updated on 06 March 2023
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For law graduates who don’t want to qualify as a solicitor or barrister, a career as a professional paralegal is a great alternative.
Paralegal options exist in both the regulated and unregulated sectors, in the public and private sectors and in-house legal departments.
In the regulated sector, paralegals work primarily for solicitors, barristers, trademark attorneys, costs lawyers and licensed conveyancers. In this sector, working as a paralegal isn’t regarded as the same as being a qualified lawyer, and this is especially true in many solicitors’ firms.
Historically paralegals were to solicitors what skilled nurses were to doctors. However, the huge growth in the number of paralegals employed has meant that evermore complex work is delegated to paralegals and many run their own files and have their own clients, and some even run departments.
Obviously, in the regulated sector, the various professional groups are structured around solicitors, barristers, chartered legal executives, licenced conveyancers and notaries. Therefore, anyone who hasn’t qualified in one of these professions, may not receive the same quality of work, compensation, or career opportunity. This isn’t necessarily so for one part of the regulated profession: alternative business structures (ABS). There are now hundreds of ABS law businesses, and in many of them what counts most is your skill, ability, and attitude; professional titles (or lack thereof) are secondary. In an ABS business you would, as a paralegal, be eligible to become a partner/director.
Beyond the regulated legal sector lies the unregulated sector. Most legal work isn’t deemed reserved activity work, which means anyone can do it. As a result, the unregulated sector is already large and continues to grow at a very fast rate. Over a decade of determined legal deregulation by government has encouraged the growth of around 6,000 paralegal law firms (ie, commercial organisations offering legal services without solicitor/barrister involvement). Compare that explosive growth to the four-and-a-half centuries it’s taken for there to be around 10,400 solicitors’ firms (as of November 2022).
Unregulated firms cover an extremely wide range of practice areas: will writing; uncontested divorce; criminal law; general business advice; debt recovery; construction disputes; and mediation, plus more. The unregulated sector is still in its infancy and so ‘paralegal law firms’ tend to be relatively small. They do, however, offer paralegals the opportunity to become senior practitioners/owners.
A 'paralegal' is an individual who’s trained and educated to perform certain legal tasks, but who isn’t a solicitor, barrister, chartered legal executive, licenced conveyancer or notary. Even though there’s no statutory regulation for paralegals as there is for solicitors and barristers, and anyone can refer to themselves as a ‘paralegal’, it’s nonetheless recommended to have some training and qualification, or at least membership of a recognised paralegal body, such as National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP) or Institute of Paralegals (IoP) under your belt, especially if your intention is to work for yourself offering legal services and advice to your own clients. Having recognised qualifications, being licenced and a member of a recognised body will give your clients confidence in the work you do.
These days the demand for access to justice at a reasonable cost has grown since there’s virtually no legal funding for the average person in the street. The need for paralegal services is therefore growing exponentially, aided by the fact that the fees charged by paralegals are far less than those of solicitors and barristers.
A third area where paralegals are employed in significant numbers is with in-house legal departments in local government, finance, industry and commerce. As with solicitors’ firms, cost pressures are leading employers to increase their use of paralegals.
These days, there are bespoke nationally recognised paralegal qualifications available for an individual who’s not interested in gaining a law degree at university. (see the Ofqual recognised qualifications offered by NALP). There’s even a Paralegal Practice qualification for those who’ve already gained a law degree but wish to move into the paralegal profession.
So, to sum up, if you have a degree but don’t wish to pursue a career as a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive, there’s another profession that’s just as rewarding. The role of the paralegal is becoming more recognised and more significant. For graduates, it’s the obvious alternative if they cannot, or don’t want to, go on to complete the Legal Practice Course, Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) or Bar course and a great way to get the kind of experience that employers value, especially if becoming a solicitor or barrister remains the goal.
Jane Robson, chief executive of NALP, confirms that paralegal experience is a way to show that you’re aware of the law, practice and procedure, and can therefore become a valuable part of a firm. The experience can also go towards the two years' qualifying work experience necessary to qualify as a solicitor via the SQE route
Caroline Spencer-Boulton completed the NALP Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies and was then offered a paralegal job in a criminal law firm where she honed her skills. She passed her police station accreditation to become a police station representative. After several years, Caroline set up her own paralegal services firm specialising in criminal defence and gained a NALP Licence to Practise. She says: “I attend at a police station if someone is arrested, and if they’re charged, I can prepare their defence case in the magistrates court, crown court and beyond if necessary. I instruct a barrister to attend court to provide the advocacy throughout. I’ve been granted my licenced access which gives me the right, as a paralegal, to instruct barristers directly on behalf of my clients, without the need to go via a solicitor.”