What is a paralegal?
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Paralegals are professionals who work in law firms, but are not qualified as solicitors or chartered legal executives. Although paralegals used to be seen purely as support staff, the role of paralegal has moved beyond just assisting solicitors – paralegals are becoming a distinct group of legal professionals in their own right, although at present this kind of role is still usually seen as a stepping stone to becoming a solicitor or chartered legal executive, rather than a career in itself.
Another common reason why many graduates work as paralegals is that this is a good way to gain the crucial legal work experience needed to get a training contract. Some paralegals gain experience and then apply for a training contract at the same firm, while others move on from firms where this is not an option and go on to apply successfully elsewhere.
However, a note of caution: paralegals perform many of the same tasks as solicitors, but are generally not paid anywhere near as much and there is not the same clear career progression that solicitors can pursue. For law firms responding to their clients’ demands for low fees, this means that a paralegal workforce is much cheaper to employ than a large number of solicitors to do the same work. This is bad news for paralegals trying to make a decent living and progress in their careers. It may be that the equivalent means route to qualifying as a solicitor helps to counteract this status and pay imbalance (more on which below), and put more power back into the hands of paralegals and aspiring solicitors, but for now be careful and stay mindful of your prospects for career progression.
Becoming a paralegal
Legal apprentices essentially perform paralegal roles in their firms throughout their apprenticeships. Meanwhile, the roles of more senior paralegals are often little different from those of trainee and junior solicitors. This means that you can apply to be granted qualification as a solicitor while working as a paralegal, provided that you can satisfy the Solicitors Regulation Authority that you have gained the same knowledge and skills in your role as you would have through a training contract. The first paralegals qualified through this route way in April 2015 – dubbed the “equivalent means route” – and this is now a valid route to becoming a solicitor.
It is also now possible to pursue a Trailblazer Paralegal Apprenticeship. As was the case for its predecessor (the Level 3 advanced apprenticeship in legal administration), this is designed to offer high-calibre school leavers a non-graduate route into a career as a paralegal. It takes 18-24 months to complete and apprentices choose a practice area to specialise in from a choice of litigation, employment, family, property and private client.
In the news
There have been a number of developments over the last year that mark the rise of the paralegal – recent news stories from LCN include:
- January 2015 – Trainee intake at Knights made up entirely of paralegals.
- April 2015 – First paralegal qualifies as a solicitor through equivalent means route.
- July 2015 – A voluntary paralegal register is set up by the National Association of Licensed Paralegals and the Institute of Paralegals.
- February 2016 – Conveyancing Association launches a paralegal training course.
- August 2016 – The University of Law and Freshfields launched a two-year paralegal apprenticeship scheme, as did BPP with its Trailblazer Paralegal Apprenticeship.
- November 2016 – Over 100 paralegals have now qualified as solicitors by way of the equivalent means route rather than the traditional training contract
The paralegal experience
In March 2015 Shaun Lawler was one of the first solicitors to qualify as a solicitor by the equivalent means route. He said: “If people have the necessary qualifications and experience, then they should be able to qualify as solicitors without needing a law firm's say so. Paralegal work effectively got my foot in the door of the legal profession. I moved away from home to London and applied for a few different paralegal roles with the aim of getting some experience while completing the LPC. Working and studying at the same time was hard, but it definitely gave me the experience that I needed to move forward, without which I would have found it much harder to pursue qualification as a solicitor."
Read more from those working as paralegals in our LCN Says blog series:
- July 2014 - Firms of the future: a paralegal paradise?
- January 2015 – Being a paralegal: from student to potential lawyer
- May 2016 - The power of no
If you are interested in working as a paralegal, look no further than our Jobs page, which often has paralegal (and other) positions around the country.