Samuel Clague | Founder | The Stephen James Partnership Legal
Survival Guide: Paralegal work
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Because of changes in the way law firms conduct business, the number of paralegals is expected to grow by at least 18% by 2017 - here’s a rundown on the benefits of paralegalling and how to become one of them.
What is a Paralegal?
There is no set definition of a paralegal, however, broadly speaking a paralegal is someone who undertakes legal work and who has not qualified as a solicitor or barrister. Being a paralegal can take many forms, such as working as a legal assistant, contracts manager, caseworker, legal transaction assistant, compliance manager, among others. What is relevant, is that you carry out legal work sufficiently often to be considered as a legal practitioner, therefore, doing solely administrative work in a law firm would not be classed as paralegal work.
Benefits of Paralegal work
Working as a paralegal can enable you to put into practice some of the skills from your degree and/or law school, such as legal research, drafting and preparing bundles. Moreover, working as a paralegal can be one of the best ways to secure a training contract, especially in the current competitive market. As a paralegal in a law firm, you will likely have some contact with the partners, some of whom may been involved in the trainee recruitment process at the firm. If you work hard and perform successfully in front of a partner who has a say in the training contract recruitment process, this could help differentiate you from the other candidates, as the partner will know you and could put in a good word on your behalf.
Working as a paralegal is in this regard a great way to network with other members of the firm, not just the partners. As a service based business, law is very much people centric. Deals and cases can be won and lost on the strength of personal relationships. Therefore, if, as a paralegal you get on with everyone at the firm, you stand a better chance of securing a training contract there than someone who does not get on well with others.
Having paralegal experience can also increase your chances of obtaining a TC at other law firms and not just the firm where you work. Working as a paralegal shows a level of commitment to the legal profession, which law firms highly value. Having actual legal experience that you can discuss at an interview can help strengthen your application, especially if the work and type of firm that you do as a paralegal is similar to the work/type of firm where you apply to be a trainee.
Financially, being a paralegal can help particularly if you have self funded your courses. Paralegal salaries vary greatly depending on firm, location and experience. With overtime, it is not unheard of for paralegals to occasionally earn more than trainees at the same firm.
How to get paralegal work when you are told you need experience
In the last few years it has been increasingly tough to find paralegal work for law graduates, as many firms now require the LPC and 6 months + paralegal experience for entry level positions. Some firm’s will be flexible in this regard, others will not. If you have recently finished law school and are looking for paralegal work, you need to think laterally [as all good lawyers need to] to find legal work. Perhaps you could approach some firms that you are particularly interested in working at directly? Or you could send or drop in your CV and politely introduce yourself. Firms appreciate that it is tough to secure legal work at present, and will look favourably upon your pro-active approach to finding work.
You may also wish to register your CV with a number of specialist agencies, as they may have roles that do not require experience from time-to-time which you can apply for. If not, it will put you on their radar so that if anything that may be suitable arises, they can let you know.
Networking can also be crucial in finding paralegal work. Whether it’s a friend, neighbour, relative, acquaintance or a more tenuous link, you need to make the most of any contacts that you have in the legal profession. Most people will not mind having a quick chat or a coffee, especially if you have researched their profile and firm thoroughly beforehand. Most solicitors and partners will have been in a similar situation to you some years ago, so be confident and you could be surprised by the results. A meeting with a lawyer will probably not lead to a TC straight away, but it could lead to unpaid work, which in turn could open doors for paralegal work, experience and possibly even a TC.
With many people fighting for each paralegal role it is likely that you will face rejection. The important thing is to learn from each interview that you have and take what you have learned forward to the next interview. Afterwards analyse how you answered the questions, were your answers succinct, did you have a good rapport with your interviewer/s etc. If you are unsuccessful, ask for feedback so you can improve next time.
What’s involved when you work as a Paralegal?
The exact work that you carry out as a paralegal varies from organisation to organisation. In larger law firms, you may specialise in a particular area of law. Working for a company (in-house), you may have a broader range of work and become more of a generalist. Typical paralegal work could involve: legal research; document review; paginating; preparing bundles; drafting of legal documents; proof reading; and undertaking due dilligence.
Paralegal roles are not limited to law firms and companies, government organisations and charities also hire paralegals, so there can be many different areas to explore work wise. Many people also prefer working as a paralegal to training as a solicitor, and having a career as a paralegal can be a rewarding choice in its own right.
The key to securing a paralegal role is to work hard, persistence, creativity in your approach to gaining work, relationship building and ultimately differentiating yourself from the competition.