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Paralegals have long been regarded as the poor relations of the UK legal family. But now that law firms are coming around to the idea that paralegals are not just failed trainees, demand for their services is increasing. So if you leave law school without that elusive training contract, do not despair an increasing number of trainees are taking the paralegal path before committing to a training contract. Indeed, working as a paralegal before launching straight into a training contract arguably has several benefits. For instance, it will enable you to sample life at different types of firms and practice areas before settling in for the long haul. Whats more, some paralegals can command salaries of up to 60,000.
The career path and motivations of former paralegal Georgia Ford are typical of many paralegals. She tells Lawyer 2B: You can get to know your work much better [as a paralegal] than you would as a trainee because you are in a department for a much longer time.
We first profiled Ford in 2006 in The Lawyers Guide to a Career in Law and have now caught up with her again. Ford studied economics at the University of Manchester and after graduating she knew she wanted to work in the law. She had done work experience in the profession, but was unable to finance the cost of the conversion course and the LPC. On the recommendation of a friend she started working as a paralegal as a first step to a career in law.
Ford applied for a training contract with Bevan Brittan soon after starting as a paralegal with the firm. She was sponsored to complete her conversion course part-time, continuing to work as a paralegal for more than two years. She is now completing her training contract at Bevan Brittan and is concurrently doing her LPC part time, two to three evenings a week. And while her work and studies certainly keep her busy, she says she would definitely follow the same path again if she had the choice.
Ford has handled a vast array of work and taken on a reasonable amount of responsibility in her time as a paralegal. Much of the work, in fact, is the same as a trainee would do, including a great amount of client contact, researching the law in varied areas, attending conferences with counsel, attending public inquiries and at one point being seconded full time to a clients offices.
Jolyon Watson-Steele, a paralegal at magic circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, has had a similar experience. I wanted to be a paralegal to get more experience and to enhance my CV and training contract applications, he says.
In his first week as a paralegal he was dispatched to Scotland to set up a dataroom and is now seconded to the firms Brussels office in the European antitrust and competition team, dealing with European cartel and state aid investigations.
Not every deal has a trainee on it and therefore quite often Im interchangeable with a trainee, he says.
Indeed, the work experience Watson-Steele has gained as a paralegal at Freshfields has paid off as he is due to start a training contract with a top 20 City firm in September.
Watson-Steeles work as a paralegal also means he has the option to shave six months off his training contracts with the consent of his firm and if the Law Society agrees that he has met certain requirements.
Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence continues to suggest that some firms still treat paralegals as glorified photocopiers, burdening them with mundane tasks such as sorting through hundreds of A4 lever arch files in the name of due diligence. In short, a paralegals work can often be excruciatingly dull.
Whats more, many City firms also have an official and open policy of not offering training contracts to their paralegals, claims James OConnell, chief executive of representative body the Institute of Paralegals.
This is often made clear even before paralegals join a firm, so that they do not lobby for training contracts or compete with each other and with the established graduate recruitment processes at many firms.
For many, this often creates the perception of a glass ceiling. But attitudes are changing, insists OConnell. An increasing number of smaller firms are taking people on as paralegals first as a probation period, he says. If they are happy with them as paralegals, they offer them training contracts.
There is also a trend for paralegalling to be seen as a career in its own right. Historically, it has not been a career, says OConnell. Thats changed now you can be a professional paralegal.
With a general push for legal services, the Legal Services Act and the Carter Reforms which may make a lot of legal aid work less profitable for legally-qualified staff OConnell says he expects the number of paralegals to double by 2012.
Around 3,000 legal advisory firms staffed predominantly by paralegals have sprung up in the past four years in a sector where there is clearly potential for serious growth. There is also great demand for paralegals in the public sector and in-house at corporations and banks.
Senior consultant Priya Thukral at recruitment consultant Hudson Legal agrees there are many career options open to experienced paralegals. ISDA [International Swaps and Derivatives Association] negotiators, for example, dont need to be qualified lawyers, she explains. If you are very experienced you could get paid 50 to 60 per hour.
In-house positions for paralegals in certain sectors such as finance, or becoming a senior paralegal manager at a large US or City law firm can be similarly lucrative.
Foot on the ladder
While this all sounds good for paralegalsto-be, becoming a paralegal with a prestigious firm can nowadays be about as hard as becoming a trainee, according to OConnell. A firms ideal candidate is someone whos already been trained and they dont have to spend money training. If youve just got a [law degree], youve got problems, he warns.
Most large City firms, such as Freshfields, prefer candidates to have an LPC under their belts and a solid 2.1 degree, while many London-based US firms generally considered the most prestigious and well-paid places for paralegals to work at may require previous paralegalling experience at a City firm.
The key, if you have not done the LPC, is to gain relevant experience anywhere this is possible whether that means working in a Citizens Advice Bureau, becoming a magistrate, joining a small local firm for work experience, or volunteering.
If you have done the LPC already, it is somewhat easier and the process is often more formal, though no less competitive.
Amanda Turner, who is responsible for recruiting paralegals for Freshfields corporate department, says: We recruit
through agencies, people writing in, recommendation and weve also had paralegal recruitment selection days.
Paralegalling vacancies are published on many firms websites and the interview process is similar to and good practice for the training contract interview.
And ultimately that is still what the job of paralegal appears to be for many a step up on to the ladder towards a training contract and qualifying as a lawyer.
Given the boom in the paralegal profession, however, and with non-legally-qualified staff now being permitted to gain partnerships in law firms under the Legal Services Act, that perception may soon change.