The rising profile of the paralegal

Largely unnoticed, the paralegal profession has grown to 500,000 practitioners: 50,000 in the legal profession, the remainder spread throughout every other sector of the economy.

Paralegals do work that a decade ago solicitors would have done. This change reflects: increased wealth in society; the explosive growth of regulation; the wholesale emigration of solicitors from areas of practice no longer economically viable; and, at the lower end of the scale, the fact that virtually everyone needs the law, encounters it or uses it in the workplace.

New career opportunities have flowered. Full careers as non-lawyer legal practitioners, or professional paralegals, are possible. Within the legal profession salaries reach £50,000-plus and outside the legal profession paralegals earn up to £80,000. Many run their own businesses giving advice on matters such as employment, divorce and immigration.

Outside the legal profession the term ‘paralegal’ is rarely used: instead there are many different job titles, such as adviser, caseworker, contracts manager and compliance officer. These career opportunities have arisen because the profession is coming into public view. Speakers at an Institute of Paralegals reception in the House of Commons last month included Department for Constitutional Affairs Minister Bridget Prentice, Commission for Racial Equality Chairman Trevor Phillips, and Shadow Spokesperson in the Lords on Education & Skills Baroness Buscombe. All applauded the emergence of the professional paralegal and the creation of the institute. This recognition followed on from the Law Society and Bar Council supporting the granting of ‘institute’ status to the Institute of Paralegals last year.

Within firms, paralegals are now being recognised as important employees and profitable fee-earners. Increasingly, firms give their paralegals professional recognition, offer tailored training and provide real career development. In return, firms are demanding higher standards of professionalism. An indicator of the scale of change is that at the behest of firms, the Institute has introduced a certified paralegal qualification; a new BTEC in Legal Work and national paralegal training framework; national competency standards; a code of conduct; a paralegal continued professional development (CPD) course; career development plans for paralegals and legal secretaries; and annual paralegal awards. All these are employer driven developments, yet four years ago there was virtually no demand for any of these services.

Such interest is not wholly altruistic. There is growing recognition that firms cannot expect their paralegals to act to solicitor levels of competence and professionalism with clients if treated as unskilled juniors at other times.

Firms and in-house employers are gaining a keener awareness that many paralegals need tailored training as many lack sufficient background legal knowledge to make the most of solicitor CPD courses. This absence of background legal knowledge highlights an important point: unlike legal executives, paralegals do not see themselves as lawyers, nor hold themselves out as such, nor undergo a broad training that mirrors that of a lawyer. Paralegals are non-lawyer legal practitioners: their skill is knowing a limited area of practice extremely well.

The current hit-and-miss application of training, supervision and professionalism does, however, give cause for concern. The Government is keenly aware that many under-trained, unregulated and unsupervised paralegals are advising members of the public. Having locked horns with the Law Society over complaints and complaint-handling mechanisms, it is all too aware of the dangers of a replay involving paralegals. So expect the new Legal Services Board to be looking at paralegal regulation with a much keener eye than anyone has to date.

The career of the professional paralegal has arrived and firms will have to consider issues of standards, recognition, training and career development if they are to attract and keep the best paralegals.