A paralegal life

This autumn sees the first steps of a major new research initiative being run by CILEx into ‘the paralegal’, the undefined member of the legal community of whom there are very many and yet about which the market knows very little. CILEx’s ‘Paralegal Enquiry: Can paralegals meet future market needs?’ is the first of its kind in the legal services market.  It will commission research designed to deliver an all-encompassing view of the place of paralegals now and into the future.

Paralegal uprising?

There are no actual figures on how many ‘paralegals’ are operating in the legal community; some estimate as many as eighty thousand, which amounts to around two-thirds of the workforce of the legal services market, an astonishing figure.

But what is clear is that the numbers are set to grow. Predictions drawn from work by the Institute for Public Policy Research (the IPPR) estimate that what are categorised as “legal associate professionals” will grow by around 17% over the next decade, so almost one-fifth as many as now by 2024.

As CILEx president (now immediate past-president), Stephen Gowland, told the audience gathered for the launch of the Paralegal Enquiry at DWF Fishburn’s offices in the City last month: “The term ‘paralegal’ tells you nothing of the qualification or experience of the person holding that title, nor exactly what type of legal work they are doing; if numbers are set to grow to the extent expected, we need to understand what they are doing.”

There is lots of good research already being done around various aspects of legal services which CILEx hopes to build on. For instance, the IPPR published a report earlier this year into jobs, skills and the importance of vocational education which predicts substantial growth in numbers of medium-skilled professionals (such as paralegals) in a more “professionalised” world.

The Law Society is also looking into the structure of law firms, which will help enlighten the market on which roles are currently, and will in the future, fit best into that structure. But until this Enquiry there has been no specific research on paralegals.  As Mr Gowland explained at the launch, the now completed Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has made “useful in roads” into this area and the Review itself recognised the dearth of information out there (to quote the Review: “There is little evidence of the scale of the paralegal workforce”).

What’s in a name

It is not only that there is a clear need to find out more about their numbers, but also the term ‘paralegal’ is ill-defined and this leads to a lack of understanding of what paralegals do and where their future lies in the next-generation legal services market.

Gimhani Eriyagolla, a paralegal at Bhatt Murphy, a legal aid firm in east London, and a committee member of the Association of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, says: “The Enquiry will be really useful for adding transparency to this growing profession. The aims of the Enquiry to define the title of ‘paralegal’ will hopefully be beneficial to defining structure.”

As well as understanding what paralegals do, the Enquiry will examine how the role sits within someone’s legal career. These are not easy answers as the needs of firms often fit uneasily with the aspirations of young lawyers. At the launch, Mr Gowland highlighted a comment made by an employer during the LETR: “I want technicians who are prepared to do the same thing 100 times over and over again and are happy to be really good at that for 50 years.”

Mr Gowland said that this type of attitude is going to sit uncomfortably with younger people who have greater expectations from their jobs: “Paralegals, in particular younger people, Generation Y, are not looking for that degree of boredom. They are looking for interest, making a difference, input, change, flexibility, more work/life balance than money … training, and if you want them to stay, recognition and progression.”

Ms Eriyagolla for one says she wants to see: “regulation to a role that is still quite opaque.” “We don’t know what the answers are yet and we are not going to prejudge the Enquiry”, CILEx’s chief executive, Diane Burleigh OBE, said at the launch, “but this is certainly the sort of problem that the Enquiry is intended to investigate.”

Change everywhere

Changes in the legal market are also driving the Enquiry, as Jackie Panter, Associate Head at Manchester Law School at Manchester Metropolitan University, which, Ms Panter confirms, will be participating in the Enquiry, observes: “The legal services sector is undergoing unprecedented change because of issues such as the Legal Services Act, Legal Aid reforms, Jackson, general economic conditions and changes in the way that legal services are delivered, such as the use of technology.  The traditional role of the paralegal is now more wide ranging than ever before.  Paralegals carry out such differing roles within the sector.  The Enquiry should capture that range of work, the market needs and how those needs are best supported.

IPS Chairman, Alan Kershaw, wholeheartedly agrees saying that: “The market is heading towards a shake-out of roles. Legal services is not alone. This has happened in other professions.”

What it will be

The Enquiry will start by building a database of people and organisations which have registered an interest in participating in it. Out of that, CILEx will organise a series of focus groups and roundtables with particular subsectors of legal services: large law firms, smaller firms, training providers, regulators as well as the paralegals themselves. These focus groups will be taking place across England and Wales, to include specialist firms and also reaching out to black, Asian and minority ethnic firms.

The Enquiry will examine who this large contingent of the workforce is, what paralegals do, what skills and competencies they have and what they will need in the future. It will look at how the public view them, how firms view them and how they, paralegals, view themselves. It will investigate the current training, progression and support which are being offered to them and what needs to be offered going forward, as well as the role the professional and regulatory bodies. The research will be looking into these questions in the context of a legal market from 2020.

“The Enquiry will start by trying to identify the right questions, ask those questions and eventually answer them,” says CILEx’s Public Affairs Officer, Richard Doughty. The work of the focus groups, under Chatham House Rules, will then be taken away and digested by a specialist research team. The identity of the research team will be announced in due course.

A little understanding

Above all, it is about time that paralegals were given some attention, says Ms Burleigh: “We need to give them an airing”, she says. “We need to find out who they are, what their aspirations are, so that we can get firms to value them, we need to find a way to train them, represent them, in order to help them. They could have a professional underpinning, they could be regulated (we are often told that our members prefer being regulated; it gives them status and legitimacy). We don’t know what the right path is but we need to find out.”

The Enquiry needs you

Ms Burleigh emphasises that this is a grass roots Enquiry and CILEx wants a cross-section of the legal community to get involved: “They should take part because legal services is incredibly important for firms and for the public.  The future lies in everyone talking to each other. We need to build relationships with each other.” Though focus groups will be by interest group, provider, regulator and so on, later on during the life of the Enquiry it is anticipated that it: “will put some of these people together,” says Ms Burleigh. “We can’t just be in silos, regulator over here, training provider there, firms there; no one part of the sector on its own can move the whole sector ahead. Nor should it. That would not be good for any of us nor for the public.”

Ms Erigoyalla agrees that engagement with the Enquiry needs to be broad to be effective: “Participation will be needed from a widespread demographic of firms and employees for a rounded perspective of the current position.”

And as Ms Panter points out there is not even one type of employer to engage with here: “There is such a very broad range of legal service employers – small high-street firms, global firms, in-house legal teams and diverse alternative business structures. There are so many different perceptions about the role of a paralegal.”

Any stakeholder can express their interest at any time by emailing to the address below as well as joining the conversation on twitter (#paralegalenquiry).

Register your interest: paralegal.enquiry@cilex.org.uk.


This article was originally featured in the CILEx Journal, August 2014.

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