Slaves to the trade

it is a fact that we now have more than 40 US law firms in the UK and, therefore, an even higher demand for paralegals. It is also a fact that US firms tend to pay paralegals higher salaries than UK firms. But the question is, why? What are the facts and the myths?

Some would say that the only reason why US firms pay better than UK firms is because of the very long hours of work automatically required by US firms. Although that is true in many cases, there is a substantial difference in attitudes towards the role of paralegals in US and UK firms and this also makes a difference.

Working as a professional paralegal is common in the US. People in the US have been doing paralegal work since the 1960s. Individuals with no ambitions of qualifying as attorneys do courses specifically to qualify as paralegals. It is a respected profession in its own right, with its own qualifications, associations and an overall governing body, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA). The NFPA even recommends that future paralegals should have a four-year degree to enter the profession. Paralegals in some US law firms do so much work that they have their own personal assistants, secretaries and paralegal clerks. They are also called para-professionals.

In the UK, being a professional paralegal is a fairly recent phenomenon – indeed many still do not regard it as a profession. Unlike in the US, most people doing paralegal work do so to earn money while looking for opportunities to qualify as solicitors. UK paralegals are usually law degree and Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates who are desperately looking for training contracts, hoping that their firms will notice their skills and reward them.

This process is perhaps a possibility in smaller firms, but many paralegals get a nasty shock when they discover that most of the big City firms have an unwritten policy of not recruiting their paralegals as trainee solicitors except in very exceptional circumstances. This is also a rising trend among the bigger US multinational partnerships that are now qualified to recruit trainee solicitors in the UK.

In my experience as a paralegal with UK firms, I have seen a system that only uses paralegals to handle administrative tasks that anyone can perform. As a paralegal in a UK firm, there is very little opportunity to perform substantive legal work that requires the application of your legal knowledge and skills. You are hardly informed about the details of the legal transactions you are assisting on, usually kept at arm's length by the lawyers, and called upon only when you are needed to carry out the mundane tasks that the solicitor and sometimes the legal secretary do not have the time or patience to do. And there is usually no client contact – you will find that the only client contact you might get is when you are asked to deliver an urgent “by-hand” to the client.

Many UK firms do not appreciate the fact that UK paralegals are legally educated (although not qualified), and quite capable of handling challenging legal tasks. Some qualified lawyers even perceive paralegals as those law graduates who are not smart enough to become qualified solicitors. As a result, you will find many paralegals in UK firms spending their time paginating and photocopying documents. These same law firms will only recruit paralegals who have law degrees and/or LPC graduates. This is not only demoralising for a person who has just spent a large amount of time and money completing a law degree and the LPC, but it is also an inefficient use of a workforce. Surely that cannot be good for any business.

On the other hand, some UK paralegals do not value the paralegal profession because many do paralegal work as a stopgap pending their real desire to start training contracts. You find that many UK paralegals are not expecting or demanding higher quality work, yet they are very dissatisfied.

In contrast to my experience with UK firms, I have found lawyers in US firms to be more open in the way they work with paralegals. For instance, if you are working on a deal with an associate you are often invited to attend drafting meetings, you are involved in clients' conferences and are kept abreast of developments in the transactions. You are given more opportunity to draft certain documents and are allowed to use your legal knowledge more regularly.

It is true that the working hours of US firms are longer, and this can put off many people, but paralegals in those firms are well compensated by the wages they receive. It is astonishing that some top UK firms do not pay overtime to paralegals, but expect them to stay behind and work if required. The result is that you will find many paralegal departments in UK firms operating like sweatshops.

But it would be grossly inaccurate if I concluded that all US firms in the City offer great work and that every paralegal is happy there. I have also had first-hand experience of working in a US firm where I found myself using hard-earned legal knowledge and skills to do nothing but file records. Needless to say, I soon went into a coma for lack of mental stimulation.

In addition, US firms do not have trainees in the sense that UK firms have. You automatically qualify as an attorney after passing the bar exams in the US, thus, there is a need in US firms for attorneys to recruit the much-needed legal assistance from people with legal knowledge but not necessarily qualified. In UK law firms, that role is performed by trainee solicitors and so in terms of work quality, paralegals get the short straw.

Inevitably, paralegals tend to be disillusioned and dissatisfied, moving from one paralegal job to another, searching for a firm that is willing to utilise their knowledge and skills.

Even when changing paralegal jobs, most of the paralegals I know that have worked in US firms (including myself) have rarely gone back to UK firms as paralegals. It makes no sense to go back and earn lower wages, do more administrative work and get treated like the lowest of the low. On top of that, the average paralegal in a US firm earns more than a first year trainee solicitor in a top UK firm. Generally, paralegals from US firms will go back to UK firms only if they have training contracts or the promise of one.

Most of the big UK firms and a minority of US law firms in the City need to take stock of current trends. They need to give better quality work to their paralegals, increase salaries, change attitudes and perceptions and truly value the importance of paralegals in the legal profession. That way, they will ensure a more motivated, committed and efficient workforce. A great paralegal job does not have to be an oxymoron.

Perhaps the UK legal profession should itself be reformed. The training contract concept could be abolished, enabling those who want to practice as qualified solicitors to become automatically qualified once they complete their LPC, with a system of ongoing training at work. If this was the case, people who do not want to qualify could choose to work as paralegals or para-professionals and be recruited for that purpose. This would remove the disillusionment among paralegals in the UK and greatly reduce the high staff turn-over experienced in most paralegal departments. And those who became paralegals would mainly be doing so as a matter of professional choice.

Dee Arofah is a paralegal who has worked for both UK and US firms