“I do the exact same work as a solicitor but for half the pay.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve used that to describe my job as a paralegal in litigation. It sounds like an exaggeration but it is the unfortunate truth. The paralegal workforce is the best kept secret in law. Why pay NQs a hefty salary when you can hire a paralegal to do the exact same work for half the cost? It’s economically sound if you’re a partner and want to cut overheads. Just place a few supervisors on top to make sure the work is done right and you cut costs and get the same quality of work for less. Kerching.
Working as a paralegal in my current role, there is no difference in the amount of work, value of work and type that I deal with daily from that which the qualified solicitors, legal executives and some senior associates that surround me receive. What makes me different is the little tag under my name in every email.
The title is the ever-present limiter to career, pay and opportunity. There is no progression for a paralegal. Once you’re running a full caseload of litigated files you hit the glass ceiling and there is nothing you can do to break through it. I am not unaware of the commerciality of such an approach that firms are taking to build this paralegal workforce but it is effectively an exploitative practice. Surely equal work should mean equal pay and prospects?
It’s telling that some paralegals have more experience and have better ability in their area than the trainees who come through the same firms. Yet once again by virtue of titles and the archaic legal system the title ‘trainee’ always trumps ‘paralegal’.
As a paralegal your only options for career growth are to keep trying for a training contract, which you have no guarantee of getting and the firm won’t push for, or pay even more money to qualify as a chartered legal executive.
A lot of paralegals work in assistant roles or start in this role before becoming case handlers and the benefit of this is an accelerated and harsh learning curve which helps develop superb practical ability and organisational and time management skills. The paralegal life gives you a lot of experience and responsibility very quickly, which is great, but it only comes becomes it is required to meet the needs of what is a demanding role.
Often that experience is learning to fix the problems that the qualified solicitors you assist create. It teaches you to do things correctly but it ultimately makes you question why the title ‘qualified solicitor’ really carries so much weight. Juggling the needs of multiple fee-earners, non-chargeable commitments and fixing these problems becomes normality and staying later than those solicitors you assist is equally common.
At my firm the turnover for paralegals is extremely high. I would expect the average length of stay for a paralegal to be between six months and one year. My firm is fully aware of this and so they tend to look for good people who can take on and run large bodies of work quickly with the full knowledge that they will be out the door within a year. We are effectively a cheap and common commodity that plugs the gaps.
It is easy to point fingers at the partners and firms who exploit the system effectively but the opportunity is there because the system is archaic in its reliance on titles over ability and experience.
If paralegals can do the exact same job then it’s about time that they are recognised and get the same opportunities and pay as their qualified counterparts.
The author is a paralegal at a large international firm.
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