Paralegal courses get short shrift from the professionals

Are paralegal courses a necessary CV booster or just a waste of money?

Hundreds of students each year are forking out for paralegal courses when many are unaware that they have the qualifications needed to do the job already.

In theory, a paralegal does not need any legal qualifications at all. In practice, though, candidates are ­usually required to be law graduates or to have completed the LPC or the Bar Vocational Course (BVC).

But this is not stopping a constant stream of paralegal courses popping up all over the country.

The University of Huddersfield is about to introduce what it claims is the first-ever foundation degree in paralegal studies. The two-year course is set to run from September 2009 and will set students back around £2,200 per annum.

Its creators say it will be aimed at people who want to work as paralegals in small to mid-sized firms.

Dr Paul Richards, head of the law school, claims that technology has enabled a method of working whereby firms no longer need the services of qualified lawyers for some types of work because case management systems and e-conveyancing can be undertaken by staff who are less qualified.

“Paralegals are now doing a lot more of the bread-and-butter work in law firms and they need to have ­adequate training to do many of the tasks,” he adds.

However, the Institute of Paralegals had to cancel a new pilot course it had hoped to run in association with BPP Law School last summer because of a disappointing take-up from students.

Paralegal courses, though, have attracted a barrage of criticism from recruitment consultants that specialise in placing paralegals.

Hannah Jackson, a senior consultant at Hays Legal (pictured), questions the need for such qualifications and has even gone so far as to brand them a “bad investment”.

“Employers are looking for someone who’s done an LLB [Bachelor of Laws], a GDL [Graduate Diploma in Law], an LPC or BVC,” she explains. “It doesn’t add any more weight with City firms if you’ve got specialist ­paralegal training on your CV.”

But as the recession takes hold, law schools have seen rocketing ­numbers of graduates applying for GDL places because they see the legal profession as a safe haven compared with other sectors.

This means there is fiercer competition for training contracts – especially because firms have kept their vacancy numbers virtually static over the past few years. So many would-be lawyers who have failed to secure training ­contracts are turning to paralegaling as a way of getting a foot in the door.

“So many people are trying to get training contracts now that even the paralegal market is flooded,” says Jackson. “Lots of graduates are working as paralegals in the hope of being talent-spotted.”

According to College of Law chief executive Nigel Savage, this ­desperation to secure training ­contracts is exactly what some ­organisations are exploiting.

“The courses are daylight robbery,” he insists. “The people who run them are exploiting students who are already saddled with debt and are desperate to get their first job in law.”

But LPC student Annette Kallamu disagrees. She says completing a four-day course with AH Paralegal Training helped her to grasp the basic skills she needed to “hit the ground ­running” on her first day at work.

At the time she paid £170 for the programme (it now costs £270) and she says it taught her a range of skills, including how to take notes in court, how to analyse a case file and how to take statements from witnesses.

Kallamu claims the course, which is accredited by the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NAPL), helped her secure paid work as well as gain a spot on a diversity programme.

“It gave me the confidence to walk into a law firm with my CV and ask for a job as a paralegal, knowing I had the basic skills to do the job well,” she says.

“I know it’s not compulsory, but it helped me, and that’s what matters.”

Amanda Hamilton, who is managing director of AH Paralegal Training and the general secretary of the NAPL, says: “The course is designed to ­promote confidence that will go towards increasing the chances of ­students finding work and also provides employers with paralegals they can feel confident about employing.”

But the influx of these courses has been causing concern, even with those who are offering similar training themselves.

Richards at Huddersfield Uni has called for more regulation, but the Solicitors Regulation Authority says such courses are not in its “remit”.

“There should be some sort of benchmark that’s attached to all of these courses to make sure they all meet a certain standard so they don’t lose their credibility in the ­marketplace,” he explains.

The Law Society’s junior lawyers division has also called for the term ‘paralegal’ to be formalised to ‘LPC Paralegal’ for those studying or who have completed their LPC.

Perhaps this is the very thing that is missing from all of these courses. It seems that nobody truly is the final arbiter of these courses and ­regulation is still a grey area. So until then it will be up to the individual whether they should shell out ­hundreds of pounds to pay for what effectively is a ‘confidence boost’.

But who am I to put a price on that?