Paralegals are defined as legally trained and educated individuals who perform legal work and offer legal advice and assistance but who are not qualified and registered solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives.
In most environments, where legal services or tasks are provided or required, there is a paralegal present and carrying out relevant and challenging work, which has meaning for the client. It is not, therefore, solely a dull meaningless role, inferred by some of the evidence put forward in the Legal Education and Training Review in 2013. Although some of the work provided by paralegals can be repetitive, roles vary enormously and some can lead to varying degrees of responsibility such as heading up a litigation department in a regulated firm, or department head in a debt recovery department of a local authority.
Paralegals can also gain a Licence to Practise from NALP (National Association of Licenced Paralegals). This means that they can offer legal assistance directly to their own clients provided they have been vetted by their professional body in respect of their competence i.e. experience/qualifications, as well as having Professional Indemnity Insurance. Apart from ‘reserved activities’ there is, therefore, a broad spectrum of legal work that can be performed by paralegals.
Where does the term ‘paralegal’ originate?
The term “paralegal’ has been used in the United States since the late 1960s. The US government and American Bar Association realised legal services should be made more accessible and less costly to the public. At the same time, Attorneys required trained legal assistants, and thus the term was born.
It was first mentioned by the Law Society of England and Wales in their Research and Policy Planning Unit publication in 1993, in a document entitled ‘’Proceedings from the Annual Research Conference 1993 on Legal Education” although it was, arguably, NALP (in its former existence as The Paralegal Association) that was responsible for making the term more commonly known in England and Wales after its inception in 1987.
What has caused the emergence of the Paralegal Profession?
There are three main answers to this question. Firstly, the number of institutions currently offering the professional courses (PBTC and LPC). The courses are offered at considerable expense to students who cannot then gain pupillages or training contracts. Thirty years ago, there were four colleges running the Solicitor’s Final Examinations (SFE – now the LPC) – all of them were Colleges of Law, run by The Law Society. In 2001 it was 28 providers, and in 2010 it was 42. The regulated legal sector cannot provide sufficient roles for these graduates who, therefore, have turned to Paralegal work. Some bide their time in an effort to get offered that all important training contract or pupillage. Others are now realising that there is an alternative ‘profession’ which is just as viable and rewarding.
The second reason for the emergence of this rapidly growing profession is the Legal Services Act 2007, with its main objectives to open up legal services to other providers, and to ensure consumer choice and reasonable costs.
Last but not least, is the virtual eradication of legal aid in 2013. The Courts need to know that a consumer, representing him/herself (AKA litigant in person, or LIP), has the fundamental right to be primed and supported by a legal professional, even though that legal professional may not be, what has in the past been, traditionally acceptable. Paralegals are filling this gap. They do not have to charge as much as solicitors per hour for equivalent work, which is more affordable for the LIP.
If we wish to avoid the total collapse of the Court system in England and Wales, we need to give credence to the growing profession that is climbing through the ranks of legal service providers: that of the Paralegal. NALP (The National Association of Licenced Paralegals) has been the self-regulatory body for Paralegals for over thirty years.
What is happening now?
The legal sector has changed out of all recognition over the last few years. Traditional attitudes to the provision of legal services have been upended. We cannot go back to the way it was thirty or forty years ago.
The myth surrounding Paralegals, which appears to be promoted by certain traditional professionals, is that they are nothing more than would-be solicitors or barristers, trying to find training contracts or pupillages in vain. Such myths are exacerbated by the fact that many graduates are so desperate to gain experience that they are offering their services voluntarily or for a minimum return in the hope that they may be considered for a training contract. As one former CEO of a regulated legal organisation some time ago was recorded as stating: ‘Paralegals are nothing more than cannon fodder for solicitors’.
Those days are thankfully long gone.
While it is true that there are plenty of graduates who are would-be solicitors, it is also true to say that many are turning their careers towards becoming Paralegal Practitioners. And why not, since there is so much slack left by the Legal Aid vacuum and the inhibitive fees charged by solicitors and barristers?
As long as Paralegals are qualified and educated to perform legal tasks, with the exception, of course, of reserved legal activities, their job role will be as varied and interesting as that of a solicitor, and they can provide access to legal services at a reasonable cost to the consumer.
Statistics indicate that there are approximately 462 – 502 advertised pupillages available with around 1500 – 1600 BPTC graduates each year chasing those places. Year on year this accumulates. Similarly, there are approximately 15,000 LPC graduates chasing between 4,800 – 5,400 training contracts each year
The trend is now for law graduates to re-consider their permanent career options. Paying for the privilege of completing an LPC or BPTC to move into the conventional regulated professions is very costly, and with the thought of being unable to gain training contracts or Pupillages, it makes sense to start working as soon as possible, rather than undergo another year of study when they will probably end up doing paralegal work in any event.
Experience is now the currency that may well determine whether a law firm will grant a training contract or not. Paralegal work is becoming the only viable option. Some graduates are already making the decision that it is a viable permanent career option both within the regulated and unregulated sectors, and not just as a stepping stone to attain a training contract.
Even those ‘reserved activities’ i.e. activities that remain the monopoly of solicitors are being eroded in practice. For example, rights of audience – the right to represent a client in court. As already mentioned, the courts are being inundated with LIPs, and it has come to the attention of this author that at the discretion of individual Judges, the courts are willing to allow paralegals who can show evidence of competency, to represent such LIPs in court. Thank goodness for the sensible attitude of these Judges without which, the courts would be grinding to a halt in their effort to ensure that LIPs are getting information on what they need to do to proceed with their case.
As we move forward, it is vital that the courts consistently recognise this group of qualified and very experienced individuals as competent to assist LIPs.
Statutory Regulation v Self-Regulation
The Government has clearly inferred that it does not wish to statutorily regulate further within the legal profession. Therefore, voluntary or self- regulation is the preferred modus operandi for the Paralegal sector.
Statutory regulation is where an organisation is checked by the Government under an Act of Law. It is therefore an offence to practice a statutorily regulated profession without being listed on the relevant register for that profession.
Where a profession is not governed by an Act of Law, they are often subject to voluntary regulation. Such regulation can be drawn up and enforced by any appropriate body within that professional sector but will often take the form of a ‘membership’ body for the professionals operating in that sector
The Paralegal sector does not come under any statutory regulation, unlike solicitors, barristers and chartered legal executives. Therefore, anyone can describe themselves as a paralegal (whether or not they have qualifications experience or training) but it is illegal to describe or infer that they are a solicitor or barrister or chartered legal executive unless they have actually qualified through the prescribed route set by the regulatory authorities: Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), or the Bar Standards Board (BSB) or Cilex Regulation.
Paralegals have relied upon NALP to act as a self-regulatory paralegal membership body of the sector for thirty years. As part of this role, NALP impose strict criteria on its members to abide by NALP Codes of Conduct and ensure that each member understands, and adheres to, the standards expected in the sector. This includes ensuring its members avoid ‘Holding-out’ – which means exactly that: holding oneself out to be a solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive. Making such a claim would be a criminal offence.
Paralegals are the way forward
We owe a moral duty to students who wish to enter the legal services sector by giving them a true picture of the difficulty that lies ahead in gaining access to the regulated professions and to give them options at the earliest possible stage in their education.
We also owe a duty to the consumer, as set out in the Legal Services Act, to improve access to justice, protect and promote the interests of consumers and increase public understanding of the citizen’s legal rights and duties.
If we wish to preserve the essence and foundation of the English Legal System, which is based on access to justice for all, then Paralegals should be considered the saviours who provide such to consumers when it otherwise becomes too costly.
Paralegal Professionals are now in a position to gain a Licence to Practise from NALP in order to offer legal services to their own clients, apply for Licenced Access from the Bar Standards Board, in order to instruct Counsel directly, without the need to go through a solicitor. Consequently, the Paralegal Profession needs recognition in its own right – and not just as an extension of the traditional regulated ones. Once the sector, as a whole, addresses and accepts this fact, we can all move forward.
We are in an ever-changing legal landscape. The opening up of legal services due to regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007 combined with the reduction of Legal aid and the excess of graduates, has formed a new profession. We have to accept this and give status to paralegals.
Paralegal professionals are the future of legal services in England and Wales.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit Membership Body and the only Paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England & Wales). Through its training arm, NALP Training, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.