The great paralegal dilemma: A means to an end or an end in itself ‬

We spoke to the paralegals to find out about the realities of life ‘at the bottom of the food chain’

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The legal profession is a funny old thing.

It oozes glamour, that’s undeniable, but the glamour doesn’t quite stretch to all corners of the profession.

And in one such corner sits the humble paralegal. 80,000 of them in fact.

And a glamorous life it is not.

For starters, the pay is pretty naff. Paralegals can expect to earn an average of £18,000. Others earn as little as £13,600 a year, about a sixth of a newly-qualified magic circle solicitor’s salary. That can be a pretty tough pill to swallow, as one former paralegal explained:

Most of my friends from law school went straight into sponsored post-grad courses or fancy grad schemes. I was living in the capital on less than £15,000 a year, working long hours, and doing work that wasn’t interesting or exciting. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was right at the bottom of the food chain.

Because paralegals are not qualified to give legal advice, the perception is that their work can often focus on process and mundane administrative tasks rather than intellectually rewarding problem-solving. Our ex-paralegal continued:

My law degree felt totally wasted in that job. I never used it because all I did was photocopying and filing.

Indeed, paralegal work is so monotonous Oxford academics guesstimate they face a 66% chance of being replaced by robots in the next two decades.

So why put yourself through it? A residential conveyancing paralegal explains her reasons:

I decided to become a paralegal to gain experience of working in a law firm. I hadn’t had much legal work experience and thought it would give me good standing for training contract applications if I had worked in a firm. After graduating, most of my law friends who wanted training contacts tried to become paralegals.

‘Paralegal-ing’ (not yet a verb but surely going to become one) gets you a foot in the door and opens up internal recruitment possibilities; at the very least builds up your CV. That was definitely the opinion of another of our interviewees, a commercial paralegal in a global law firm:

It goes without saying that as a graduate who has the goal of qualifying, being a paralegal was a logical step.

As dismal as pushing papers nine to five for less than living wage sounds, a stint in a law firm as a paralegal does have an intrinsic value for budding lawyers. The Institute of Paralegals (IOP) — a representative body for paralegals — explains, “an increasing number” of firms like their trainees to have done at least six months’ paralegal work first.

This pre-trainee tier of aspiring lawyers is, in the words of an ex-paralegal turned City trainee, “an opportunity to gain experience in law… while getting paid to improve your chances to move forwards with your career”. Even our unhappy former paralegal sensed that taking on the stint was a good thing to do even if it wasn’t much fun:

I don’t regret the experience at all. I learnt a lot about client contact and how the legal system works in practice. It gave me something to talk about in interviews too.

Most interviewees agreed that being a paralegal was part of the journey rather than the destination. One, the commercial paralegal, was keen to point out that though his work is varied and interesting, (perhaps dispelling the ‘paralegals only do filing’ myth):

[B]eing a paralegal is not seen as a career goal.

Our trainee City lawyer echoed this when he said:

Being a ‘career paralegal’ is rarely seen as a final destination for law students and this was true in my case. I would have used the experience and sought a career in another profession if I had not obtained a training contract.

This is not to say, however, that everyone who has ever been a paralegal has done it to get a training contract.

Legal Cheek spoke to a couple of anonymous paralegals who totally distanced themselves from the ‘means to an end’ stereotype.

One, currently working at a high street firm, had this to say:

I’m not a fan of the usual stereotype that paralegals are the bottom rung or just a gateway. I’m new to it but just as it’s a means to an end, I’m pretty sure it’s an end in itself.

He continued:

I’ve come across paralegals who are just as good, if not better than trainee solicitors! Even so, with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) route and the ability to cross qualify, I’d say being a paralegal isn’t the end.

Another interviewee of ours, who is working in-house, echoed this. She had very little bad to say about the experience: her workload is varied, she manages her own projects, works in a great team environment, and for a brand she’s passionate about. She told us:

Becoming a paralegal was not a fall-back plan for me, rather I chose it as the next best step in my career.

James O’Connell, from the IOP, was also keen to debunk the perception that ‘paralegal work’ and ‘work experience’ are practically synonymous. ‘Paralegal’, he told us, is a misleading term because “it implies a junior/subservient role”. But:

Tell that to the owners of the paralegal will writing law firm that have written 25,000 wills, or the paralegal law firm which is just about to buy a solicitors’ firm.

Ultimately, he explained, “it’s about what you know and who you know, not your job title”, and for that reason it would be presumptive to tar all paralegals with the same ‘you’re just doing this because you didn’t get a training contract’ brush.

The last word comes from O’Connell who believes that the ‘unregulated’ sector, which has shown such unparalleled growth in recent years, is well-worth considering:

450 years to reach circa 10,500 solicitors’ firms: 10 years to reach circa 6,000 unregulated (paralegal) law firms. If I was at the beginning of my legal career, I’d be weighing up the options very, very carefully.

51 Comments

Anonymous

As a junior barrister regularly instructed by paralegals, I can confirm that their instructions are frequently unrealistic and often plainly legal wrong (to the extent that a first-year undergraduate could – I hope – correct them).

But all of the above also applies to instructions I receive from solicitors. So who’s to say being a paralegal isn’t an end in itself?

(21)(6)
Anonymous

I was correcting my own comment here so don’t know why everyone’s liking it so much…

(8)(3)
Anonymous

I’ve started to apply to paralegal jobs but found that they are looking for people who are in that tough place of having the LLB but not having the gusto to go ahead with the LPC/DPLP without a training contract in hand. I’ve also found that some recruiters won’t touch you without the LPC/DPLP, which was somewhat surprising.

(3)(1)
Anonymous

Some firms have a preference for people with the LPC. I am not entirely sure why they think the LPC is necessary, but I am pretty sure that since the market is so saturated with desperate LPC grads with no TC, the firms can easily get what they want.

The reality is, that one does not even need the LLB/GDL to be a good paralegal – because the very nature of the job is so basic. Thank god I start my TC soon.

(11)(3)
Anonymous

I spent two years at a North London high street firm specialising in criminal law as a paralegal after bar school. The pay was absolutely abysmal, but I learned so much in that time and gained invaluable experience of clients, law in practice and working on big cases. I’ve no doubt that I wouldn’t have got pupillage if I hadn’t been a paralegal. Plus my old firm now give me loads of work!

(14)(1)
Anonymous

Don’t do it. I always advise struggling new entrants to do literally anything else other than paralegal work. There is no way to make the leap up. It’s just slave labour.

(7)(21)
Anonymous

Well that’s stupid. Few if any get a training contract without paralegal work under their belt.

Plus paralegal work under your belt is invaluable experience for when you are a trainee.

(6)(3)
Anonymous

Depends on where you’re going. At City firms most of the trainees will be recruited straight from uni. In regional firms and high-street firms, they are much more likely to recruit from their pool of paralegals.

(5)(2)
Teacher

Obviously not true.

See comment immediately above yours.

Must try harder.

(1)(7)
Anonymous

Its what you make from it! If you accept the photocopying and filing then that’s down to you. Take the initiative and push yourself, be good at the basics then make sure you shadow drafting, get involved with client contacts and meetings. Its not the end all and be all

(10)(3)
Anonymous

Yawn… Pro-actively seek out TC opportunities and apply.

If you are rejected constantly – clearly the idea that a paralegal stint will help is your last stitch attempt to salvage a legal career. Look elsewhere.

(6)(7)
Teacher

“Last stitch”?

Surely “Last ditch”

That’s on a par with “damp squid” and “tenderhooks”

(13)(1)
Anonymous

I do not agree with the above comments.

The work of paralegals can be hugely varied and at some firms can be a world away from basic grunt work. I (and many many others) are living proof that in the right circumstances, with a bit of luck and hard work, paralegals can secure City TCs.

Paralegalling simply helped me become a better TC candidate than I was beforehand (particularly with regard to the dreaded “commercial awareness”).

(13)(1)
Anonymous

“450 years to reach circa 10,500 solicitors’ firms: 10 years to reach circa 6,000 unregulated (paralegal) law firms. If I was at the beginning of my legal career, I’d be weighing up the options very, very carefully.”

What does this mean? Because paralegal firms have grown rapidly in the past decade I should be looking to become a paralegal rather than a trainee solicitor?

(13)(0)
Anonymous

Apparently so – just goes to show what quality journalism LC is.

(10)(0)
Dongbang

Yeah, it’s shite. Hope you’re reading this, Katie & Co.

(6)(1)
Anonymous

The only thing those numbers tell us is that there is two tiers emerging.

We need to consider the average pay and quality of work within those two tiers.

(1)(0)
Larry's slave

This is nothing. I was actually a pupil in a now collapsing chambers where I was effectively a paralegal dogsbody.

(2)(1)
Anonymous

I was always curious why do firms seem so averse to recruiting trainees from their paralegals. When you’ve got two people:

– one of them is a paralegal at your firm, has 2 years of relevant work experience, the LPC, and works at your firm already (understands the culture, you can get proper feedback on them, their ability, performance etc), and
– the other is an undergraduate student, with no clue and a combined period of a few weeks of work experience.

Why would you not just take the paralegal instead? It seems like a no-brainier, does it not? Or could it be because there’s a policy against that sort of thing, as it would render the self-serving HR/grad recruitment even more useless and irrelevant?

(26)(4)
Anonymous

I started out as a filing clerk, before becoming a paralegal with no legal background. I was briefing counsel on elements of high value cases within about 12 months to 2 years. Now I run the business and I’m not yet 40. Not everyone makes it even half way to the top. You must be prepared to take a risk, to put the effort in and have a little luck. The number of doors that open and close for any individual is ridiculous. Most importantly you have to be prepared to step through one!

(5)(9)
Anonymous

I paralegaled for a year and a half before getting my tc, and I have to say the work was pretty good. Decent pay, less stress, interesting work, no contact with annoying clients, clocked off at 5 on the dot every day. If I found one with good pay I’d happily be a ‘career paralegal’, even if it meant not being a ‘proper’ lawyer (status be damned).

Having said that, I think my paralegal job was significantly better than most out there.

(6)(1)
Anonymous

I’ve heard a few people say that they miss their paralegalling days after they qualify. I guess if the money and status are not important to you, you can always paralegal as a qualified solicitor.

(0)(1)
Curious George

Please do spill, whereabouts did you do it? Big City firm or perhaps something smaller, more boutique?

A mate of mine is at Hogan Lovells and doesn’t seem to be having such a blast as you did.

(2)(0)
Parasmeagol

i got a paralegal job soon after I graduated. Filled with hope and optimism. After 700 years of conveyancing I’m a shadow of my former self.

(20)(0)
Anonymous

I can’t deny, the experience is worthwhile, if only to learn from other lawyers of how to and how not to do it in the future. Pay is pretty dire, but only recently a friend of mine (secured a TC straight out of university) said that he lacks the basics of case administration and wishes he has more practical experience. A little pick-me-up for the few disgruntled paralegals out there wondering what the hell they’re doing, it’s all worth it in the end.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

I’m a Paralegal and it hasn’t worked out too bad for me. I got the job at 18 straight from college.

6 years later, I’ve traveled several countries, own my own house and have various investments on the side.

6 years experience, sponsored degree and virtually no student debt – means to an end, or the end of the beginning?

(4)(4)
Earl of Worcester

…and I assume you live in some decrepit pit in middle of Sunderland?

We’re talking London here son, not the provinces.

(9)(7)
Anonymous

Can you only be successful if you work in London? There was me thinking there was an entire world out there.

(7)(2)
Anonymous

I’d happily escape London. If only the evil wife would agree

(0)(0)
Anonymous

If Paralegal’ing is a means to an end, where does that leave these Legal PAs?

(1)(0)
Anonymous

I started as a paralegal in 2010, I started my law degree part time that same year and worked full time and studied (basically full time) from the beginning, learning as I worked. I have turned down three tcs so far because I was adamant I wanted Pupillage. I graduated last year I accepted Pupillage this year. I was very lucky but the work I did during that time really gave me such a good head start on the competition ! I had something to talk about which was relevant in interviews. Those saying that the pay for paralegals is rubbish are so right but those saying it’s all photocopying and admin are so wrong ! I was in court in the first month of my role (yes before I started my degree) and have led my own files since that, doing my own advocacy and against counsel. It really depends when you start and where. I have loved being a paralegal.

(5)(0)
Anonymous

We don’t live in a world where you prance out of law school into a training contract. I worked for free for a year and I work part time at my firm again for free before starting my TC this year. If you are really committed to pursuing law you need to get on with it and stop moaning or find an alternative career. I was working 9-5 and pulling pints in the evening to keep myself going.

(3)(2)
Smug B'stard

Oh? I pranced out of law school and into a pupillage.

True story!

(7)(7)
Anonymous

I had four training contract offers by the last year of my LLB…

(1)(6)
Anonymous

That’s great for you but not everyone can afford it mate. Pulling pints on minimum wage if you’re in London isn’t going to cover your rent.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

I paralegalled at a ‘magic circle’ Firm for a couple of years. It won’t make an average candidate into an outstanding one but it can boost your commercial awareness and show your TC/pupillage provider that you can step up under pressure and handle yourself in a professional environment. The experience was useful and the money can be good (especially if you qualify for overtime). I’ve recently started pupillage at the criminal Bar and taken a 30% drop in salary. Be warned: once you become accustomed to it, the money can be hard to walk away from.

(3)(1)
Depends how you do it

Temp paralegaling is the way to go – get paid by the hour and double pay after 5pm. On an hourly rate I was getting paid more then the Associate I was sharing the office with over the last summer at ‘Silver Circle’ firm.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

I spent 5 years as a paralegal. As a working mum with a young child it gave me the opportunity to work in a law firm and learn as much as I could whilst studying part time to be a Solicitor. 5 years later, having qualified in Devon I’m now working In the city, doing a job that I love, with a firm I love. There is no way I would be where I am now without it.

(4)(3)
Anonymous

I’ve been paralegaling for a global firm in the City for 18 months. In that time I have finished qualifying in the US and landed a TC with my firm (and received offers from other City firms). I am paid more than most silver circle trainees in the City. In January I start the LPC then my TC. I have had an interesting and varied workload and all the responsibility I could want. I don’t regret becoming a paralegal at all, it definitely assisted in landing my TC, and I have no doubt that this will benefit me greatly in the future.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

you guys are showing your lack of range. nothing from anyone working in legal aid where being a paralegal (often for years) is a prerequisite to getting a training contract

(3)(0)
Em

I disagree that all paralegals just do photocopying and admin and get a crap wage.

I got a job as paralegal in London the same month I finished Uni, it started off just doing the usual- basic emails, and phone calls chasing people, but I wanted more and wanted to make the most of paralegaling – after about 8 months I was handling all my own files (over 200 matters) and working independently. I also got a pay rise to reflect the extra responsibility and did this for 1 more year. I then got offered a TC at my firm, got another pay rise and now have no responsibility or files of my own!

It is what you make of it!

(2)(2)
Anonymous

The problem with the role of ‘paralegal’ is that it is unregulated and varies wildly. Some paras will be running their own caseload. Others are glorified admin assistants, opening and closing files, photocopying, filing. In the case of the latter, other industries pay more for admins than law firms

(5)(0)
Anonymous

I completely disagree that by being a paralegal you do not earn the necessary skills. Yes, you may not be paid the best but I work for a top 10 law firm as a senior paralegal and we all have our own litigated caseload – there is not a filing request in sight and we all have our own secretaries to deal with such requests. Many of the paralegals I supervise have been offered the opportunity for internal training contract places based on their achievements and problem solving abilities as a paralegal.

(1)(1)
Lord Jon (That high street paralegal quoted...)

It’s pretty straightforward tbh. The quality of work as a paralegal varies where you go. Some places will offer you the chance to learn and develop and as time goes on you could become a fee earner. In other places the grass won’t be as greener…

In any event. If you’re given lots of filing and photocopying when you’ve just started you need to pipe up and start taking initiative. If they don’t know you’re a safe pair of hands then why would the business trust you with their client?

I’ve been about my current firm for a month and a bit now. I got the “You need to start making us money and hitting targets now” talk just the other day. Ask if you can draft; ask if you can shadow on a hearing or help with drafting instructions to counsel.

If you’ve not done your LPC or BPTC yet, ask someone who has for advice; buy a practical skills book and swot up. (You may not even need to buy one as your firm may have a small library to choose from.) Read up on practice directions? It’s about initiative.

If you don’t have the gusto or confidence to convince yourself or your employer that you’re a safe pair of hands to take on work then how will you convince a judge of the merits of your case as an advocate?

If after all this you have no joy, your placement is probably trash and you really ought to contemplate going elsewhere for your own benefit.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

Be warned. Not all firms like you asking for more responsibility. Less £ in the coffer for them – a paralegal’s charging rate being less than other ”fee earners.” I often got the impression we were just there to dress up secretarial work in to chargeable billable work.
That said from my experience temp work and public sector paralegalling was invariably better than permanent work in a City Law Firm. Better hours, pay and better quality work – i.e proper drafting/case management experience.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

I am a paralegal and have been for a few years having worked my way up. I will say that the pay is shocking and the role varies massively within the same firm. Some paralegals have no time or billing targets and just do admin and have no direct client contact. I run my own caseload (with no secretarial support as mere paralegals are deemed unworthy of such assistance). I’m also expected to conduct advocacy, engage in marketing and promotion activity and assist other fee earners . I could probably earn more doing something with much less responsibility and less stress. It is not right to say that paralegals just photocopy and file. Some of us have many years’ experience which is not rewarded and, dare I say, taken advantage of as we are “cheap”. It has however provided a wealth of experience and I am completing CILEX to get the job title which might mean a bit more in the bank at the end of the month….

(4)(0)

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