The paralegal is one of the most ill-defined jobs in the legal world.
There is no set definition of the role, with some paralegals working as highly experienced specialists in one practice area and others engaged in high-volume, low-value work or non-legal dogsbody tasks.
Paralegals are increasing in number. Law firms have realised they are a hard-working, low-cost source of labour and are taking advantage of the huge pool of unemployed Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates on the market. Yet there is still little oversight of paralegals as a body. The first attempt at regulating them came in 2015 with a Professional Paralegal Register, but as yet this covers a small number of the 200,000 that the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) estimates there are nationwide.
The paralegal health check survey produced by The Lawyer’s sister title Lawyer 2B is the first snapshot of the state of the market. The survey had more than 1,000 responses and many paralegals went into detail about their working lives, their concerns and their opinion of their superiors.
What do firms actually use paralegals for?
Lawyer 2B’s survey reveals that, for the most part, paralegals are used as trainees in all but name. Half of all those surveyed say the work they are asked to do on a day-to-day basis is essentially the same as that of a trainee. Only about 14 per cent say their daily work is typically lower than trainee-level, while one in five paralegals say their day is spent on tasks above what a trainee would be given. Just 4 per cent of all paralegals say they have “never” done trainee-type work.
There’s no consistency [in awarding training contracts]. HR do what they want based on who their favourites are
However, the wide spread of jobs that paralegals are used for is made plain. Some 60 per cent of those surveyed say they have been given work that a 2PQE lawyer would do “at least once”, while 15 per cent say they do that kind of work “all the time.” But equally, only 14 per cent of paralegals say they have never been asked to do non-legal dogsbody work such as filing or running errands.
In one sense, this is great news for law firms. Paying paralegal wages and getting 2PQE work for it seems like great business. However, worryingly for the profession a substantial minority (14 per cent) of paralegals feel their work is not properly checked and supervised by qualified lawyers. It appears this problem is not confined to just one region or type of firm: paralegals dissatisfied with their supervision come from a mix of firms, from the magic circle to the high street and everywhere in between.
Long hours, poor pay
Equally, the pay discrepancy between paralegals and trainees does not engender love from the former group.
“I feel I work to a similar level as qualified solicitors, bill similar amounts and often put in long hours, but don’t get paid as much,” one survey respondent complains.
Another says the single most demoralising thing about their job is “not earning as much as the qualified solicitor sat next to me doing the same work”.
This sums up the mood of many. The majority of paralegals are unhappy with their salary, with only one in three (36 per cent) agreeing they are fairly paid.
As far as the hours are concerned, according to the Office for National Statistics full-time workers in the UK average around 39.1 paid hours per week. Overall, our survey reveals that the typical paralegal in the UK works an average of 42.
For the most part, paralegals are used as trainees in all but name
London-based paralegals work slightly longer on average – 43.5 hours – with those at the magic circle clocking up an average 46.
Three-quarters of those surveyed agree they work just as long hours as the qualified lawyers at their firm (though the percentage was lower among magic circle paralegals). However, even though they are paid less, 55 per cent feel that “too much is expected of paralegals when it comes to working hours” – suggesting that many do accept working as hard as lawyers as part of the job.
Lack of training contract transparency
There have long been stories of paralegals taking jobs because firms make the vague promise of a training contract further down the line. The paralegal slaves away; the training contract never seems to appear. “I was verbally promised a training contract, which was then given to an external candidate at the last hour,” complains one source.
While this problem exists, it seems it is not the norm. Of paralegals working at firms with training schemes, 38 per cent agree that the firm “deliberately dangles the carrot of training contracts in an attempt to make paralegals work harder”. However, 51 per cent disagree (a further 11 per cent were not sure).
Paralegals have less favourable views on the recruitment process, however. Only one-third of paralegals think the process in which their firm recruits its own paralegals onto training contracts is ‘fair and transparent’, with nearly half saying it is not.
“There’s no consistency,” complains a source at a top 50 firm. “HR make the decisions and they do what they want based on who their favourites are that year. Several training contracts have been offered via the back door to people who haven’t even bothered to apply.”
Being referred to as one of the ‘minions’ during a meeting is symptomatic of the air of contempt some lawyers seem to have for their subordinates
Lack of respect
Aside from the hours, the pay and the occasionally tedious work, the final key factor that makes paralegals’ lives a misery is the lack of respect given to them.
Even if it is meant in jest, “being referred to as one of the ‘minions’ during a meeting”, as happened to one North West-based paralegal at a top 50 firm, is symptomatic of the air of contempt some lawyers seem to have for their subordinates.
“I’m treated like something the qualified lawyers have trodden in – until they need their backside hauling out of the fire in a rush,” says one paralegal with more than 10 years’ experience behind him.
To be sure, there are positive stories of paralegals happy working in great teams and being praised for doing good work, but they are outnumbered by tales of paralegals feeling they are on the periphery of teams, being excluded from socials, being patronised and taking the blame to cover their supervisors’ mistakes. When asked about the best aspects of being a paralegal most answers focus on the experience gained or the level of work they get to do rather than how they are treated.
Is it all bad?
Ultimately, is this job hell on earth? How much do your paralegals actually hate you?
We certainly received a lot of complaints and negative comments from our survey respondents but when we asked paralegals whether, overall, their experience is a positive one, the answer is a resounding yes.
Two out of three paralegals agree their experience has been positive, with only 11 per cent disagreeing (the remainder feel neutral about their time paralegalling). Those paralegals who have a training contract or pupillage lined up feel more positive about their experience than those who do not. However, even those still searching for a training contract feel broadly positive about their paralegal experience.
What’s more, 85 per cent of paralegals still searching for a training contract or pupillage feel their time paralegalling will help them secure one.
We also asked if paralegals feel valued by their firm. Here, the response is more split. Around half say yes, they do feel valued, while 28 per cent say no, and 21 per cent are neutral.
A paralegal at a national firm sums up the mood of many: “Being a paralegal is a great way for law graduates to develop their CV, but actual job fulfilment depends on the firm and team you are working for. I’ll use my experience as much as I can to help me get a training contract but my firm needs to do a lot more to make paralegals feel valued.”
What can firms do?
Some firms are realising that they now have so many paralegals that creating some kind of career structure for them is in order.
“We’ve gone from literally no paralegals to employing a significant number,” Trowers & Hamlins’ director of HR Paul Robinson told Lawyer 2B last year. “Five years ago we didn’t have any; we now have nearly 50 in the UK.”
As a result, in 2015 the firm decided to ringfence two training contracts a year for members of its own paralegal pool and introduced a wider paralegal career structure for those with other aspirations. It mirrors the structure of other fee-earners with various levels and commensurate salary bands taking into account their entry point: school-leaver, A-levels, degree, LPC-qualified and beyond.
“For career paralegals – that is, those who don’t aspire to become a solicitor – the structure gives them a framework where they can see what career with us they can have,” says Robinson. “These are good people who are really contributing and it’s important for them to be able to see where their career could go, and we’ll support them with their study through CILEx if they so desire.”
Law firms need to give paralegals more: more respect, more status, more opportunities for progression – and more money
Other firms are thinking about paralegal career structures, but our survey shows there is a long way to go. Some 61 per cent of the paralegals we surveyed disagree that, when you discount training contracts, there is scope for good career progression for paralegals at their firm. Less than a quarter agree that they “know what is required to progress as a career paralegal”, and what they might achieve in terms of title and salary.
Most tellingly, only 9 per cent of respondents agree that being a career paralegal is an attractive prospect, with over half ‘strongly disagreeing’ that it is a good path to go down.
These are problematic figures. In the future firms will still need qualified lawyers, but they are also likely to need large armies of non- or semi-qualified fee-earners. Paralegal-type roles are going to become more prominent. Law graduates need to start seeing these sort of jobs as an attractive career option – and that will not happen until firms think seriously about how to make them so. As long as paralegals and their ilk are looked down on as the poor cousins of trainees it will not be a career to aspire to.
Law firms need to give paralegals more: more respect, more status, more opportunities for progression – and more money. Make that happen and the problem of too many graduates aspiring to a good job in law may start to look a lot more solvable.
What’s been your best experience as a paralegal?
“Being trusted with my own caseload of lower value claims, attending inquests with counsel and conferences with counsel, medical experts and claimants.”
“Being treated like an adult human. Being asked my opinion on legal matters.”
“Attending a high-profile inquest with a client and counsel, and achieving a positive outcome for the client. Receiving positive feedback from a client saying that I helped her when she often felt she was ‘drowning’.”
“Negotiating conditions for an alcohol licence at a meeting with an MP and local residents, as the sole legal representative of the firm.”
“My first-ever mediation which I had to attend alone and resulted in the other side dropping their claim.”
“Attending a closing meeting where I worked opposite a 2PQE lawyer who treated me as an equal and asked for my opinion/advice.”
“Feeling like a valued member of a team that gained regulatory clearance for an industry-leading merger.”
“Writing the first draft of a response letter to be sent to the other side’s solicitors in relation to a defamation claim.”
“Feeling valued for doing the same level of work as a solicitor and moving into management of paralegals.”
“The hard work has paid off, so I now have a training contract.”
What’s been your worst experience as a paralegal?
“Doing better work than trainees and not being a trainee.”
“Lawyers being generally ignorant of my abilities (meagre though they may be).”
“Experiencing another paralegal who started at the firm after me being made a trainee solicitor without any sort of consultation with me about the opportunities.”
“Helping to train up a trainee who was being paid more than me.”
“Being snapped at by people several years younger than me because they’ve had a bad day.”
“‘Can you tidy my cupboard for me?’”
“The smug look on someone’s face when they talk about how hard their training contract was.”
“Having a chair thrown in my direction due to a partner’s cock-up, which I had to take the blame for.”
“The way some paras are treated by solicitors (usually not partners). A lot of solicitors don’t understand that paras aren’t morons who couldn’t get a TC but are people filling a time gap in a ridiculously expensive city.”
“Offering to help an associate and being told to get them a bottle of sparkling water.”
“Buying Kit Kats for a partner.”
Qualifications and career aspirations
It has long been accepted wisdom that paralegals are more qualified than ever, as firms tap into the huge pool of unemployed Legal Practice Course (LPC) graduates for cheap talent. However, until now, no research has been done into precisely how qualified paralegals are.
Lawyer 2B can now answer that question. The vast majority of paralegals have degrees – 86 per cent. However, despite many job listings asking for an LPC qualification, only half of our survey respondents have completed this course, with a further 5 per cent having done the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). London-based paralegals tend to be slightly more highly qualified than those elsewhere. In the capital nearly 90 per cent have degrees, 53 per cent have passed the LPC and 9 per cent have taken the BPTC.
The vast majority of paralegals have degrees – 86 per cent
There is also a perception that most paralegals are training contract hopefuls. This is broadly true. Of the respondents to our survey 43 per cent are looking for a training contract, with another 4 per cent seeking pupillage. Furthermore, about one in every five paralegals (22 per cent) has a training contract lined up and is filling in time before starting it.
What are the chances of a paralegal job leading to a training contract at the same firm? Well, of survey respondents who do have training contracts lined up, 44 per cent have got it that way.
Some 10 per cent of paralegals want to become chartered legal executives. Interestingly, a similar proportion are interested in pursuing the new routes into the solicitors’ profession such as the equivalent means ‘paralegal short-cut’ or an apprenticeship.
Just 2 per cent of those surveyed have no ambition at all to become a lawyer, while
8 per cent had given up on that dream.
Lawyer 2B asked: ‘While working as a paralegal, has a senior member of a law firm has requested sexual favours in exchange for a training contract?’
We did not expect this to be a widespread issue and happily we were right, although it was not completely unheard of.
Just under 2 per cent of those surveyed have experienced this kind of harassment, with a further 5 per cent knowing someone who has experienced it.
Among those who gave details of their experience, comments included:
“Flirting and wanting to offer ‘advice’ in a bar, restaurant
“A senior tax partner made sexual advances, with the suggestion that acceptance might lead to a training contract.”
“Constant sexual harassment.
Was asked about my sex life and to go out with one of the lawyers after work.”
“Was asked for sex in exchange for a training contract on a vacation scheme at a US firm.”