Herbert Smith leads litigation giants with mass recruitment of paralegals
25 February 2008
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Paralegals are increasingly being moulded into solid building blocks in firms' strategies - particularly in document-heavy practice areas such as litigation and corporate.
However, firms' approaches to paralegals and their roles vary widely, as revealed in exclusive research undertaken by The Lawyer's sister magazine Lawyer 2B.
The top 20 UK firms alone employ roughly 1,000 paralegals between them, but individual numbers vary from nine paralegals working at Simmons & Simmons to 151 at litigation powerhouse Herbert Smith (see table).
Herbert Smith litigation and arbitration partner Simon Clarke confirmed that, in litigation, individual cases often drive the demand for paralegals."[The number of paralegals] reflects the nature of the cases we're doing - heavyweight commercial litigation cases are often document-intensive. [Paralegal numbers] are principally demand-driven," he explained.
Although the work trainees and paralegals handle is often very similar (and often at the lower end of the legal spectrum), there are several strategic advantages to using paralegals over trainees.
The first of these is cost. Clarke said that, for a level of work that can be properly carried out by a paralegal, it can be profitable "both for clients but also for the firm" to employ paralegals.
Indeed, for one large City firm the paralegal charge-out rates range from £25 to £135, while their starting salaries in the City usually range between £23,000 and £26,000.
Those figures can make paralegals a mutually good-value proposition in certain areas.
But a new top end of the paralegal market is also starting to crystallise for paralegals with significant experience.
Experienced non-qualified in-house positions at financial institutions or senior paralegal managers at US firms can earn up to £60,000 per annum.
A second advantage is that a trainee can often take several months to sink their teeth into a case, at which point their seat is often almost finished and they are on their way out. Paralegal contracts can be more flexible and they can be hired on a case-by-case basis.
Eversheds London head of international real estate William Naunton confirmed this. "The numbers ebb and flow according to particular projects," he said, "and we've increased numbers to meet the needs of specific large projects."
A closely related advantage of paralegals is that they are often recruited to perform single tasks or types of work and can stay in a department for long periods. As a result they have the opportunity to become more experienced at certain types of work than a trainee ever could.
Similarly, paralegals are often recruited on the basis of very targeted skills they possess, such as languages.
Herbert Smith's Clarke, for example, extols the benefits of Russian speakers, who have been recruited specifically for a very large case arising in a former Eastern Bloc country.
In a case involving a Mediterranean country, Herbert Smith also recruited a paralegal with the language skills needed to manage the avalanche of foreign language documents and data.
In a relatively recent development, paralegals have begun getting involved in more than just document management.
For example, paralegals at many firms now often play an indispensable role in researching and collating legal knowhow and disseminating it to fee-earners.
However, there is a flipside to the life of paralegals: at most of the firms surveyed only a very small proportion ultimately join as trainees.
There are some notable exceptions. A total of 19 Eversheds trainees in the latest intake were formerly paralegals at the firm, which currently employs 76 paralegals.
And at Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) 10 of its latest batch of trainees had worked as paralegals out of a total of 17 currently employed at the firm.
Of the 10, four were taken on at DWS's Milton Keynes office, where all future trainees are first trialled as paralegals and then moved on to training contracts if deemed suitable.
An interesting development, but at most large City firms there still seems to be an unspoken - though sometimes outspoken - rule: if you are a paralegal, you are unlikely to become a trainee in the future.
The reasons are varied, ranging from firms wanting to discourage paralegals from constantly lobbying for training contracts or competing with each other and the established graduate recruitment processes at the firms.
There is a lingering suspicion, then, that paralegals are still being treated as second-class citizens in the City.
Firm* (UK offices only)
Total Paralegals employed
Paralegals hired in past 12 months
Paralegals hired as trainees Feb-Sept 2007
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Allen & Overy
Slaughter and May
Simmons & Simmons
CMS Cameron McKenna
Berwin Leighton Paisner
Denton Wilde Sapte
Clyde & Co