For law graduates not going on to the LPC or BPTC, a career as a professional paralegal is a real alternative. Being a paralegal is not the same as being a lawyer, but as doctors are supported by skilled nurses, so too solicitors are supported by skilled paralegals. And as with nurses, nowadays paralegals are becoming a recognised professional group in their own right.
A 'paralegal' is defined as any non-lawyer who does legal work. You become a paralegal simply by getting a job as a paralegal - there are no courses you must take first or organisations that you are obliged to join. Paralegals already make up (as a mean average) 44% of all fee earners in solicitors firms and are on track to outnumber solicitors in firms within a decade. This is because firms are delegating ever more (and ever more complex) work to paralegals because they are significantly cheaper than solicitors.
Leontia McArdle started working as a paralegal at international firm DLA Piper, having already secured a training contract at the firm. “When I was doing my application forms for training contracts, I thought it would really help if I had more experience in a law firm,” she remembers. “I started applying for paralegal positions to confirm my interest and to show it was definitely the career I wanted.”
Leontia describes some of the work that she has done as a paralegal. She says: “One of the big pieces of work that I’m doing is a series of transfers of land. It’s not a hard transaction but it’s just there’s a huge volume of work so I’m working on all the daily correspondence. The trainee does the drafting and client contact, and I have more of an administrative, support role."
There are also paralegal career options outside the traditional legal profession. Ten years of determined legal deregulation by government has encouraged the growth of around 6,000 paralegal law firms (commercial organisations offering legal services without lawyer involvement). Compare that explosive growth to the four-and-a-half centuries it has taken for there to be around 10,300 solicitors’ firms.
Similar stories are happening in in-house legal departments in local government and commerce. This fact, coupled with the trend for solicitors’ firms to prefer trainees who have had paralegal experience, means that you should consider paralegal work even if it remains your goal to become a solicitor or barrister. Also remember that doing good-quality paralegal work can help reduce the length of your training contract by up to six months.
While firms encourage applicants to have done paralegal work as a way of building up their portfolio of relevant experience, it’s sensible not to become complacent. Getting a job as a paralegal is no shortcut to a training contract. Many firms request that their own paralegals go through the same application process as external candidates for training contracts, as a way of keeping the recruitment practice fair. Similarly, as a paralegal you’d have to be prepared to continue working in a firm that rejected your training contract application. Paralegal jobs can also be flexible, which means they’re perfect for recent graduates. Part-time paralegal positions are rare, but fixed-term contracts for four to six months are often available, giving you time to bag both experience and cash to go travelling with for the rest of the year.
And while being a paralegal now offers a genuine career as a legal professional, the profession is still in its infancy. Accordingly, paralegals get paid considerably less than solicitors and have less status and fewer career options. However, it is a sign of how quickly things are changing that paralegals are now eligible to become partners of solicitors’ firms, to hold junior judicial office as tribunal chairmen and chairwomen, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority is actively considering recognising approved paralegals in lieu of a training contract.
In summary the role of the paralegal is rapidly becoming recognised as its own profession, a change necessitated by economic pressures that are not going to go away. For graduates, it’s the obvious alternative if they cannot go on to the LPC/BPTC and a great way to get the kind of experience that employers value even if becoming a solicitor or barrister remains the goal. James O’Connell, chief executive of the Institute of Paralegals (IoP), confirms that firms increasingly require paralegal experience of applicants. “It’s partly a way of testing applicants,” he explains. “But it’s also because after a year’s practical experience, you’re a hundred times more useful on day one of a training contract.”
Leontia concludes: "Being a paralegal is great experience. While it may not guarantee you a training contract, it’ll certainly open doors.” Leontia used LawCareers.Net when applying for paralegal jobs - follow in her footsteps by finding current paralegal opportunities on our Jobs page.
For more information, visit the IoP website or www.careerparalegal.org.