicitors will be looking to delegate their work to junior staff safely to reduce fees and increase efficiency.”
SNR Denton graduate recruitment partner Jeremy Cape agrees. “Tesco law would need a lot of paralegals to make it work – some existing firms are going to have to swiftly
move with the times and recruit the equivalent of more shelf-stackers,” he says.
But is the market in danger if it simply harnesses the role of a paralegal as an efficient but cheap tool? If the role is undervalued in this way, could it put off high-quality candidates?
In light of a swell of opportunities for paralegals to earn lucrative salaries and benefits due to an increase in their demand, O’Connell believes that more candidates, including even sole practitioners, will begin to see the attraction of the role. Indeed, the burgeoning demand for the role is also evident through an increase in the number of qualified solicitors applying for paralegal roles.
“A paralegal role allows newly-qualified lawyers (NQ) to gain further experience working in different law firms, and often without the same commitment than a
fixed-term contract,” says Charles Elderton, a director at recruitment consultancy Chadwick Nott. “It’s a tough market for NQs, and this [move] would show the drive and determination to make it in the law.”
“It does surprise me slightly that qualified solicitors are applying for paralegal roles,”
says Thomas Eggar head of learning and development Ann Hemming. “But it’s a very difficult market at the moment and paralegal work is becoming higher quality.
Paralegal work can look quite attractive to NQs in terms of lifestyle choices, and is increasingly becoming a recognised career, as well as giving an opportunity to get to know the firm and build contacts and experience.”
O’Connell predicts that the number of paralegal advisory firms will also increase
to fill the gap made by the cuts to legal aid.
The IoP says there are around 6,000 commercial entities offering legal services directly to the public or businesses without the involvement of solicitors or barristers.
To ensure the brightest and best are utilised in paralegal roles instead of continuing down the traditional route, O’Connell believes it is necessary to install a clearer career path to boost the status of the role. “If you want to attract, motivate and retain the best and ensure good risk-management, you need basic standards and consistency,” he says.
Paralegal duties vary from mundane case research to work that mirrors that of an NQ, with some paralegals increasingly finding themselves handling work that is the preserve of lawyers, while others stick to the more administrative tasks.
Paralegals hold varying credentials due to the lack of official legal requirements for certification. Also, the increasingly competitive market has forced law firms to draw bolder lines in the paralegal job criteria in order to whittle down potential candidates. Historically almost anyone with a certain level of intelligence, organisational and administrative skills could become a paralegal, but today the picture is very different. Several firms require candidates to have a law degree, while others will not look at applicants who have not completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
There is a host of training courses available from the IoP, the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (Nalp) and the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (Cilex).
Devoid of a proper definition, Jane Ching, reader in law at Nottingham Trent University and member of the Legal Education Training Review (LETR) committee (see Feature, page 20), says the role of the paralegal is in danger of never truly evolving or boosting its status.
At present the term ‘paralegal’ is regularly defined as a person trained in subsidiary legal matters but not fully qualified as a lawyer. But what does this mean? After all, this very broad definition could depict a number of alternative legal roles such as legal secretary, licensed conveyancer or trademark attorney.
“At the moment I think it’s quite difficult to define,” concedes Ching. “Although there are certain categories where it would be easy to say, ‘yes that’s a paralegal’, there are also a large number of roles in other professions that give legal advice but otherwise are not technically paralegals in the law firm context.”
According to Ching, the definition and regulation of the paralegal role on a broader basis is something that could come out of the LETR, which is looking at paralegal training from the perspective of regulation.
The SRA’s work-based learning (WBL) pilot is exploring whether the role of the paralegal whose work is commensurate with the work undertaken in a training contract, could lead to qualification as a solicitor.
This development could lead to paralegals being given extra powers and skills, by assessing their legal experience against a required standard of competence, and enable them to qualify as solicitors.
Pending the conclusions of the LETR, progress on defining the function of paralegals has begun, with the creation of the national occupational standards for paralegal apprenticeships by charity Skills for Justice.
Skills for Justice is planning to create a set of national standards for these modern apprenticeships in partnership with key members of the legal profession, which will sit at the heart of a structured paralegal apprenticeship programme across the legal sector.
“The term paralegal is widely used and that to some extent isn’t a problem,” says Skills for Justice key accounts manager Charles Welsh. “But their unclear function is [a problem], so what’s important is having these nationally agreed levels of competence.”
If the role continues to evolve in terms of skill and recognition, it is expected that more law firms will lean towards hiring the cheaper paralegal to deliver the services normally carried out only by the more costly trainee.
The result? An inevitable slump in training contracts that will force many aspiring lawyers to rely on either the alternative paralegal apprenticeship route or the much-anticipated results of the SRA’s WBL pilot to dictate their future legal career.
Ten top tips for getting paralegal work
1. Choose a specific practice area. Paralegals specialise. Different
practice areas need different skills, different attitudes and provide very different experiences. Applying for ‘any’ paralegal job makes you look like you don’t understand even this
2. Hiring is mostly done at departmental level. Choose your practice area then write directly to the head of the relevant department.
3. Strange as it sounds, your CV is not really about you. It is just a vehicle for showing an employer that you have the skills they want. Download the free introductory-level competency standards for paralegals and make sure your CV highlights the skills and knowledge employers say they want: www.theiop.org/
4. Employers value practical experience above all else. Get whatever you can: working in your local Citizen’s Advice Bureau, being an adviser at your university’s student advice clinic, etc.
5. Join the Institute of Paralegals for free. Applying as a member of a professional body indicates you are serious about a paralegal career. You can also get further free careers advice and updates on law and events in the paralegal world. As a law student you can join the institute for free as an affiliate member. Send your name, email address and name of the institution where you are studying to firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. Be aware that most paralegal jobs are permanent, not temporary. If you give the impression that you are just killing time until you can do the LPC/BPTC or get a training contract or pupillage, then employers will not want to hire you as you will probably leave just as you become useful.
7. Most entry-level paralegal jobs are not advertised. You have to apply directly to firms. Use the Law Society’s ‘Find a Solicitor’ search function to find law firms near you that practice in the area you want to specialise in.
8. Be professional in your application. Follow the rules (properly formatted covering letter etc). Don’t use an unprofessional email address (hurtbutsurviving@… Partyboy@…).
9. Don’t just apply to solicitors’ firms. Apply to in-house legal departments of large local companies, trademark agents, paralegal law firms, licensed conveyancers, notaries, etc.
10. Law degrees do not impress. Consider a practical course too.
Source: Institute of Paralegals