Paralegal purgatory

For years, it was accepted that a stint as a paralegal would boost aspiring lawyers’ chances of getting a training contract. Is that the case any more?

Training contracts are becoming more scarce. The number registered in 2011/12 was 4,869 – the lowest since 1997/98 and down from a pre-recession high of 6,303.

Though investing in trainees reaps dividends in the long term, they are expensive at first, with the cost of grad recruitment campaigns and funding through law school – not to mention generous salaries – adding up to many thousands of pounds.

Given that trainees are then often staffed on low-level tasks, it’s little wonder that firms have reconsidered how many trainees they take, and how they should be deployed.

But while training contracts have declined in number, paralegal roles are booming. Cheaper than trainees, they are also a more flexible labour force.

“Paralegal numbers have gone up significantly in the past year and a half,” confirms Samuel Clague, founder of the Stephen James Partnership, which specialises in placing paralegals. “Faced with pressure on costs from clients, firms are recognising the benefits of employing paralegals on a temporary, contract or permanent basis.”

Firms are finding a better quality of paralegal candidate than ever, as graduates coming out of law school without a training contract lined up turn to paralegalling. In fact, although no qualifications are needed to become a paralegal, firms now often ask for not just a law graduate, but someone who has completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) as well.

“It’s nearly impossible to get work without one of those qualifications,” opines one City paralegal. “All the paralegals at my firm are LPC or BPTC grads, or studying for one part-time.”

Others temper that assessment. “If someone has a language, especially Russian, Chinese or Spanish, they don’t need the LPC,” says one former paralegal turned trainee. “There are plenty of people at my place who have no law degree – it’s how well you know the language that’s key, especially in litigation departments.”

This may be the case, but “for most of our roles the clients will ask for people who have done the LPC or the BPTC,” says Clague.

Pay squeeze

Not only are they more qualified than ever, the huge number of people willing to work as paralegals is pushing salaries down.

According to a 2012 survey by recruitment agency Hays, a paralegal at a London law firm with no previous experience could expect to be paid between £20,000 and £23,000 per year. But, says Clague, the market is now such that there will always be somebody who will work for less. Although most larger firms generally still pay respectable salaries, paralegal jobs are being advertised for considerably less than £20,000.

“Well-established, modern, progressive London practice is looking for a bright, dedicated paralegal to join their successful family team,” reads one such job listing from February. “As the successful candidate you will have a minimum of an LLB Law degree, preferably a 2:1, and a successfully completed LPC is desirable.”

”Salary, between £13,000 and £15,000, dependent on calibre of the candidate.”

Some of those offering such low salaries are high street firms genuinely feeling the legal aid squeeze.

“Occasionally, you think certain firms are seeing how little they can get someone for, as opposed to there being genuine pressures,” says Clague. “I’ve seen roles advertised for £10,000 a year in central London – that’s not a living wage.”

The poor relations

Graduates see these roles as loss leaders, hoping the experience will act as a springboard to a better role and, eventually, a training contract. But it is a path full of traps for the unwary.

The particularly unfortunate candidate may get hired as a paralegal with the vague promise of a training contract later down the line. With this carrot duly dangled, the employee throws themselves into their work with gusto, but the training contract never emerges.

“It’s possible for firms to promise a training contract and not deliver, knowing they’re going to get really hungry people who are going to keep working for very little,” says Clague.

Jane (not her real name) got a paralegal job at a small City firm that takes a half a dozen or so trainees a year. On being recruited, “our small group of paralegals was called into meetings to discuss future training and access to training contracts. We were told that we were on the first rung of the training ladder and given the sense that we were viewed as next in line for training contracts,” she says. “We were told we’d likely participate in a departmental rotation scheme, just like trainees, and there seemed a lot of excitement at the firm about our prospects.

“We did very similar work to the trainees, only for far less pay and often under more strain because we were permanent staff with our own caseloads and billing targets, while the trainees were there to learn and didn’t have targets.

“In certain specific, situations we were offered overtime pay, but few of us claimed it for fear of seeming unwilling to work the extra time and that being seen as a blot on our copybooks. If ever we were unhappy about a particular working situation, the group as a whole found it difficult to speak up because no-one wanted to compromise their chance of getting a training contract.”

By the end of Jane’s stint, talk of the paralegals being ‘entry-level trainees’ had quietened. Some at Jane’s firm did eventually get training contracts, but unlike trainees who came in from outside the organisation, they were not reimbursed for their LPC fees.

“There was a sense that if you stuck it out at the firm for long enough you could get there, but you’d likely be detained at paralegal level for quite a long period of time while the firm effectively used you and your pre-paid LPC qualification as cheap labour.”

This is a common story across the City. While Jane’s firm made no specific promises to its paralegals and is entitled to pay them what it likes, there is a lingering sense of injustice about paralegals earning so much less than trainees when many of them do a similar job.

One of the problems is that the role of paralegal is so poorly defined. It is a largely unregulated profession and the tasks can vary wildly. In some cases their job can involve little more than photocopying and getting partners’ suits dry-cleaned, while in other cases they are used as full-blown fee-earners and can be as competent as qualified solicitors. But their lack of an official qualification leaves their contribution at risk of being overlooked.

Stories of hope

While some firms promise paralegals a training contract that never appears, the opposite is true elsewhere.

“The first thing many firms tell us when they’ve got a paralegal role up for grabs is to make it clear to applicants that it’s not a route to a training contract,” says Matt Franklin of recruiter SSQ Interim Solutions.

Exceptions to the rule are by no means unheard of.

“We placed someone as a paralegal at a silver circle firm,” adds Franklin. “She was told outright she’d never get a training contract there, but they’ve since given her one.”

“It happens more often than firms let on,” concurs one graduate recruiter. “They don’t like to publicise it because they don’t want a glut of people applying for paralegal roles on the premise they might get a training contract out of it.”

Leila, a former paralegal now qualified as a junior solicitor, tells of three former colleagues who were taken on as trainees at a large London firm after stints paralegalling there.

“You work with the partners and you prove you’re good: if you have the right skills and everything in place academically, why wouldn’t they take you?” she asks.

A graduate recruitment partner at a large commercial firm agrees.

“It doesn’t happen often but if you have a partner who’s working with 25 paralegals and is saying, ‘Look, this one’s special’ you have to pay attention.”

”You do also have to be aware of how a person will make the transition from having been a paralegal for a number of years to being a trainee: that can be difficult.”

The limbo dance

If these stories give hope to aspiring solicitors everywhere, there are plenty of other paralegals who find themselves in a form of purgatory – the longer they spend in the role, the less they are viewed as trainee material.

“You’re old hat after a year, when the new bunch of LPC grads come through and are seen as the new bright young things,” says one recruiter. “Firms wonder if you’re good enough if you haven’t got a training contract after two or three years.”

“I look at paralegals who have gone on to get training contracts and those that haven’t and I don’t think the former are necessarily better than the latter – a lot comes down to luck,” adds Clague.

“My advice to anyone in that position would be to have fantastic answers for why it’s taken them a number of years. Otherwise, it’s quite an easy stumbling block at interview.”

“Sometimes, it’s better to have differentiated yourself,” adds Leila. “Paralegalling is all very well, but if you want a training contract, partners might look more closely at someone who has spent a little time in, say, investment banking or chambers of commerce.”

Stick or twist

The question of when aspiring trainees should call it a day is a tough one. According to Clague, the two or three-year mark is a good indication of where people will end up.

“If someone has worked as a paralegal for a few years, has been applying to the right type of firms in the right kind of way but has failed to meet with much success, there’s probably a reason,” he says. “With other people who haven’t quite managed to get a training contract but have had some success – getting down to the last two candidates, getting positive feedback at assessment days – it’s harder to call.”

Pulling out of the training contract market is a difficult decision to come to terms with. No-one spends thousands on law school with the ambition of becoming a career paralegal. But many feel they don’t have another option.

“The difference I see now is people taking the LPC or BPTC who don’t land a training contract or pupillage and resign themselves to working as paralegals because they’ve got a mortgage to pay and need a regular income,” says Clague. “If they’ve got commitments, people feel locked in. Some will take the skills they’ve learnt into another industry, but others will say ‘This is me’.”

And paralegal purgatory has claimed another soul.