Paralegals are taking the legal services sector by storm; they are filling the gap left by increasingly inaccessible solicitors’ costs and the virtual eradication of legal aid. They are also fulfilling some of the objectives of the Legal Services Act by improving access to justice and promoting competition in the provision of legal services.
This ‘sudden’ abundance of paralegals in the legal services sector is not an overnight phenomenon.
Over the last decade there has been a dramatic increase in the number of postgraduate professional qualification courses offered by various universities and colleges – which were originally encouraged by the Law Society and Bar Council (before the Legal Services Act created the SRA and BSB).
Thirty-five years ago when this author graduated, there were just four colleges running the SFE (Solicitors’ Final Examination – the forerunner to the LPC). In 2000, there were 28 colleges and in 2010 there were 42 colleges running the LPC. Similarly, the number of colleges offering the BVC (latterly the BPTC) has increased. These courses have been offered at considerable expense to students who are often unable to find training contracts or pupillages.
Statistics indicate that there are approximately 462 – 502 advertised pupillages available with around 750-1200 BPTC graduates each year chasing those places. Year on year this accumulates. Similarly, there are approximately 9,000 LPC graduates chasing around 5,500 training contracts each year. As years go by, the competition gets greater and greater. I can personally testify that one student who attained his BPTC six years ago is still looking to find a pupillage after consistently making his applications twice a year since then. He is currently working for one of the top 12 law firms as a Paralegal contractor! And he is not unique – there are many graduates just like him now building successful careers as paralegals.
Many graduates have turned to paralegal work in order to keep their hopes alive of entering the traditional legal professions. In practice, most will not progress and ultimately, have realized that it is a more viable option to retain their paralegal status and move forward with that.
Paralegals are defined as ‘persons who are trained and educated to perform certain legal tasks, but who are not qualified solicitors, barristers or chartered legal executives’.
Now, the term ‘paralegal’ is a buzz-word – with increased recognition of the term both within the legal sector an amongst consumers. However, it is important to note that not all paralegals are would-be solicitors or barristers. Many are, but the majority are not.
So where are paralegals working, if not just with solicitors? Well, you can locate a paralegal in barristers’ chambers and in-house legal departments of most companies and local authorities. They also work in the CPS, NHS, charities, public and private sectors and, not least for themselves as practitioners in their own right.
Many barristers’ chambers are turning to paralegals for general assistance. We’re not just talking about ‘barristers’ clerks’ here, but people who have been trained and have qualifications in law or who have gained a paralegal diploma. Why? There are several reasons: firstly: the nature of working as a barrister in chambers has changed, due, in part, to the change in rules allowing barristers to be publicly accessible by the consumer.
Secondly, since January 2014, the Bar Rules changed again to allow self-employed, public access barristers to extend their practising certificates allowing them to conduct litigation. This means that provided the barrister has the correct authorization, litigants no longer have to rely on themselves, nor do they have to employ a solicitor to take the matter further should the case go to court. They can utilize the services of a barrister from initial advice to court appearance (if required).
Barristers who have taken up this opportunity are relying more and more on either employing paralegals to assist them with the litigation process, or alternatively contracting such matters to a Paralegal firm on behalf of their clients.
This is not the only way paralegals may be helping you to run chambers.
If there is an element of legality involved in running chambers: for example, if you have a secretary or administrator who is triaging phone calls to decide whether a member of chambers should handle a client’s query, or, if you have a human resource person drafting employment contracts or contracts to provide services of any kind, and these individuals are not qualified solicitors or barristers, then they are paralegals!
Formally recognizing that these individuals are indeed ‘Paralegals’ within chambers can encourage loyalty and status.
In addition, if you are prepared to offer your paralegal personnel formal recognition by encouraging them to join a professional body such as NALP (National Association of Licensed Paralegals) and/or give them the opportunity to gain paralegal qualifications (if they do not have any already) through NALP Training, this will add credibility to your chambers. It will also give the right impression to potential clients.
The Legal Services Act 2007, sought to liberalise and encourage competition in the market for legal services in England and Wales. This statute, together with the withdrawal of Legal Aid (for all but the most urgent cases) means that there is no longer funding to assist consumers financially in bringing an action or defending an action through the courts.
This has, in turn, encouraged more and more people to train and qualify as paralegals in order to plug the gap that remains. A paralegal professional is not statutorily regulated in the same way as other legal professions, like barristers or solicitors, and therefore is able to charge a fraction of the cost that a solicitor may charge. However, this does not mean that they are any less knowledgeable, diligent or professional than Solicitors.
Paralegals are trained in the same way as solicitors are. They study the same areas of law and procedure and have the same level of experience. However, they cannot call themselves ‘solicitors’ or hold themselves out e.g. infer that they are solicitors, if they have not fulfilled the criteria laid down by the regulatory bodies, the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) or BSB (Bar Standards Board).
Paralegals are regulated by NALP which is a self-regulatory body. In other words, it can only regulate its own members. This is the reason why every paralegal should be encouraged to join NALP as a member. This will differentiate them from other paralegals by the letters after their name.
Furthermore, many NALP paralegals are setting themselves up as independent practitioners. NALP can provide them with a Licence to Practise (subject to fulfilling eligibility criteria) and assist them in gaining PII (Professional Indemnity Insurance) to do so.
Encouraging such paralegals to gain recognition and become independent practitioners can only increase the likelihood of work being referred to barristers. With the possibility of gaining Licensed Access from the Bar Standards Board, a Paralegal Practitioner can now work in a similar way to solicitors (apart from performing ‘reserved’ activities) in that they can set up their own ‘high street’ office, give advice and assistance, and now instruct Counsel.
In the workplace, attracting and retaining top talent is always a challenge – but by offering formal recognition for your Paralegal staff, and perhaps allowing them days off for training, offering to pay for training, or releasing time during the working week for them to study, you can attract better applicants and retain your best people. If you also publicly celebrate their achievements with them – you will not only build loyalty with them, but with your other staff who can see the support that you offer those who wish to improve their skills.
People like to be recognized and rewarded for the work they do – this is one way to achieve that. On the flip-side, ignoring their status and the contribution of these valuable employees, may lead to a talent exodus as staff look for fulfilment elsewhere.
For Paralegals already working within your chambers, there are bespoke nationally recognized qualifications to help them hone their skills and knowledge – building their confidence and increasing the services you offer to clients.
Obviously, there are, as mentioned already, ‘reserved activities’ and these remain the monopoly of solicitors. For example: automatically having the right to represent someone in all courts, the conveyancing process (i.e. buying and selling property) and some probate activities (i.e. sorting out a person’s estate (assets) after they die).
Apart from the above, there remains plenty of scope for a Paralegal within your chambers to perform valuable tasks, without the need to approach a solicitor.
To find out more contact NALP (National Association of Licenced Paralegals) http://www.nationalparalegals.co.uk
By Amanda Hamilton, NALP
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of NALP, a non-profit Membership Body as well as being 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.