We are all very well aware that Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has affected our lives in many ways and forced many law firms and individual legal service providers into hardship. It has also had a knock-on effect for some barristers that rely on specific briefs from those law firms, and those that are directly accessible by consumers – also not forgetting those barristers that can conduct litigation and offer fixed fee services to consumers.
Some legal businesses have been in a catch 22, wondering whether or not to invest in remote working facilities when their financial situation is so vulnerable. I am aware of one commercial business owner that has three hundred employees and a massive weekly payroll. She has to make just that decision: should she financially invest in supplying internet, computers and phones for her team to work at home when there is little/no income coming in? Furthermore, there is the knowledge that this situation will not last indefinitely. It’s a difficult position in which to find oneself.
Getting back to business
When the lockdown is finally fully lifted – and it will lift eventually – the legal sector, like so many other sectors, will be looking to get back into business and onto an even keel as swiftly as possible. However, they will also probably be looking to cut costs to do so.
This needs to be balanced with the knowledge that certain types of work are likely to be more abundant than others in the immediate aftermath of lockdown. For example; commercial leases and contracts, tenancy agreements, general contractual disputes, divorce and family law, probate, will writing, employment contract, and company mergers and acquisitions, etc.
Where do paralegals fit in?
So, what can you do if your firm or fixed fee business does not employ (or is unable financially to employ) sufficient experienced individuals in these areas? This is where outsourcing to a local licenced paralegal may solve the problem. NALP Licenced paralegals specialise in one or two legal areas and will not be as costly to employ on a contractual basis as a qualified solicitor or barrister. As many have their own paralegal practice, it’s possible either to outsource or sub-contract the work to them, while keeping the management (and profits) in-house.
In addition, a solicitor or barrister that offers general legal services, is quite often unable to assist clients at the lower end, as it is not economically viable to do so – cases such as small claims, contractual disputes or tribunal matters. Certainly, when the lockdown is lifted, there will be a rush of such small low-end legal matters to deal with. It therefore makes sense to utilise the services of a NALP paralegal or two.
For example, some SMEs such as shop-front commercial businesses, as well as self-employed individuals, may need legal advice and assistance to get back on track after Covid-19. Access to this may be too costly via conventional routes i.e. paying a fee to a solicitor or barrister. In matters such as general contractual advice, matrimonial assistance, hiring and firing staff (employment contracts), renting or leasing private accommodation or commercial units, collection of debts or minor civil disputes and, in particular, contractual disputes, a NALP Licenced Paralegal Practitioner would be able to help.
Previously, it may not have been financially viable to take on such clients, but if a paralegal or a team of paralegals is on hand (whether in-house or externally), then perhaps such assistance can be offered – increasing the immediate profits, and bringing in clients who might later need larger fee-paying services. Utilising the services of such individuals can certainly assist in clearing a backlog of cases.
How best to utilise paralegals’ services
How you use such paralegal services depends very much on the way your business is structured. For example, paralegals can be freelance, in which case those businesses would only remunerate them on an hourly or daily rate. You could also bring them in on a short term contract for one or two weeks or one or two months or longer, in order to clear the backlog of matters. It would not be necessary to employ them, as this would incur paying their tax and national insurance, and thus defeat the main reason for using their services in the first place, i.e. to cut costs.
Another way is to outsource to a firm of specialist paralegals if you had, say, a single project that needed attention. As mentioned, paralegals usually specialise in specific areas of law, and therefore this would make sense if you had a large backlog of, for example, Wills that needed drafting or small claims or matrimonial related matters.
Don’t forget that while a paralegal can perform many different tasks, they clearly cannot undertake reserved activities. However, they do have rights of audience in the small claims court and in most Tribunals, and this may assist your business at the lower end of the case scale.
What to look for
If you are working within the legal sector and are looking to use the services of a paralegal there are a few tips and things to look out for:
- Are they a member of a professional body such as NALP (National Association of Licenced Paralegals)?
- Do they have a NALP Licence to Practise and professional indemnity insurance (PII)? The latter is not necessary if you are employing them in-house staff within your practice.
- It is important to check the experience, training and qualifications of such paralegals which will be dependent on the type of work you require them to do. So, entry level (basic work and assistance) may only require a Level 3 qualification (such as the NALP Level 3 Certificate or Diploma.) Alternatively, work that requires a level of expertise and skill may require an applicant to have either a minimum Level 4 (such as the NALP Level Diploma) or a law degree or above.
- Ensure that the activity you need help with is something that a Paralegal is allowed to deal with. Essentially, Paralegals can do almost everything a solicitor can do, but clearly certain activities are reserved and cannot be performed by a paralegal.
There is no doubt at all that paralegals can play a big part in getting the legal sector back on its feet quickly and helping to ensure it’s in a position where they can thrive once more.
At the end of the day, when lockdown is lifted completely, maybe having used the services of a paralegal for the first time, you may be impressed enough to consider that it would be worthwhile using them again and again. This could help grow your business not only in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, but also for years to come.
To find a paralegal with the qualifications and experience your practice requires visit: https://www.nationalparalegals.co.uk/paralegal-register
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.