Send in the paralegals
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Simon Rogers reports on how an unrecognised workforce could be threatening trainee places in the big law firms
While aspiring trainee solicitors contemplate an uncertain destiny, there is one section of the legal population for whom the future seems increasingly bright - paralegals.
There is an increasing recognition of the need for staff who are trained and accredited to perform basic tasks.
Most UK perceptions of paralegals are based on the US ideal, which is of highly trained professionals operating at a different level from secretaries and lawyers.
Nothing could be more removed from the experience of British paralegals. There are no definitions. For most of the past decade, paralegal has meant anything, but predominantly the work has been simple secretarial tasks.
Part of the problem is calculating exactly how many people are out there working as paralegals. Around 19,000 of approximately 97,000 non-solicitor staff working in private practice are legal executives and members of the Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX).
Paralegals are a new step down the ladder, and many operate only in one area of a
firm's work. Law Society head of continuing education, Nick Saunders, estimates around 50 per cent of non-legal staff could be paralegals or ILEX members. So, there could be as many as 20,000 paralegals in UK private practice.
For the Law Society, this has also raised concerns that people are performing tasks for which they are not qualified. Saunders says there are no widely-recognised qualifications.
"There's nothing to stop anybody calling themselves a paralegal without any training at all," he says. "Some of the courses available are extremely superficial and don't have any credibility."
To combat this, the society is planning to introduce courses which will become a nationally recognised qualification for paralegals in various skills. It also intends to provide the basis for training as solicitors, should the paralegal want it. "It's got to be properly integrated into the skills training course," says Saunders.
ILEX is also concerned. It has set up a limited company, ILEX (Paralegal Training), and so far has registered 59 colleges of further education which have agreed to provide courses.
Course development officer, John Westwood, says: "We are offering courses that can stand alone, in their own right."
Whether or not courses become common currency - and it appears they will - large City practices seem to be taking advantage of the moves.
For some of the large firms, paralegals are a flexible resource, providing temporary cover when the need arises. Saunders says: "We are beginning to notice a number of City firms doing this. It's not universal but it is happening."
Cameron Markby Hewitt has several paralegals working at any one time, particularly in the area of insurance litigation. Recruitment head Roy Lecky-Thompson says the staff vary from law graduates through to ex-LPC students. Will the UK go the same way as the US?
Lecky-Thompson says: "It's too early to say. The employment market will become more flexible and people who will supply paralegal clerical support and are willing to work on a short-term basis may well find that it is beneficial for them as well as for us."
For some firms it is a recognition that trainees should not be spending their time on menial tasks. Clifford Chance has taken a deliberate policy decision to increase the number of paralegals employed by the firm by the beginning of November 1995.
Recruitment partner Chris Perrin says the new staff will essentially be working with trainees, giving them an opportunity to delegate work and responsibility.
"We aim to have an increased number of paralegals who will be doing work historically done by trainees," he says. Some will be trained, with law degrees, while others will be fresh to the business. Perrin says the move is designed to improve the lot of trainees. "It's all part of the continual improvement of their role," he comments.
Will the new staff be taking jobs away from trainees, used as low-cost, relatively unskilled labour? Trainee Solicitors Group chair, Fiona Boyle, says there has been a move towards paralegal work in larger firms, which she expects to have an impact on trainee places.
But she says most prospective trainees will still opt for articles: "I think some trainees are taking the paralegal option, but this is only seen as a short-term measure before reaching their ultimate goal of qualification."
The role of trainees has changed almost beyond recognition during the last decade. From valued apprentices to over-produced resource, their future does not look either settled or secure.