Firms of the future: a paralegal paradise?

Rebecca Grant-Jones - Firms of the future: a paralegal paradise?

An enquiry into the future of paralegals was launched last week. The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) is leading the project which aims to figure out what the role of paralegals will look like over the next 10 to 20 years and whether they can meet future market needs.

Why? Well, it cannot be denied that the legal sector is changing and the role of the paralegal is becoming increasingly important in legal business structures. So, what does the future hold for paralegals?

There are thousands of paralegals working in England and Wales, but no one really knows how many there actually are, what level of training they have and what jobs they are doing. More than 12,000 paralegals are CILEx members, which means they are regulated by ILEX Professional Standards (IPS). The rest are unregulated paralegals and we know little about them, but the enquiry wants to find out.

At the launch event, hosted by DWF last week, a paralegal who works at a legal aid firm said: “I hope the paralegal enquiry will allow for a lot more transparency with what’s going on. Although CILEx has a lot of statistics, I think there are many more paralegals in unofficial environments who don’t have any kind of regulation or support. I think it will also boost the reputation of being a paralegal without the need for endless qualification, so that law as a career is more accessible to people from different backgrounds.”

Talking of different backgrounds, or entry points, there are two extremes for our paralegal workforce. At one end of the scale, there are highly qualified paralegals working and waiting for that last (sometimes unattainable) step to becoming a qualified solicitor. For a business, having excellent paralegals means great output at low cost. But surely the cost of recruiting, hiring and training a paralegal who might jump ship when something better comes along doesn’t make sustainable business sense, does it?

At the other extreme are the school leavers who take entry-level jobs at law firms. They, too, can become lawyers, but through the vocational CILEx route (other routes are of course available). They can be trained on the job and moulded to the business needs of the organisation. The employee has a job with clear progression and the employer has staff loyalty. There is work to be done on both sides in this arrangement - mentoring, training and studying - but this is a small price to pay in the long run.

I’m not suggesting that one route is better than the other for either employer or employee, but the market is changing and attitudes in the sector and among consumers toward the role and skills of paralegals are evolving. There are now a number of places where businesses can get their legal professionals from – meaning they can pick and choose the workforce to suit them.

The regulators for Chartered Legal Executives, IPS, and solicitors, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), both commented on the enquiry at the launch event. Alan Kershaw, chair of IPS, said: “There are many new ideas and lots of uses being made for people who are not strictly lawyers in the traditional old-fashioned sense - we need to get a clear handle on that and make sure, from the consumer point of view, that people know what they are getting.”

Carol Cook, manager of quality and standards at the SRA, said: “The paralegal enquiry will complete another piece of the jigsaw on what the market really needs; the skills that are really needed to deliver legal services to an appropriate standard that will enable greater access to legal services.”

CILEx wants the enquiry to figure out how businesses will responsibly utilise paralegals to meet the demands of tomorrow. The outcome will not only inform CILEx’s future success, but more importantly, will influence the future success of businesses, their workforces and the sector.

CILEx wants to listen to what the sector has to say, to give the market, businesses, employers, regulators and paralegals some clarity on the role paralegals can play in meeting future market needs. The first focus groups will take place this autumn.

Rebecca Grant-Jones is the PR and communications officer at CILEx.

Do you want to take part in the paralegal enquiry? You can express your interest at any time by emailing paralegal.enquiry@cilex.org.uk and you can join the online conversation on Twitter - just use the hashtag #paralegalenquiry or follow @CILExLawyers.

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