Looking further afield for paralegals

With trained paralegals becoming increasingly difficult to source from within the legal profession, is the recruitment of applicants from non-legal backgrounds worth consideration?
The legal profession has a formidable reputation for demanding excellence and places for pupillages or training contracts are known to be highly competitive. This leads to many people who have an interest in law ruling it out as a career because they do not think they have the right background or qualifications.

So what is the answer to this problem? The long-term solution is to increase awareness among young people of career opportunities within the legal sector. However, there is also an emerging trend to combat the existing shortage of candidates – the recruitment of paralegals from non-legal backgrounds.

Paralegals have traditionally been recruited from legal support staff. However, there are several problems inherent within this method of staffing, not least the fact that support staff often spend a long time at one firm and are unlikely to seek employment elsewhere. Even if they do decide to move to another firm, this may not be the perfect solution, as all firms have different work methods and the new employee may well be working to a deep-rooted methodology at odds with another firm.

Recruiting paralegals from non-legal backgrounds is a way of bypassing the limitations that threaten to bind firms which pursue the more traditional methods of recruitment. One plus point of this new method is that you are not tied to hiring people who only have experience in one sector, or even one job, but can interview people with a proven track record of competence in other jobs. This is beneficial in terms of having an employee with a portfolio of transferable skills to bring to the firm, but it is mainly of importance with regard to communication and customer service skills.

Today’s legal professionals, although highly trained and well-educated, may sometimes lack the customer service or client-facing skills that are a crucial element of any well-run law firm. Candidates with good communication skills, organisational skills and experience with a variety of clients and a willingness to learn can be taught to do a paralegal job – the traditional legal secretarial skills are not vital as most firms have modern case management methods.

Paralegals with a non-legal career history are also often particularly well motivated. This may be because they were unhappy with a previous job, but many also see this as a chance to get a qualification or begin a career in law that they wish they had pursued earlier in their career.

Of course, as with all steps into the unknown, there may be potential hazards lurking around the corner. The definite lack of a wide background in legal work means that each new recruit will represent a large initial outlay. They will need to be trained and it will be some time before they become fee-earners. They will also require closer supervision in the first years of their fee-earning work, which, again, has cost implications.

A further issue may be the risk factor – there is no certainty of success with each individual. Even after successful training an applicant may not like or fit in to the environment of a busy department with tight timescales, demanding clients and a high-pressure environment. Applicants from the support staff route will have extensive experience of working in this kind of environment, and you can be more certain of that person succeeding.

There is no doubt that consideration of applicants from a non-legal background is a more expensive and uncertain route than the traditional process. However, the initial outlay will reap rewards in terms of the resultant quality of employees and their ability to communicate with clients. Indeed, with the band of potential support staff candidates growing ever smaller, perhaps it is time to consider investing in a new, more inclusive system.

David Borrowman, managing partner, Caesar & Howie