Paralegals: opportunity or exploitation?

Graeme Hydari examines the plight of the prospective trainee solicitor and says the exploitation of paralegals must be stopped before it shames the legal profession. Graeme Hydari is senior partner at Porters Solicitors. See Student Focus page 17-34.

Perhaps this viewpoint should be really written by a Legal Practice Course graduate on seeing a training contract for the first time. No doubt if they did it would probably have the effect of putting a final stop to any possibility of a contract, which remains so elusive in any event.

It seems common practice now for many firms, in fact too many firms, to take on LPC graduates under the rather meaningless title of "paralegal", for a salary well below the Law Society minimum salary for trainee solicitors.

Some receive no payment at all, while others appear to be claiming benefits. They are offered such employment on the "promise" of the possibility of being offered a training contract at some far off, and more importantly unspecified, date.

The paralegal then carries out work which is often identical to the work undertaken by a trainee solicitor and no doubt charged out to the client or Legal Aid Board on an equal basis.

Such is the understandable desperation of those seeking a training contract, that they will continue to work on a paralegal basis, often for up to two years, in the hope of a contract commencing at a later date. At best they may apply to the Law Society to count the maximum of 12 months as already served under any training contract they may some day serve. The effect is that after working for up to two years, they remain in a position whereby they have still to commence a fresh training contract of up to two years, putting back their date of admission as a solicitor by a similar period.

The process of qualifying as a solicitor is long enough without putting the date back, particularly when there are student loans to repay.

I have interviewed prospective trainee solicitors and have heard first hand the horror stories that many have to tell.

Some are registered as "probationary" police station advisers only to be offered no supervision at all. They are therefore unable to even become accredited representatives, which would at least give them something to offer prospective training principals. Many so-called reputable firms are involved in this practice.

Many paralegals employed in this way are unceremoniously dumped by their employers when they become more insistent on signing their promised contract, or leave of their own volition having grown tired of the failure of the promised contract to materialise and the poor remuneration.

As a legal aid practitioner, I and others know why this practice is happening. The cost of running a practice is growing and profit margins are falling.

It is now more cost effective to employ more paralegals ie more bodies for a lesser salary, than a lower number of trainee solicitors at a greater cost.

The Law Society minimum salary is in reality the minimum salary plus the cost of the Professional Skills Course.

Practitioners are disillusioned. No one seems to be interested in training someone to be a solicitor. A properly conducted training contract should reward not only the trainee, but also the employer, who should be committed to helping someone to qualify and join the profession.

While work experience placements for up to three months can only enhance an individual's curriculum vitae, it cannot be used as a justification of the current practice of employing trainees as paralegals for long terms. This practice stinks of exploitation.

Perhaps my fellow solicitors have forgotten that they were once trainees and that we all needed help to step up the ladder in the legal profession.

Many LPC graduates are giving up the idea of ever qualifying. The profession is losing potentially good lawyers who are vital to the future of the profession.

I am sure that none of us would wish a return to the old days, when only people from a certain affluent background were able to qualify.

It is time for the Law Society and the rest of the profession to look into this problem immediately before the legal Profession brings more shame upon itself.