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updated on 19 December 2022
Working as a paralegal before securing a training contract is increasingly the norm for thousands of candidates. It’s even possible to qualify as a solicitor by gaining relevant experience as a paralegal, instead of a formal training contract – a route that could become even more popular with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam and qualifying work experience.
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Paralegals are legal professionals who work in law firms but aren’t qualified as solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives. Traditionally, paralegals are support staff but, in reality, firms have become reliant on paralegals to do much of the fee-earning work previously done by solicitors. In practice, there’s often little to no difference in terms of work and skills between an experienced paralegal and an associate. The term ‘paralegal' is generic and can cover various roles, from administrative to fee earning work.
Paralegal work is a good entry point into the legal profession for many university graduates and school leavers. Law graduates and candidates who undertake a law conversion often work as paralegals to gain crucial legal work experience before applying for a training contract – at their own firm or another.
It’s also possible to fulfil the requirements to qualify as a solicitor by gaining relevant experience as a paralegal instead of doing a training contract. This is called the ‘equivalent means’ route to becoming a solicitor.
Qualifying via the equivalent means route will remain valid until 2032 for those who’ve started their law degree or the Legal Practice Course (LPC) before September 2021. The equivalent means route involves the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recognising “your certified learning and work-based learning by granting exemption from the qualification and training requirements”. You’ll also need to meet the SRA’s statement of solicitor competence.
Changes to equivalent means route: SQE and QWE
The Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) will eventually replace the equivalent means route but there are transitional arrangements in place until 2032.
Head to the SRA’s website for more information on the transitional arrangements. If candidates don’t meet these, they’ll need to qualify via the SQE. To qualify as a solicitor this way, they’ll need to:
Candidates can build up their required two years’ full-time (or equivalent) QWE in up to four organisations, such as law firms, law centres and university pro bono clinics. So, if you plan to use paralegal work as a steppingstone to a training contract or to qualify via building up your QWE as a paralegal, you must now factor in the SQE instead of the LPC. To explain, as a paralegal, if your experience offers you the chance to develop some or all of the competencies required to practise as a solicitor, it can count towards your two years’ QWE.
For candidates who are no longer eligible to qualify via the equivalent means route, the SRA has outlined various instances where individual exemptions apply, meaning candidates could be granted an exemption from SQE1 or SQE2 based on previous work experience, qualifications, references and more. You can find out more about whether your previous paralegal experience and qualifications are enough for an exemption via the SRA’s website.
Find out more about QWE with LawCareers.Net’s advice.
Meanwhile, legal apprenticeships enable those who want to get into the world of work after their A levels to train ‘on the job’ as a solicitor, paralegal or legal executive.
Thanks to law firms' increased reliance, paralegals are now a distinct professional group in their own right. However, there are possible downsides for those considering this type of work. The heavy cost pressures imposed on law firms by clients' demands for lower fees makes hiring paralegals a more attractive option than hiring solicitors, because paralegals are usually paid far less. Being paid nowhere near as much as solicitor colleagues to do the same work is a factor worth considering when making your choice.
Many paralegals also don’t benefit from same the career progression as solicitors. This may not matter as much if you’re using a paralegal role as a steppingstone before applying for a training contract or building up your QWE, but many firms see it as in their interests to keep paralegals in roles without much prospect of progression because they do the work of solicitors at a lower cost. This means that there are far more paralegal roles out there than training contracts and newly-qualified solicitor positions, so while working as a paralegal to gain work experience for a training contract or even qualify as a solicitor through the equivalent means route is valid and sensible, success isn’t guaranteed.
Not sure what paralegal qualification is right for you? Read this LCN Says for some advice.
Law apprenticeships are a job-based route into the legal profession that are one of the available options on leaving school. Apprenticeships are an alternative to the more traditional route of going to university; instead of studying for a degree and then postgraduate qualifications to become a solicitor or barrister, a legal apprentice may qualify as a solicitor while avoiding the high cost of going to university; instead receiving on-the-job training at a law firm, essentially working as a paralegal while gaining qualifications. If you want to progress and qualify as a solicitor, you’ll then progress onto a solicitor apprenticeship. Solicitor apprentices are now required to pass the SQE. The apprenticeships will include preparation and training, with the SQE1 and 2 assessments incorporated throughout the apprenticeships.
For an introduction to apprenticeships in the legal sector, read The Law Apprenticeships Guide.
In 2021 the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) launched the CILEX Professional Qualification (CPQ), a new approach to on-the-job training that marries legal knowledge with the practical skills, behaviours and commercial awareness needed by lawyers in the 2020s.
The CPQ provides three levels of qualification: CILEX Lawyer, CILEX Advanced Paralegal and CILEX Paralegal. CILEX Lawyers can become partners in law firms, coroners, judges or advocates in open court.
There are no formal entry requirements for this route – it’s open to both university and non-university students. There are opportunities for both distance learning and face-to-face learning at various education providers across the UK; and it enables an ‘earn-as-you-learn’ model to increase accessibility and affordability of entry, while still maintaining high professional standards and competencies by creating specialist pathways, specific to the area of law that practitioners operate.
Work experience as a steppingstone to securing a training contract
LCN's Meet the Lawyer section is full of examples of solicitors who worked in paralegal roles to gain the necessary work experience to make their training contract applications successful – it's well worth reading the accounts of some of these lawyers to learn more about your own options and gain some valuable advice. Some paralegals go on to secure training contracts at the same firm and despite the fact that the recruitment process is usually the same for external and internal candidates, the skills and knowledge of the firm that a paralegal develops in the course of their role should be a real advantage over another candidate with less experience and no first-hand knowledge of the firm.
This is exactly the case for current trainee solicitor Esme Haberman who worked as a paralegal at Clyde & Co LLP between May 2019 and August 2021. Esme then started as a trainee at the firm in August 2022. She saw her role as a paralegal as not only a great way to develop transferable skills and commercial awareness, but also a fantastic “opportunity to build relationships within the firm and start networking in the legal industry”.
She explains that the work she did as a paralegal was very similar to what she’s doing now as a trainee, including “undertaking disclosure tasks, drafting legal documents and instructing experts/counsel”, and can, in Esme’s case, expose individuals “to some really interesting cases” early on in their legal career.
Many paralegals apply for training contracts at different firms to the one at which they’re currently working. Again, legal work experience is usually crucial for securing a training contract, so these paralegals' experiences should stand them in good stead. However, the intense competition for a limited number of training contracts means that, whether you’re applying internally or externally, paralegal work experience is a good way to boost your CV, but not a guarantee of application success.
Whether you’re eligible to qualify via the equivalent means route or are building up your QWE as a paralegal to qualify via the SQE route, be aware that some paralegal roles are much better than others, so make sure you know exactly what your prospects are before accepting a job.
For those qualifying via the equivalent means route, you should also make sure to record all your paralegal experiences in case you need to demonstrate evidence of them in the future. Aspiring lawyers who choose to qualify as a solicitor by completing two years’ QWE should also record their paralegal work as a way to identify any gaps in their experience. On top of that, the placements will each need to be signed off by a solicitor at the organisation you’re working with, a compliance officer for legal practice or a solicitor outside the organisation who’s had direct experience of your work.
You can find out more about how to get your QWE accredited in this Oracle.
Nonetheless, these routes to qualifying as a solicitor are much-needed options for paralegals who’ve previously not had enough control over their career progression. It also enables candidates to build up the necessary qualifications, experience and skills to be successful solicitors without having to compete with the thousands of excellent candidates striving to secure a training contract.
Finding the right paralegal role
Paralegals are universally positive for law firms and clients because they provide valuable skills and services at a lower cost than solicitors. They’re an “integral part of the legal workforce", Esme explains. “By doing both administrative and legal tasks, paralegals are often the ones who know the firm's processes best. They play a really important role in offering seamless legal services to clients. The legal profession recognises that paralegal experience demonstrates that you’re committed to a career in law, which will help in securing a training contract.”
Paralegal roles are a valuable entry point into the legal profession and a great way for aspiring lawyers to identify whether becoming a solicitor is a suitable career goal. “After university, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to pursue a career in law”, Esme says, before adding that paralegal work was a great way to help her decide what it was she wanted to do.
At present a stint as a paralegal is almost becoming the norm among successful training contract applicants, so paralegal work is definitely a valuable entry into law. One qualified solicitor says: "Paralegal work effectively got my foot in the door of the legal profession. I moved to London from Leeds in 2012 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’ve found it much harder to pursue qualification as a solicitor."
Esme is keen to add that the skills she gained as a paralegal have been invaluable as she embarks on her training contract, “not only in knowing how to approach trainee-type tasks but also to understand how a law firm operates as a business”.
It also enabled her to build up a “bank of experience” which she could then use when answering training contract applications. “For the generic application questions that ask for examples of when you’ve worked well under pressure, I had a variety of practice experience I could draw on.”
That said, working as a paralegal doesn’t just need to be a steppingstone to qualifying as a solicitor, with many people being quite content in such a role. There are still fantastic opportunities to work with big-name clients and on interesting cases – you only need to read Amanda Hamilton’s LCN Says ‘Glamorous sectors for paralegals’ to discover that.
Either through an apprenticeship, as a way to gain the work experience to be granted a training contract, or a way to qualify as a solicitor through the equivalent means route or SQE, paralegal work could be your gateway into the profession.
Olivia Partridge is the content manager at LawCareers.Net.