What It Takes to Be a Successful Paralegal – NALP Chats with Paralegal and Entrepreneur Craig Johnson

We sat down with Craig Johnson, A NALP Paralegal and founder of Johnson’s Paralegal Services, to talk about what it takes to become successful in the Paralegal profession! Craig received his NALP Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies in 2018 and his NALP Licence to Practise in June 2019. You can find out more about Craig and JPS at www.johnsonsparalegalservices.co.uk

Hi, Craig! Tell us a little about your work.

I started work as a paralegal in 2016 for a car sales business, doing all their contracts, their legal work, making sure everything was up to date, and doing a lot of consumer rights laws. I then started working for a catering company doing all their employment regulations, their contracts, and their disputes. So I’ve done a lot on both the consumer rights side and the commercial side.

Now I do a lot of freelance work for Lawyers Online with family law. I still work for the car sales and food sales, but I have also started a business as a McKenzie Friend in family law, which you are not allowed to do unless you have a qualification through one of the paralegal associations.

What is a McKenzie Friend?

A professional McKenzie Friend is a person who is qualified with the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends to go into court with you and support you, but can’t speak on your behalf. They can help you through family proceedings without actually talking to the judge unless the judge grants them a right of audience, which for paralegals has been granted on several occasions over the last couple of months.

So you can’t start your own business as a McKenzie Friend unless you’re properly qualified?

Exactly. That’s through the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends. A lot of McKenzie Friends now are unqualified people and the judges don’t let them in. It’s become more of a requirement now before going to court, to show the judge that you’re qualified with an association. 

Is having a qualification important for any other areas of legal work?

It’s massively important. When I speak to employees, they want to know that the person they’re speaking to is qualified to discuss their employment background and speak to the company owner. They want to speak to someone who is legally qualified, not just someone who’s doing their legal research online.

So you’re saying it’s important both for consumers and for judges, as in the case of being a McKenzie Friend.

Yes, that’s completely correct. NALP opened up a route for me to become a McKenzie Friend. About two weeks after being on the National Paralegal Register, I got an email from the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends asking if I wanted to become a McKenzie Friend, because they only allow members who are part of the of the National Paralegal Register or the Private Practice Register. I asked why, and they said that it’s because the SPMF is the only national society of McKenzie Friends in which all members need to be qualified to at least a Level 3 Paralegal status. So we’re the only McKenzie Friends who judges can’t rule out in court.

So that’s not the case with other McKenzie Friends?

No! In a lot of cases, you have unqualified people going to court and judges will say to them, ‘please leave the court because you’re not qualified on this matter.’ Having your NALP Certificate and your training, you can prove that you’re well-vetted and ready to be in court with your client.

Are unqualified practitioners a big problem for the paralegal profession?

I think a bigger problem for the paralegal profession is that people use the term paralegal very loosely, that someone can use the term paralegal without having the qualification. That’s why now when I speak to people I tell them that I’m a NALP paralegal, that I’m qualified and Ofqual-accredited. A lot of consumers I speak to don’t even realize the difference between a qualified and an unqualified paralegal, because it’s quite new in this country, unlike in America.

The biggest issue for paralegals is that there are a lot of training courses out there, but not all of them are accredited. You can get a certificate and pay £25 online, but you’ll not belong to an association and you’re not properly qualified. My personal opinion is, if you’re going to become a paralegal, spend a bit more money and do a course which is worth it because having this qualification has opened up doors to me which I couldn’t believe.

So where are you with your legal education at this point?

I’m currently completing my law degree at Canterbury Christ Church University. I did the NALP course in 8 weeks during the first year of my degree.

Wow, that must have been a lot of work?

Yes, it was! What happened was, the companies I was working for were employing me as a legal officer but realized I should be called a paralegal. But, they wanted me to get qualified to do it. So I’d just started my law degree, and they said they wanted me to take the NALP course. I’d never even heard of NALP until that point, and I looked it up and thought, this looks like a brilliant course, something I’d want to do! 

I’m a father, I’ve got a ten month-old daughter and I’m married. My wife also did the Level 3 program at the same time as I was doing the Level 4. I was doing my law degree, but because I come from a practical background, I was struggling to understand the academic subjects of law. For instance, I never learned history until I started the law degree. But the first five units of the NALP course really helped me understand the knowledge of law which I needed to succeed in my law degree. I mean, I used NALP really in conjunction with my degree. Before NALP, I was getting 2:2’s, and now I’m up to 1st’s. I’m dyslexic, and it was really important to me that the NALP course had lesson plans I could understand.

The thing I would say to students is that this course is worth investing in, because it really boosts your confidence and helps you academically. 

So you started off with the Level 4 course rather than the Level 3.

Yes. My wife was reading through my Level 4 course and wanted to learn it, but decided to become more competent with Level 3 first, which is also a very interesting course. It covers a lot of areas. If I could do it again, I’d probably have done the Level 3 course a few years ago before doing the Level 4. But my wife, she recently won the Level 3 award and will soon be moving up to the Level 4. So it’s increased her competence with the law, to the point that she now wants to go do a law degree. But the Level 4 really puts it all together.

I think my favorite module in the Level 4 course was Criminal Law. I also really did enjoy, because I’d never done it before, the Matrimonial unit, which is why I’ve now gone into Family Law.

What did you enjoy about the Matrimonial and Criminal units?

Well, the Matrimonial unit did break down different types of law, not just in the UK. It made you understand about different types of partnerships, types of marriage and divorce, and it also brought the Family Law Reform into context, which is actually used in child arrangements now. That’s very useful for being a McKenzie Friend, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who’s looking to assist someone in family court.

With Criminal it was more exciting, but it also made you think more analytically about the case and the details, and it made you research more. It wasn’t just, ‘read this and now do the assessment’ but ‘read this and now you’ve got to research your answers,’ which is brilliant.

So the teaching method really worked for you in that unit?

Yes. It was fantastic.

Would you say that learning about law outside the UK shaped your broader understanding of law?

In the Matrimonial unit, most of the comparisons were between a UK marriage or civil partnership and those outside the UK. It really did help, because in family law most matters are after a divorce where there’s a child arrangement order, because most couples would dispute that as a financial matter. So it really helped with understanding children’s law, the effects of the marriage breakdown, and most importantly it helped in understanding the marriage laws which could affect both parties in the future. It was a really good unit and definitely relevant to what I’m doing in family law.

When you work in family law now, do you find yourself drawing on the skills you learned in the NALP course?

Definitely, especially with things like contract law. I’ve been doing that for years, but the NALP course reinforced certain areas of contract law I’d never even thought of – or thought could apply to family law, like simply checking a pre-nuptual agreement which can change a case drastically. Contract law helps you look at those key terms in a pre-nup.

It seems like having a wider understanding of the law helped you understand particular areas better.

Yes. I don’t think the NALP course would be as effective if it didn’t have those ten modules. I think those ten modules shape you as a paralegal, to help you be able to effectively and efficiently do your duties. 

I think they also interlink. With the first five modules, if you don’t read those then you can’t complete the second five modules. You’re relying on the knowledge you’ve gained in the first five to complete the second five. It makes you really think and naturally progresses you, not just academically speaking but practically speaking, which is more important in the legal world than having a piece of paper with a grade on it.

Looking at the structure of the course, you can see that the topics seem to get more and more advanced as you go through it.

Exactly. For example, Wills and Conveyancing is something I’d never covered before. And I found it really difficult, but I’ve found that now I’ve done the course, that when someone talks to me in family proceedings about legal issues around their house I understand what they’re talking about. Rather than sitting there blank, which is what some people do. 

Would you say it’s made you a more well-rounded paralegal?

It’s brought me from being sort of an average day-to-day job, Googling research kind of paralegal into someone who knows how to efficiently work, move forward, and progress with my career.

On a more general note, what aspects of paralegal work do you really enjoy?

What I enjoy is client care. The clients are the most important thing, and if you’re going to move forward in this career you’ve got to be really willing to help your clients. It doesn’t matter what sort of dispute or what sort of client they are, you have to be able to listen to them and communicate to them what’s happening.

What I’ve also found in my other lines of work, car sales and food sales, is that it’s made me look at my paperwork much more intensely to make sure there are no loopholes which would leave the company in jeopardy.

Right now, a paralegal is the same equivalency as a junior pupil to a barrister, as they have to learn the same skills and they have to progress up. I think a lot of people become very disappointed when they can’t get that pupillage contract, when in fact there are many other options available to them.

So you see your career path as one of upward progression, always improving?

It’s definitely about progression, definitely about getting better, and most importantly it’s about applying it. I don’t look at it as just ‘right, I’ve done my Level 4, now I’m done.’ I’m currently doing my Negotiation and Drafting courses. I look at it as, how do I progress further, how do I make my career better. 

Are there specific challenges involved in running your own paralegal business?

With Lawyers Online, the challenge is that it’s all online. You don’t get so much time to deal with the case, it’s always writing letters or just giving general advice. With my McKenzie Friend service, we see the client face-to-face, we look through their paperwork, and we advise, them, but we can’t exactly stand up in court and talk on their behalf.

Then you’ve got the businesses, where it’s more face-to-face contact, you’re dealing with all the legal matters, you’ve got to do all the paperwork, you’ve got to make sure everything’s in order, and that bit is probably the hardest to do while running two other legal businesses. To keep on top of all of them it’s quite difficult, especially when doing a degree. That’s why I run my McKenzie Friend business with my wife and we do it together.

Wow. So how do you manage your time effectively?

I’m not going to lie, that’s mainly down to my wife. Because I’m severely dyslexic, I sit down with my wife and plan my week out day by day and how it’s going to work, but I’ve developed coping mechanisms to actually get through the work. Like now, since it’s summer I’m cracking on with legal work but in September I’ll cut down on my client list and I’ll continue with my other jobs.

I refer clients to freelance paralegals on the register quite a lot as well, to say, here’s someone you can contact, because I’ll only ever refer a client to a qualified paralegal.

Has it ever been difficult for you to find clients?

It’s been really good actually! Since I’ve joined the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends and since I’ve been on the National Paralegal Register, I get about 8 or 9 referrals a week from just those two sources. Most importantly, people understand now that a paralegal can help them just as well as a solicitor, barrister, or chartered legal executive when it comes to smaller matters which are outside of court. So clients will always be referred to you, because you’re cheaper but they also know that they’re getting the same vetted process as if they’d contacted a solicitor.

In your opinion, what direction is the paralegal profession headed in?

I think the general direction we’re going in is that more paralegals are getting licenses to practice through associations like the PPR and NALP, and those licenses are being held in good stead by the solicitors’ regulation authority. Solicitors, barristers, and chartered legal executives now rely on paralegals to go out to court and to help clients with litigation because of cuts in legal aid. We’re kind of the middleman now, because quotas in family law were cut so drastically that many people can’t get legal aid even if they’re on benefits. So you can have people paying a lot less for a better service.

As a paralegal, you’re in a very versatile role. You can sit in an office and advise someone, but you can then also switch your role to a McKenzie Friend, go to court, and help them through it in person. It’s also recognized by all legal personnel now, whereas I think a few years ago, paralegals were not very well recognized in the industry.

Do you think that change in the industry has to do with membership bodies or is that more of a cultural shift?

It’s both – the membership bodies have caused the cultural shift. I mean, a lot of my clients don’t even know what a paralegal is, it’s only the legal personnel that do. And when you explain it, they think, so you’re a qualified legal professional, but you’re not a solicitor, so you’re cheaper. And that’s how a lot of people see it now.

I think in the future paralegals will have fewer reserved activities, because some judges have now been granting paralegals rights of audience in court, depending on the firm and the paralegal’s qualifications and experience. These judges do this because they know that the paralegal has been well vetted by a firm and they’re accredited by NALP.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to become a paralegal?

The best advice I can give someone is to sign up to the training course and learn it by heart. Even once you’ve passed, review your knowledge, review your materials, and read it over and over again until you understand it. Find the sections of law which you like and keep learning them. Most importantly, always keep up with your qualifications and training from NALP. Don’t go to other organizations which might not be as recognized.

If you want to become a paralegal, be ready to work hard. You’re not going to be a solicitor or barrister, but you’ll have just as much of an amazing career as one of those two.

If it wasn’t for NALP, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Anyone who wants to join the association should, because they’re absolutely amazing.