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Don’t underestimate career paralegals

Amanda Hamilton explains why the legal profession needs to embrace all paralegals, not just those who aspire to become solicitors

12 September 2017

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In the past, there have been stories of graduates offering their paralegal services to solicitors in order to gain experience, only to end up a year later with such a huge workload that they are not leaving the office till 9 or 10 o’clock at night – and still not getting paid. Fortunately, these stories are dying out, and we are moving towards different attitudes about the value that this group of bright people can offer to the legal services sector.

It has to be made clear that paralegals are not always graduates looking for training contracts or ‘would-be’ solicitors. A large percentage are looking to be recognised as professionals in their own right. However, for those who are looking to become solicitors, it remains to be seen whether the new solicitors qualifying examination will be beneficial.

Currently, to qualify as a solicitor, an individual needs to gain a qualifying law degree, pass the legal practice course, and then find a training contract for two years. The new SQE is in two parts, and appears to cut out the necessity to gain the LPC. It also seeks to centralise the examinations so that all who apply for it are completing the same tests and this, it is hoped, will provide more consistency in respect of those coming through the system. However, qualification still requires a substantial period of ‘workplace training’ (isn’t this just another way of saying a ‘training contract’?).

If solicitors regard paralegals as no more than graduates wanting to become solicitors, then I can see that the SQE may well be beneficial to a graduate who would otherwise be struggling to find the funds for the LPC. But the problem still remains as to whether they will be able to find the requisite period of workplace training. It also remains to be seen what the costs will be to do the two exam stages of the SQE. It may well be that the costs will end up being similar to those of the LPC.

If solicitors would broaden their view of what constitutes a paralegal (away from the traditional view that they are simply would-be solicitors) and can regard them as professionals in their own right, then there could be a greater synergy between the two professions. And yes, paralegals, from this author’s viewpoint, are professionals.

A top law graduate may have knowledge of academic law, but let’s face it, unless they have had substantial experience, they will have no knowledge of practice and procedural law. A paralegal who has qualified through the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) would have gained knowledge through the intensive studies of both substantive law and procedural law subject areas. Many are already working in their specialist subject areas while studying and have far more expertise in this area than many solicitors. Why should they be overlooked?

NALP has been a professional membership body for paralegals for 30 years, and during this time it has been self-regulatory. In other words, since there is no statutory regulation of paralegals, NALP regulates its own members who have to declare that they will follow our code of conduct and ethics and be fully versed in the activities they can take part in. It is perfectly legal to perform legal tasks that are not ‘reserved activities’ as defined by section 12 of the Legal Services Act 2007, provided the party performing them is not ‘holding out’ or implying that they are a solicitor or barrister.

We find ourselves in an ever-changing legal landscape for a variety of reasons. There is no longer legal aid offered to consumers, litigants in person are clogging up our court system, and pro bono work offered by the two main professions is at unprecedented levels, which cannot be sustained indefinitely. And yet, we have a competent group of professionals ready in the background to assist and take the slack. Some are already being accepted by the courts (at the judge’s discretion) as being competent to assist LiPs through the court process.

If solicitors firms are to survive and blossom in the future in this extremely difficult legal services marketplace, they should be prepared to embrace paralegals working alongside them, and not only those who have an LLB and LPC but also those who have qualified via alternative routes.

Fifty years or so ago, a new legal profession was being established and I seem to recall that they had a tough time convincing solicitors that they could be competent professionals. Could history be repeating itself, although the descriptive name has changed? Chartered legal executives are now regarded as respectable, regulated professionals. We need the same acceptance in respect of paralegals.

Amanda Hamilton is the chief executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals

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Career development Legal services Technical legal practice Private client