Paralegal work: a guide for future solicitors

Paralegal work is increasingly becoming the norm for many graduates as the step before securing a training contract. It is even possible to qualify as a solicitor while working as a paralegal instead of completing a formal training contract. However, this stepping stone also has its downsides…

Paralegals are legal professionals who work in law firms without being qualified as solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives. Traditionally, paralegals have been viewed solely as support staff, but actually firms have become reliant on paralegals to do much of the fee earning work previously done by junior solicitors. Therefore in practice, there is often little to no difference in terms of skills and knowledge between an experienced paralegal and a newly-qualified solicitor (NQ). The term ‘paralegal' is generic and can cover various roles, from administrative to fee earning work.

Paralegal work has long been a good entry point into the legal profession for both university graduates and school leavers. Law graduates and converters via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) often work as paralegals to gain crucial legal work experience before applying for a training contract (now officially known as a ‘period of recognised training'). However, the Solicitors Regulation Authority's (SRA) ‘equivalent means' rule has made it possible to qualify as a solicitor without securing a training contract – this means that you can now qualify as a solicitor provided that you complete the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and can demonstrate that your experiences, skills and knowledge are equivalent to what you would have gained during a formal period of recognised training. Meanwhile, a school leaver who undertakes a legal apprenticeship essentially works and trains as a paralegal while gaining qualifications toward becoming a solicitor, paralegal or legal executive.

Thanks to law firms' increased reliance, paralegals are emerging as a distinct professional group in their own right. However, there is cause for concern 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 trainee and NQ solicitors, because paralegals are usually paid far less. But being paid nowhere near as much as junior solicitor colleagues to do the same work is bad news for paralegals themselves, while perhaps more importantly, many paralegals do not benefit from the career progression that is open to 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 it may be of more concern than you think because it is in the interests of many, many firms to keep paralegals in these junior, low-progression roles in place of hiring trainees and NQs, regardless of how incompatible this is with the ambitions and needs of a qualified and skilled workforce. 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, it is not a guarantee of success.

Another important issue to note is the big shake-up coming to legal education and training in the form of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), which is due to be implemented in 2020. The new exam will replace the LPC and ensure that formal training contracts are less vital than they used to be through enabling various forms of work experience to count toward qualification as a solicitor – including the ‘equivalent means’ route discussed below. However, the old route is likely to remain in place alongside the SQE until as late as 2030, so the SQE is unlikely to impact on the plans of readers currently seeking qualification.

Legal apprenticeships

Legal 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.

Our feature will help you to find out more about legal apprenticeships and how they work, while the Oracle also has also considered the cases for choosing between an apprenticeship or university. For a general introduction to apprenticeships in the legal sector, read The Law Apprenticeships Guide.

CILEx

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 her or his 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 newest development for paralegals is the ‘equivalent means' route to qualifying as a solicitor. As described above, this enables a paralegal who has completed the LPC to apply to be granted qualification as a solicitor without completing a formal training contract/period of recognised training, with the paralegal providing evidence to the SRA that her or his legal experience is equivalent to that gained over the course of a training contract. It's not easy though; it costs £600 to apply and the process is quite intense – find out more below.

The first paralegals to successfully qualify as solicitors in this way completed the process in March 2015. Shaun Lawler was working as a commercial litigation assistant at Malletts Solicitors 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. I'm now hoping to stay at Malletts long term, once I'm qualified. Shaun went on to complete the Professional Skills Course and is now a qualified solicitor at the firm.

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 this way. 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."

Not all paralegal roles are the same and some paralegals enjoy better work and status than others

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."

SQE

With the planned introduction of a ‘super exam’ is intended to ensure that all qualifying solicitors, whether they trained as apprentices, through a traditional training contract or the equivalent means route will have to pass the same assessment, which proves that all routes achieve the same standard. Legal work experience requirements will be made more flexible, so paralegal experience should become even more useful if qualifying as a solicitor is your aim. However, the implementation of the SQE is still a couple of years away and may be delayed, while the SRA has promised that the old routes to qualification will still be available for people to commence until 2020 at least. So until the SQE is introduced, its full effects are known and it replaces the old qualification outright, it is another possibility which further complicates an already complex picture.

Blurred lines

Paralegals are universally positive for law firms and clients because they provide valuable 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 editor of LawCareers.Net. 

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