EXCLUSIVE: In March, Legal Cheek published a story about a firm that was asking law graduates to self-fund a very expensive paralegal course in order to be considered for a training contract with them.
A few days ago, though, the firm, Aston Carter Solicitors, went public with a finalised version of its pay-to-be-a-paralegal scheme, which will commence next month.
Here’s the deal:
First, LLB or GDL graduates must do a specific Aston Carter-nominated "paralegal training course", which they have to fund out of their own pocket. The course costs a whopping £9,500. Paralegal training courses elsewhere typically cost between £1,000-£1,500. The firm’s senior partner, Henry Telewa, says BPP Law School, Central Law Training and the National College of Legal Training (NCLT) are currently being considered to host the course, although no final decision has been made.
The nominated paralegal course requires the completion of "up to 800 hours of practical experience". This practical experience will take place, unpaid, at some new office space Hammersmith-based Aston Carter has acquired in Brentford, west London. For context, 800 hours is around half a year’s fee-earning for a hard-working solicitor.
In return, Aston Carter guarantees to employ the graduates as paralegals on a salary of between £15,000 and £18,000 when they have completed the paralegal course and the (up to) 800 hours of "practical experience". Then, after around nine months of paid work, the firm guarantees to cover the cost of the graduates' part-time LPC fees, while also employing them to work, fully paid, as paralegals during their LPCs.
Although Aston Carter says there are "up to 60 training contracts per year" available "for the right employees", there is no guarantee of a training contract upon completion of the LPC.
In spite of this, Telewa says that the firm has been inundated with applications for the scheme, which has been advertised on websites including Kent University (where a full pdf document explaining the scheme has been posted) and Gumtree.
Telewa adds that he would "much rather recruit from within the firm’s scheme than hire people who we have only been able to judge at interview level". Fair enough. But without a TC guarantee, graduates are left exposed to a lot of risk. Judging by an email that I received from Telewa in March, in which he stated that the firm is "not in a position to offer training contracts at this point in time", I'd be concerned about Aston Carter's ability to offer 60 training contracts a year.
It's important to note that the 'Aston Carter Path' doesn't appear to break any rules. When I spoke to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) yesterday it said it had nothing to add to its response to the original March story, adding that the regulation of paralegals falls under the remit of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX). For their part, CILEX suggests it is a law firm matter, which would, I guess, make it an SRA issue. Anyway, the bottom line seems to be that law firms are allowed to ask graduates to jump through additional hoops in order to get a training contract with them.
Views about the 'Aston Carter Path' vary. James O’Connell, chief executive of the Institute of Paralegals, reckons the £9,500 paralegal course fee is "extremely high", but thinks "it might be worth it if students definitely got training contracts at the end of it all." O'Connell also pointed out that the completion of the sort of long and rigorous paralegal training course Aston Carter is offering could make graduates eligible to have six months knocked off their two-year training contracts.
Others are against the scheme on the basis that they view the extra layer of paralegal training it requires as redundant. Peter Wright, a solicitor at Taylor Bracewell, said: "I don’t see the point in paying to do the paralegal course. Why not just pay to do the LPC in the first place?"
Ultimately, graduates have that choice – and certainly the ones I have spoken with aren't impressed by the 'Aston Carter Path'. But at what point should the legal profession's regulators step in and at least make a recommendation about what the best route is for wannabe solicitors to follow?
Law graduates don't need wrapping up in cotton wool, but my feeling is that they could do with a little more protection.