This is the era of the paralegal

Amanda Hamilton

Paralegals are defined as individuals who are trained and educated to perform legal tasks, but who are not registered solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives.

There are many duties of a legal nature that can be carried out by paralegals who mainly work in law firms and within other legal sector environments, but who also may work in a variety of other sectors such as charitable institutions, local government and in-house legal departments of many different companies, all of which rely in some form or another on legal expertise.

Paralegals can now, in order to practice in their own right, apply for a Licence to Practise via NALP (National Association of Licensed Paralegals) or a Practising Certificate through the PPR (Professional Paralegal Register).

Paralegals can do mostly everything that a solicitor can do except those activities that are restricted and reserved for solicitors, and these are classed as ‘Reserved Activities’ under section 12 of the Legal Services Act 2007. Paralegals must not hold themselves out or infer in any way that they are registered solicitors or barristers. However, apart from this, a paralegal can work in a similar way to solicitors.

Reserved activities are, in fact, being eroded slowly. For example – rights of audience. Currently only solicitors and barristers have the right to represent their clients in court, but because there are so many Litigants In Person (LIP) (due to the eradication of legal aid), in practice, the courts are willing to permit anyone who can show competence, to assist LIPs in court.

The view that solicitors have of paralegals is taken from a different angle. They see paralegals merely as law graduates who cannot find training contracts and who are ‘would be’ solicitors. There are thousands of graduates each year, for whom this will apply – over 25,000 applied to do an undergraduate course 2016-17 competing for relatively few training contracts (just over 5,500 recorded in the same year).

Of course, looking at these statistics, there is the inevitable overflow of graduates looking to gain experience as paralegals in law firms before being ‘offered’ that all important training contract. The ugly reality, of course, is that very few will be offered such. If you take into account the statistics mentioned in the previous paragraph and compound it with previous years’ numbers, the odds appear to be insurmountable.

Sincere apologies go out to anyone reading this article whose ambitions have been all but destroyed by these statistics. All the more reason to box clever and find your niche via a different pathway.

As an undergraduate studying law, your expectations naturally are to move forward and qualify as a solicitor or barrister. This is why you decided to do a qualifying law degree in the first place. But did you know that paralegalism is taking the legal sector by storm as one of the fastest growing careers/professions?

Undergraduates are not necessarily made aware of the realities within the legal services sector until it is too late, or they are under pressure from family members who do not understand the sector at all. There have been unprecedented changes in recent years. The current legal landscape is totally different to that of 10 or 20 years ago.

In the past, common stories were imparted of graduates offering their paralegal services to solicitors in order to gain experience, and have ended up a year later with such a huge workload that they are not leaving the office till 9 or 10pm – and still not getting paid!!

Others being treated as no more than glorified coffee makers and gofers!

What is more worrying is the general lack of respect that there appears to be towards paralegals that appears to be going on within some law firms where paralegals are treated as nothing more than canon fodder. Any wonder, since there appears to be an in-exhaustive supply coming through the ranks!

The message to undergraduates and recent graduates alike, is to seriously consider the alternative route as a career paralegal. There is so much potential to offer paralegal services now and consumers are much more aware of utilising the services of a paralegal.

Luckily, the stories like those above, are slowly decreasing as solicitors start to realise that for their own survival, they need to rely more and more on the services provided to them by paralegals. It is a cost effective way forward. While it is true to say that as a paralegal, you may not ultimately have the earning capacity of a senior solicitor there are some law firms that value their paralegal employees so highly that you may virtually be on par financially with most associate solicitors.

Traditional attitudes to the provision of legal services have been upended. The Legal Services Act 2007, and its regulatory objectives, has been the main proponent of this. Among these are objectives relating to improving access to justice, promoting competition and increasing public understanding of their legal rights.

With the virtual eradication of legal aid, the consumer, now more than ever before, will need cost effective and accessible legal advice and assistance, whether working in law firms, or as professionals in their own right, paralegals are now coming of age.

Amanda Hamilton is chief executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP)

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