Getting real

While the whole of the legal market has changed dramatically over the last five years or so, the world of the paralegal has been transformed.

Once the preserve of the non-graduate, increasingly those with legal qualifications who are waiting to find the right training contract are taking refuge as paralegals.

But the UK market has a long way to go before the paralegal working for a UK firm reaches an equal footing to their role in US firms. According to a recent survey carried out by legal recruitment agency Taylor Root and supported by The Lawyer, paralegals get a better deal working for the London offices of US firms than for City law firms.

The findings show that paralegals in US firms earn higher salaries, receive more benefits and are more likely to be permanent members of staff.

However, it could be argued that such a conclusion is not comparing like with like, as the “paralegal” label can mean several different things.

Problems of definition

The definition given for paralegals in a report written by the Research and Policy Planning Unit of the Law Society in 1997 says: “Non-admitted staff, employed in private practices, who spent at least some of their time on direct fee-earning work.”

The US law firms, though, see the role of a paralegal as being more than just a member of the administrative staff, according to Erin Tonks, a consultant at Taylor Root. She says: “In the US law firms, the paralegals are more part of the legal team. They do more legal work than administration. They're professional paralegals.”

Most of the firms interviewed described paralegals as essentially support staff for the lawyers, a role which involves administrative and legal duties with an emphasis on the former. However, according to Martina McCormack, the paralegal coordinator at Clifford Chance: “The role of the paralegal is very flexible depending on who you work for. Every firm has a different approach to paralegals.”

Qualifications and training

According to research carried out by the Law Society in 1997, 40 per cent of the paralegals interviewed finished their full-time education aged 16. Only 13 per cent attended higher education. In the spring of 1996, the Law Society's Research and Policy Unit's panel study of solicitor firms asked firms whether, since January 1995, they had recruited as paralegals any graduates who had completed either the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or the Law Society's finals. Only 10 per cent had done so.

This has now radically changed. The majority of applicants who are applying for paralegal jobs in City firms, whether directly or through employment agencies, are post-graduate LPC students who hope to procure a training contract or to gain experience.

An alternative route for paralegals is through the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex). “The difference between a legal executive and a paralegal is that the former has more specialist skills and more rights than paralegals,” says John Westwood, director of Ilex paralegal training. “Legal executives have the same rights as solicitors, such as rights to appear at court, but paralegals do not have these rights. They're seen as support staff for the legal executives and the solicitors.”

Westwood has also noted that there are now many law graduates looking for an alternative route to practise law. Fellows of Ilex are exempt from the academic stage of a solicitor's training and can be admitted as solicitors following the completion of the LPC.

However, according to the 1997 Law Society research, “almost half [46 per cent] of the paralegals surveyed had no Ilex qualifications, and only 17 per cent were fellows of the institute”.

In this respect, not much has changed. Firms are recruiting LPC students and throwing them in at the deep end. “I'm reluctant to see an overstructured paralegal profession,” says John Reynolds, managing partner at McDermott Will & Emery. “It's not necessary for paralegals to go through formal training or education. What we're looking for are practical skills. The paralegals learn on the job.”

McCormack at Clifford Chance says: “We're looking for people who can prove their quality of work, and that means having relevant previous experience.”

Khalil Yousuf, who has been working as a paralegal for around seven months, backs up that stance. “I worked for a magic circle firm and they didn't provide me with any sort of training,” he says.

Simon Holden, a paralegal working for Morgan Lewis & Bockius, agrees. He says: “When you join a firm, it's a hands-on role and you're left to your own devices.”

Areas and period of work

Different departments within a law firm have different needs when it comes to paralegals. For those paralegals looking for long-term work, it is best to head for the insurance departments of UK firms, 15 per cent of which take on permanent paralegals, or the corporate department of US firms, 38 per cent of which do the same, according to the survey. In UK firms, only 7 per cent of corporate departments take on permanent paralegals.

In the Law Society's 1997 survey, 80 per cent of paralegals interviewed reported that they sometimes worked in more than one area, and that this was especially common in firms with fewer than five partners. Now, however, 81 per cent of UK firms and 43 per cent of US firms surveyed allowed paralegals to move departments within the firm, according to the 2001 survey. The lower percentage within US firms is indicative of their different approach to paralegals, where they are expected to build up a specialism.

The length of time paralegals spend in any one firm is higher in US firms than their UK counterparts. Half of the paralegals in UK firms remain with their firm for less than a year, compared with just 8 per cent in US firms. This is indicative of a general trend on behalf of US firms to treat the paralegal profession as a career in itself, which is both permanent and specialised.

“The US firms tend to recruit paralegals on a more permanent basis and are generally looking for people with at least 6-12 months experience in specific fields like banking and corporate finance,” says Tonks at Taylor Root.

“I'm not moved from one department to another,” says Holden, who works on a permanent basis for the commercial litigation department at UK-based US firm Morgan Lewis. Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, for example, always takes on paralegals as permanent members of staff to ensure continuity.

Interestingly, Matrix Chambers has recently started recruiting paralegals, which is perhaps a surprising move given the more traditional outlook of the bar. According to Matrix's chief executive Nicholas Martin, the experiment is proving successful and the chambers is likely to recruit more paralegals in the future.

Salaries

“The paralegal is seen as a mere support role for the lawyers. You don't have access to the real meat of the casework like in an acquisition,” says Yousuf, who has finished his LPC and now works on short-term contracts for City firms. “You're not a qualified professional – at the most, you'll earn £50,000 and you can't become a partner in a firm. My ultimate aim is to become a solicitor and earn so much money that I can buy myself a yacht.”

According to the Taylor Root survey, the average salary for a non-experienced (up to six months experience) paralegal working for a UK firm starts at £17,500, which rises to an average of £26,000 for paralegals with four or more years experience.

The US law firms' average salary for a non-experienced paralegal is £20,000, which rises to an average of £32,000 for a paralegal who has four or more years experience. Thus, the US firms pay on average 15 per cent more than UK firms.

However, the US firms demand more hours of work from their paralegals. Up to 40 per cent of paralegals in US firms based in the UK work more than 45 hours a week, whereas the majority (52 per cent) in UK firms work fewer than 40 hours a week. In 1997, the majority of paralegals working in UK law firms worked for less than 30 hours.

“US firms pay much more across the board because their paralegals assume more responsibilities and are seen as members of the legal team,” says Tonks.

Holden says: “My quality of life has improved since I joined a US firm. I was previously working in a UK firm and had a poor salary and a small paralegal position. The salary in the US firm is much better and you're treated more like a lawyer than a paralegal.”

Career prospects

As noted earlier, most of the applicants applying to City firms aim to get a training contract or are waiting for pupillages. “I wouldn't consider a career as a paralegal. I'm thinking either of doing the LPC or continuing to apply for pupillage,” says Holden.

Carmel Murphy, a consultant at Hays ZMB legal recruitment company, says: “There's a steady increase in private practice offering paralegals a structured career like they have in the US. The US firms are very supportive of their paralegals.”

Scott Offer, who is part of the in-house legal team at Motorola, says: “In the US, paralegals are seen as having actual paralegal qualifications. This is what is needed in the UK.”

McCormack recognises that many paralegals leave City firms because there is no career structure for them, and so Clifford Chance has structured its paralegals into three groups: the case management group, which is managed by McCormack, the litigation support group and the court services group.

This is just one sign that the UK might be starting down the path towards the US style of using paralegals. n