For some years, after the term ‘paralegal’ became known in the English Legal sector (having originated in the US), the definition became synonymous with ‘a graduate who wanted to become a solicitor’ and used ‘paralegal work’ as a steppingstone to gaining that elusive training contract.
For many, this remains the truth. However, in reality, the role that paralegals play has moved on substantially.
Within the legal sector, law graduates still try to attain paralegal work in an effort to get their foot in the door and so solicitors still maintain this illusion. And why not since hundreds of graduates are still trying to get their body past that ‘foot in the door’?
However, the role of paralegals has changed. These trained professionals are now providing direct access to justice to consumers who otherwise could not afford to pay the fees of solicitors or barristers, and thus cannot gain legal advice or assistance from those conventional sources. This has been partly due to the virtual eradication of legal aid, and partly to do with the opening up of legal services for consumers, as prescribed by The Legal Services Act 2007.
Training to be a paralegal practitioner is becoming a popular pathway for those that either have not gained a law degree, or those who have, but cannot afford to go further. It has become an alternative profession, and the trend now is to turn to this alternate pathway voluntarily as a choice.
Paralegal Practitioners can apply for a NALP Licence to Practise in order to offer services directly to their own clients, without the need for the client to instruct a solicitor. Certain eligibility criteria have to be complied with such as the requirement to provide evidence of qualifications or experience for a minimum of three years’ in order to prove competency. Evidence of Professional indemnity insurance must also be provided.
Paralegals can do almost everything that a solicitor can do apart from certain reserved activities (as defined by the Legal Services Act 2007). These must be avoided as they are still the monopoly of solicitors, and paralegals are forbidden to perform these. If they do, it could lead to criminal proceedings. Two such reserved activities are the right of audience and the right to conduct litigation on behalf of a client. The former means that, as a paralegal, there is no absolute right to represent your client before a court unless you have express permission to do so. This must be attained from the court beforehand. The second means that a paralegal cannot sign court documents on behalf of a client. There is a way round this because a paralegal can always complete/draft relevant forms/documents and ask the client to sign and send it to the court, as a litigant in person.
There is evidence that more and more individuals and small businesses are either employing paralegals to do their legal work for them, or are instructing independent paralegal practitioners to do so, as it is far less costly then employing a solicitor.
On average, a paralegal’s hourly rate can be anywhere between £30 – £80 (depending on the kind of work that is required) compared with a solicitor who may charge between £250 – £600 per hour (depending on the status of the solicitor e.g. junior, associate or partner). Some solicitors, it is true, will charge a fixed rate for certain work, and these will be advertised on their website. This also applies to paralegals who offer fixed rates for certain services.
Generally, working as a paralegal is no longer just a ‘steppingstone’. It is a fulfilling career in itself and a profession in its own right. It may not be a ‘regulated’ profession as solicitors’ and barristers’ are, but that benefits the consumer as there are less costs to pay for regulators and so less fees to pass on to clients. That is not to say that there is no paralegal ‘regulator’. NALP (National Association of Licensed Paralegals) has been the sector’s voluntary regulator of paralegals for the last 35 years.
So, if you are wondering what your next step is towards a career in law then think about the rewarding role you can have as a paralegal working in any sector you choose (not just the legal sector). Then, take into consideration that to qualify as a paralegal may only take you two years, and cost far less than training to be a solicitor.
If you need further information, contact NALP: firstname.lastname@example.org.