Should I work as a paralegal to become a solicitor?

Dear Oracle

I know that competition for training contracts is very high, but I have also noticed that there seem to be increasing opportunities for paralegals: would becoming a paralegal be a more certain way of pursuing a career as a solicitor?

The Oracle replies

Paralegal opportunities have certainly increased in recent years, with both law firms and other companies heavily relying on them to take up much of the workload traditionally done by solicitors. The term ‘paralegal’ is pretty general and can be used to describe many different legal professional roles within both law firms and other organisations. Many different types of organisation employ paralegals in various roles, although they may have a more specific title, such as ‘contracts manager’ or ‘legal officer’. It is also possible to do many different kinds of legal work, sometimes quite specialist and technical, without having qualified as a solicitor.

Working as a paralegal has traditionally been a good way to build up the crucial legal work experience you need to apply successfully for a training contract and many aspiring solicitors still do this. But the real game changer for paralegals is that it is now possibly to qualify as a solicitor without completing a training contract at all. The ‘equivalent means’ route allows you to qualify as a solicitor without completing a formal training contract, providing that you have gained the knowledge, skills and experience through other legal employment that you would have through a training contract.

However, a word of warning – many paralegal roles will not be broadly skilled enough to enable you to achieve qualification as a solicitor through the equivalent means route. It also remains to be seen what effect equivalent means will have on firms and the number of solicitors they employ, given that the reason many firms rely on paralegals so heavily is that paralegals are cheaper to employ and so are the preferred choice for firms looking to protect their profits in the face of clients’ demands for low fees.

Hanging over this is the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s plan to introduce a standard Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) that all prospective solicitors will have to take in order to qualify. The SQE is now expected to be rolled out in 2020. One of the intentions is that the SQE will give employers and the public greater confidence in the equivalent means, paralegal-based route to qualification.

Another intended affect of the SQE is to give greater power to aspiring lawyers to qualify as solicitors without being limited by factors such as university and the number of training contract vacancies, so it looks like paralegal work could be set to become a much more common way of entering the solicitors’ profession in the coming years. However, with the SQE still at least over 18 months  away, it does not have to impact on your current plans – candidates studying for a law degree, the GDL or LPC will be able to complete this route until as late as 2031.

A further possibility to consider for those who have not yet made the choice between going to university and doing something else is the paralegal apprenticeship, which involves formal qualifications that can also lead on to qualifying as a legal executive.  

Working as a paralegal is not a certain way of securing a training contract or qualifying as a solicitor, but there are definitely paralegal roles out there which do enable this. If no training contract is immediately available to you, it makes sense to ‘get your foot in the door’ and gain experience.

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