An individual operating within the legal services sector is perfectly well aware of the increasing number of paralegals working within it. Indeed, the term ‘paralegal’ has entered our vocabulary within the sector and has become part of normal working life, but does the sector really understand what a paralegal is and how to make the best use of this group of legal service providers?
These are not just wannabe solicitors, but many of them are individuals who wish to embark on a paralegal career in its own right.
The profession should embrace these individuals for many different reasons; partly because it is good for the individual solicitor’s practice to do so, and partly because it is good for the profession as a whole.
Boost your profits and increase the services you offer
Taking on career paralegals with properly accredited qualifications can boost the economy of any solicitors’ practice. Whether the paralegal is employed, freelance or outsourced on an ad hoc basis, or brought in to cover for a particular individual or on a specific project; paralegals utilised in this manner can boost productivity and reduce costs.
A properly qualified and trained paralegal workforce can very often integrate and assimilate documents and requirements at a greater speed than those who are non-paralegals. Many will have considerable expertise in specific areas which can be drawn on if required or may be utilised to offer additional services to clients. Imagine how this can boost productivity and profit?
Paralegals are trained and educated to perform legal tasks. Some may have qualifying law degrees and others may have gained qualification via a different route, such as gaining NALP Paralegal Qualifications. Whichever is their chosen route doesn’t matter. Paralegals should be valued – after all they offer a valuable, professional service.
The majority of solicitors are under the mistaken apprehension that all paralegals are law graduates or LPC graduates who are unable to find a training contract and who wish to be solicitors. They therefore tend to ignore other routes to qualification as a paralegal that may be just as valid, if not more so.
A qualifying law degree covers academic law and therefore someone having gained such a degree should not be considered superior to an individual that has gained a paralegal qualification such as the NALP Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies, since the latter covers academic law as well as practice and procedural law. A law graduate does not necessarily have the monopoly over legal knowledge and procedure in comparison to a NALP Graduate.
The point is that both routes incorporate the study of law, so why differentiate?
Paralegal practitioners, who have gained a NALP Licence to Practise, are able to apply for Licenced Access, through the Bar Standards Board, in order to instruct Counsel directly, and from this viewpoint alone, it means that potentially, barristers have more opportunities to get work.
Those Barristers Chambers that have rights to conduct litigation, can also utilise the services of paralegals to assist them. Whether this is on a contract, freelance or employed basis.
Service low-fee clients – without using high-fee staff
Solicitors offering general legal services are quite often unable to assist clients at the lower end, such as small claims or tribunal matters. It is not financially viable to do so, but if they have teams of Paralegals on hand then perhaps such assistance can be offered via their firm – increasing the profits, and perhaps bringing in clients who will later need larger fee-paying services.
If solicitors feel that they do not wish to take advantage of the paralegal workforce in this manner, it will encourage and contribute to the growing numbers of paralegals working as paralegal practitioners within their own paralegal business. These paralegals are taking steps to offer assistance to such consumers at the lower end of the scale. This in itself is not a bad thing but it is a missed opportunity for solicitors. It’s important to recognise that the growth in paralegals is a counteraction to the lack of funding for consumers, and this fact should be acknowledged and welcomed rather than disregarded by the sector.
There are many reasons why the paralegal workforce has grown at a terrific pace. Not least of course, is the lack of training contracts and pupillages which have aided the exponential growth. The availability of these has not increased to cater for the increasing numbers of graduates coming through the system. But the question has to be asked: why there are so many more graduates than there were twenty or thirty years ago? The answer lies in the fact that most people believe that going to university after school is a natural progression in their educational life. In addition, there are more educational institutions running the professional exams than there were thirty years ago. In 1982 there were four, in 2000 there were 28 and since 2010 there are 42.
More importantly, it is the virtual eradication of legal aid in 2013 that has affected access to justice for most consumers who cannot afford the fees of solicitors or barristers without such funding.
Paralegals are not only filling this financial gap but are also offering access to justice at a reasonable cost and fulfilling the objectives of The Legal Services Act by opening up competition in the legal sector.
By ignoring the role of paralegals, you are ignoring the future; the way the legal services sector is developing. By embracing Paralegals, you help to future-proof your practice.
With many solicitors’ firms falling foul of financial restrictions within their business, the acceptance of a paralegal workforce makes logical sense. The opportunities available are there to be grasped with both hands and embraced, not feared, rejected and cast aside.
Embracing the paralegal workforce is a win-win for all concerned, for solicitors, the paralegals themselves, for the sector itself, and most importantly of all, the consumers of legal services.
By Amanda Hamilton, CEO of National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit Membership Body and the only Paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.