JOINING THE PARAS
Getting into law can be a hard, financially punitive, slog. However, there is an alternative to training to become a solicitor or barrister. You could join the growing band of Paralegals, whose position within the legal profession is becoming increasingly important.
Although they are not fully-qualified solicitors or barristers, you will find Paralegals working in law firms as well as many other institutions. Their expertise makes them invaluable to civil and criminal courts, to the public sector including Citizens’ Advice Bureau and the NHS, and to charities, trade unions, and commercial companies. They can take over surprisingly large parts of a lawyer’s workload including interviewing clients and witnesses, attending court, doing research, and preparing legal documents. In fact, the more experienced Paralegals in law firms may do everything a solicitor does.
There are now 500,000 Paralegals in the UK, as opposed to 132,000 solicitors and barristers, and according to James O’Connell, Chief Executive of the Institute of Paralegals, that figure is set to explode. ‘Paralegal is like the twenty-first century’s great stealth profession,’ he states. ‘This is an emerging profession and we’re going from being just junior employees in a law firm, to becoming a distinct role and career. Because we are in a transition stage nothing is set in stone, however the paralegal profession is forming rapidly due to socio-economic pressures.’
In the UK, a lot of solicitors’ hourly charge-out rates have got so high (over £400 an hour) many people are just not prepared to pay any more. By getting some of the work done by a more junior employee law firms can charge less for his or her time. ‘Hard economics are forcing law firms to delegate ever more work downwards,’ explains O’Connell. ‘Also, handling cases can be broken down into distinct jobs many of which can be dealt with by Paralegals. Another reason is regulatory; the Legal Services Act, the solicitors training framework review, and the reform of Legal Aid, are all pushing towards increased use of Paralegals. The other reason is because these days we end up interacting with the law all the time – parking fines, employment tribunals – we are overwhelmed by law, especially if you are a business, and so it makes economic sense to use an inhouse Paralegal rather than an outside consultant.’
According to O’Connell this is a great option to choose if you like the law but don’t want to be a barrister or a solicitor, and are looking for a less pressurised option where you don’t have to work ludicrous hours. It’s also great for LPC (Legal Practise Course) graduates who haven’t managed to get a training contract, and want to get a year’s worth of experience before retrying for a contract. In fact, many law firms are looking for permanent paralegals with the incentive of a training contract dangling in front of LPC graduates. ‘Being a paralegal can be a job for life, but it can also be a stepping stone to becoming a lawyer,’ he explains. ‘Also, this career gives you amazing transportable skills that will get you jobs in loads of other sectors.’
In order to succeed in this fast growing sector you need to be accurate, you need to be clear thinking, you need to be literate, you also need to have good social skills, and have a professional approach. A good business brain helps too. Although Paralegals do not earn as much as lawyers this is still a lucrative career. A recent salary survey by Hayes found graduates entering the profession in London could expect to earn between £20,000 and £23,000, rising up to £40,000 in a few years. ‘You could rise to the level of Associate Director, or even run your own legal practise as a paralegal. At that kind of level you can earn £90,000 a year,’ says O’Connell.
There are now a variety of specific qualifications available for Paralegals and O’Connell says the key to a successful career in the sector is to just get your foot in the door. ‘Graduates will find they have to apply to a lot of firms. What we normally tell graduates is to go to the law society’s website and use their Find A Solicitor search function. Try the legal departments of big firms near you. Our research shows that most PLCs have at least five Paralegals working in their legal departments. Go and work for CPS, benefits fraud teams at the local council, or at the NHS doing litigation claims. Many people find these alternative employees pay better and give better training than the law firms do. There are half a million paralegals in the UK and nine out of 10 don’t actually work in law firms.’