updated on 26 January 2021
Working as a paralegal before securing a training contract is increasingly the norm for thousands of candidates. It is even possible to qualify as a solicitor by gaining relevant experience as a paralegal, instead of a formal training contract – a route which could become even more popular with the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). However, this stepping stone also has potential downsides to watch out for…
Paralegals are legal professionals who work in law firms but are not 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 is 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.
It is also possible to complete the work experience 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. To qualify through equivalent means, you must meet the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s statement of solicitor competence. You must also either complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or, from 2021, the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE). 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 bad news for paralegals themselves.
Many paralegals also do not benefit from same the career progression as solicitors. This may not matter as much if you are using a paralegal role as a stepping stone before applying for a training contract, but many firms see it as in their interests to 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 NQ 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 is not guaranteed.
Change ahead – the Solicitors Qualifying Exam
There is a big shake-up coming to legal education and training in the form of the SQE, which is due to replace the LPC in September 2021. All solicitors will have to pass the SQE in order to qualify, so if you plan to use paralegal work as a stepping stone to a training contract or qualify through equivalent means, from 2021 onwards you will need to factor in the SQE instead of the LPC.
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.
For an introduction to apprenticeships in the legal sector, read The Law Apprenticeships Guide.
While apprenticeships are aimed at school leavers and are the newest route to becoming a solicitor, paralegal or chartered legal executive, the original CILEx pathway has been well established for decades and is mainly aimed at people already working at law firms in paralegal and administrative roles. Unlike an apprenticeship, the traditional CILEx route is also open to university graduates. Therefore if you find yourself as a graduate in a junior, administrative paralegal role without much prospect of progressing onto a training contract or qualifying as a solicitor through the equivalent means route, pursuing CILEx qualifications would certainly be one of the viable options available to you.
Work experience as a stepping stone 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.
Many more paralegals apply for training contracts at different firms to the one at which they are 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, unfortunately the intense competition for a limited number of training contracts means that, whether you are applying internally or externally, paralegal work experience is a good way to boost your CV, but not a guarantee of application success.
Equivalent means route to qualifying as a solicitor
The ‘equivalent means' route enables a paralegal who has completed the LPC to apply to qualifify as a solicitor without completing a formal training contract/period of recognised training, with the paralegal providing evidence to the SRA that their legal experience is equivalent to that gained over the course of a training contract. It's not easy though; it costs hundreds of pounds to apply and the process is intense.
The first paralegals to qualify as solicitors through equivalent means did so in 2015. Shaun Lawler was working as a commercial litigation assistant while studying for the LPC part time when he found out about the equivalent means route in Summer 2014 and decided to apply. "The process is very descriptive in terms of instructing you how the application needs to be approached," he explains. "You can't give generic answers or just talk about your experiences generally – you have to give specific case examples and back up all your evidence by having two solicitors confirm that you have actually had the experiences that you are claiming. The process took a long time – around six months – to complete, because the depth and breadth of the questions meant that I really had to think about how to approach them. In March 2015 I heard that my application had been successful on the same day as my last LPC exam, which was great.” Shaun went on to complete the Professional Skills Course and is now a qualified solicitor.
Robert Houchill, then a senior paralegal at Bates Wells Braithwaite, also applied through the equivalent means route and actually ended up becoming the first person ever to qualify as a solicitor through paralegal experience. Again, he found the process rigorous and demanding. "It was quite paper-heavy – there was a lengthy form to complete and I had to put down all the things that I had done that demonstrated how my skills and experiences met each of the requirements," explains Robert. "I had to enclose references and job descriptions and whatever else I could to support my application. But once I had done all that, it was straightforward – I sent off my application and tried not to think about it. Fortunately I had lots of experiences that I could use in support of my application."
The breadth of Robert and Shaun's respective paralegal roles was key to their success. However, many paralegal roles are unfortunately not like this. "At my previous firm I was working alongside trainee solicitors on exactly the same work – the only difference was that they had a piece of paper saying ‘training contract' and my terms of employment said I was a paralegal," explains Shaun. "Fortunately it was drilled into me that I needed to keep records in the same way as those trainees, which was obviously of great benefit to me when I applied for qualification through the equivalent means route. I was quite lucky because my position was a bit different to that of many paralegals, in that the fairly wide practices of the firms I have worked at have allowed me to gain experience in a number of different areas. As I understand, many paralegals work in one specific area and are unable to get that breadth of experience that you need."
Robert agrees: "Not all paralegal roles are the same and some paralegals enjoy better work and status than others – some paralegals may mostly be carrying out administrative tasks. Fortunately, my work experience has been much more in keeping with the role of a trainee solicitor and I chalked up a great deal of experience."
It's clear that the limited nature of many paralegal roles means that applying for equivalent means qualification is not always viable. The lesson here is to be aware that some paralegal roles are much better than others, so make sure exactly what your prospects are before accepting a job. You should also make sure to record all your paralegal experiences in case you need to demonstrate evidence of them in the future.
Nonetheless the equivalent means route to qualifying as a solicitor is a much-needed option for paralegals who have previously not had enough control over their career progression. "The main positive that I found from the experience was that to a great extent power over your career prospects is taken out of a law firm's hands and put into your own," says Shaun. "Gaining a degree and completing the LPC is very costly, so for people to fall at the final hurdle just because they have been unable to secure a piece of paper with ‘training contract' inscribed on it is a bad state of affairs. 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, so I think the equivalent means route is really welcome."
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. "The line between paralegals, trainee solicitor and NQs has definitely been blurred and I think that will continue," says Robert. "I think the cost pressures on firms have really contributed to the increased use of paralegals, as firms rely heavily on them to protect billing. Firms don't want to be paying NQ-level salaries when they can pay paralegals less to do the same job. I think paralegals have really masked, to some extent, what has been a decline in the profitability of legal services."
However, for the paralegals themselves, these roles have distinct negative implications, as well as positive. Paralegal roles are a valuable entry point into the legal profession, but some firms simply want paralegals to be cheap labour and do not look to enable their paralegals to gain valuable experiences which progress their careers, nor provide opportunities for advancement. That may be fine from the perspective of some employers, but no one LCN has spoken to sees paralegal work as their ultimate career destination. "Paralegals are able to do the same work as trainees, but are paid far less, so I think increasingly firms are deciding that they don't need to take on as many trainees," says Shaun. "That said, I think firms will continue to see paralegals and trainees as different in the majority of cases, while I don't know if most firms will want their paralegals to qualify as solicitors through the equivalent means route, as this will likely mean that those paralegals will want to be promoted internally or will start looking elsewhere. It's going to be interesting to see how the paralegal profession progresses over the next few years."
At present a stint as a paralegal is almost becoming the norm among successful training contract applicants, so paralegal work is definitely a valuable gateway into law. "Paralegal work effectively got my foot in the door of the legal profession," says Shaun. "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 have found it much harder to pursue qualification as a solicitor."
It may also be that the equivalent means route to qualification comes to rebalance some of the inequity between low-paid paralegals and the partners who employ them and benefit from the resulting profits – unfortunately it's too early to say. For now, 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, paralegal work is a (not guaranteed) stepping stone to a career in law.
Josh Richman is the senior editorial manager of LawCareers.Net.