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Paralegals are professionals who work in law firms, but are not qualified as solicitors or chartered legal executives. Although paralegals used to be seen purely as support staff, the role of paralegal has moved beyond just assisting solicitors - paralegals are becoming a distinct group of legal professionals in their own right, although at present this kind of role is still usually seen as a stepping stone to becoming a solicitor or chartered legal executive, rather than a career in itself.
Legal apprentices essentially perform paralegal roles in their firms throughout their apprenticeships. Meanwhile, the roles of more senior paralegals are often little different from those of trainee and junior solicitors. This means that you can apply to be granted qualification as a solicitor while working as a paralegal, provided that you can satisfy the Solicitors Regulation Authority that you have gained the same knowledge and skills in your role as you would have through a training contract. The first paralegals qualified this way in April 2015 – dubbed the “equivalent means route” – and this is now a valid route to becoming a solicitor (on which more below).
It is also possible from September 2016 to pursue a Trailblazer Paralegal Apprenticeship. As was the case for its predecessor (the Level 3 advanced apprenticeship in legal administration), this is designed to offer high-calibre school leavers a non-graduate route into a career as a paralegal. It takes 18-24 months to complete and apprentices choose a practice area to specialise in from a choice of litigation, employment, family, property and private client.
Another common reason why many graduates work as paralegals is that this is a good way to gain the crucial legal work experience needed to get a training contract. Some paralegals gain experience and then apply for a training contract at the same firm, while others move on from firms where this is not an option and go on to apply successfully elsewhere.
However, a note of caution: paralegals perform many of the same tasks as solicitors, but are generally not paid anywhere near as much and there is not the same clear career progression that solicitors can pursue. For law firms responding to their clients' demands for low fees, this means that a paralegal workforce is much cheaper to employ than a large number of solicitors to do the same work. This is bad news for paralegals trying to make a decent living and progress in their careers. It may be that the equivalent means route to qualifying as a solicitor helps to counteract this status and pay imbalance, and put more power back into the hands of paralegals and aspiring solicitors, but for now be careful and stay mindful of your prospects for career progression.
‘Equivalent means’ offers new path to qualification
There is one big change to the rules governing paralegals that you need to be aware of – it is now possible to use the experiences gained in a paralegal role to qualify as a solicitor. In March 2015 Shaun Lawler was one of the first solicitors to qualify in this new way. He says: “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. Paralegal work effectively got my foot in the door of the legal profession. I moved away from home to London 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."