With the Paralegal Profession being acknowledged as the fastest growing within the legal services sector, it’s important to dispel some of the myths and incorrect assumptions that surround the sector.
1. ‘All Paralegals are law graduates who wish to become solicitors or barristers’
This premise is just wrong: many graduates still aspire to enter these conventional professions. However, not all graduates wish to become solicitors or barristers. Some may want to become career paralegals or paralegal practitioners. The cost of qualification towards the conventional professions is so prohibitive that many graduates see the paralegal pathway as a viable career alternative.
2. ‘Paralegals are just glorified legal secretaries’
Not so. This may be true in the US where the term ‘paralegal’ originated but this is not the case in England. For the last twenty years, paralegals have taken on a more vital role in the legal sector not only as support staff in law firms but also in commerce and industry, in the public and private sectors and, more importantly, in recent years, as professional practitioners in their own right offering consumers access to justice at a reasonable cost.
3. ‘The competency of Paralegal Practitioners is vastly inferior to that of a solicitor’
Again, this is a completely wrong assumption. Many paralegal professionals have gained a qualifying law degree or have successfully completed nationally recognised paralegal qualifications and gained sufficient experience in very much the same way as a solicitor has done. Also, statistics from The Office of Legal Complaints and the SRA regarding misconduct or negligent work, clearly indicate that solicitors do not have the monopoly on good practice or competency. The main difference between the two professions is that solicitors are statutorily regulated and paralegals are not, although the paralegal voluntary regulatory body (NALP) carries out stringent checks on its members on a continuing basis.
4.‘Paralegals cannot perform reserved legal activities i.e. activities that still remain the monopoly of solicitors ’
This is officially true. However, because of various factors, such as the withdrawal of legal aid for all but the most urgent cases, reserved legal activities are in practice, slowly being eroded. For example, many NALP paralegals who prove themselves competent are, at the discretion of the court, being granted a right of audience (one of the reserved activities), meaning they can represent their client in court. This is because consumers are attending court to represent themselves as Litigants in Person (LIP), since they cannot afford the fees of solicitors or barristers, and, as a result, the court process has been slowing down to ensure that the LIPs are given advice about how to proceed. Paralegals, who are NALP members, are highly regarded by judges, especially in the Family or County Courts.
5.‘As Paralegals are not statutorily regulated, anyone can call themselves a ‘paralegal’ which means there is no recourse for a consumer’
This is to a certain extent true. However, NALP has been a voluntary regulatory body for paralegals since 1987 and offers not only guidance on good practice to its members, but also can investigate complaints made by consumers about any of its members. NALP also has a rigid complaints procedure and can instigate sanctions against any member in the event that a complaint is upheld. It is true that not all paralegals are members of NALP but part of NALPs strategy is to encourage paralegals to become members giving the paralegal and the consumer confidence in their competency. Consequently, any consumer utilising the services of a paralegal should ensure that they are associated with NALP in the knowledge that a NALP member has been carefully scrutinised and checked.
6.‘There has never been a ‘Paralegal Profession’ before, so why is there one now?’
This is true: there has not been a ‘paralegal profession’ until relatively recently. There are several factors that have been fundamental in creating this: firstly, the number of educational institutions running the professional exams for solicitors and barristers (Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC)) has increased from 4 in 1982 to 42 in 2010, thereby flooding the sector with graduates. Secondly, as a result, there have not been enough training contracts (to offer those who wish to become solicitors) or pupillage (for barristers) to keep up with demand. Consequently, in order to remain within the legal sector, graduates have been offering their services to solicitors and barristers as paralegals, in the hope that they may be offered such a training contract or a pupillage. Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, the virtual eradication of legal aid in 2013 has left consumers in a difficult place since most cannot afford solicitors’ or barristers’ fees. Paralegals have stepped in to fill the gap in order to offer access to justice at a reasonable cost. Another factor includes the implementation of the Legal Services Act 2007 with an emphasis on creating more competition in the legal services sector generally.
7. So what is the difference between solicitors and paralegals?
As already mentioned, apart from the cost of qualifying and the status, paralegals can do similar work to solicitors but cannot perform reserved activities. This leaves a lot of work that they can do. Paralegals are not only employed within the legal services sector but also in many diverse sectors from finance to pharmaceuticals, private and charitable organisations, retail and car manufacturers, football clubs and movie production companies, the NHS and local authorities. In fact most organisations or companies will have an element of legality to what they do, and in in most of these positions, you will find a paralegal fulfilling those duties.
By understanding more accurately the role that paralegals can and do play within the legal sector both solicitors and consumers can make better informed decisions about when and how to employ the services of a paralegal.
Originally published here