We need to talk about paralegals

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By Alex Aldridge on

The children of the financial crisis could pose a danger to law firms if their ambitions aren’t accommodated.


There is an amusing quote in the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) report from a ‘legal employer’:

“I want technicians who are prepared to do the something 100 times over and over again and are happy to be really good at that for 50 years.”

Unfortunately for big-earning law firm partners, the world doesn’t work like that. Life can’t stand still: everyone needs new challenges, promotions, more money — a sense that their careers are developing. That is the problem now facing law firms which have taken advantage of the growing surplus of cheap paralegal labour that has been churned out by the law schools over the last few years.

No one knows exactly how many of them they are, with no reliable metric for where the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) graduates who don’t secure training contracts and pupillages end up. But estimates suggest that there could be as many as 80,000 paralegals in the UK. This is largely based on research by the Office of National Statistics and the register of Standard Occupational Classification which says there are 76,000 “legal associate professionals” — defining this group as legal sector workers in “vocational or middle skill” jobs.

Assuming they don’t bag a TC or a pupillage at a later stage, the career path for these “legal associate professionals” is provided by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) — through which paralegals can become chartered legal executives, and with some further on the job study, solicitors. This route is appealing more to graduates thanks to an increasingly popular new graduate fast-track diploma that allows anyone with an LLB or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) to become a chartered legal executive in just three years. At which point, if they want, they can become a solicitor without doing a training contract. The bottom line: paralegals are becoming fully qualified lawyers — even when they missed out on a TC. And, as they develop, they want more.

It’s no surprise, then, that law firms are concerned. Many employ more paralegals than solicitors these days, after all. One representative from a top 50 law firm at Thursday’s launch of CILEx’s ‘Paralegal Enquiry’ — which is designed to shed more light on the sector — seemed annoyed that paralegals were being allowed to progress.

“If we needed solicitors, we would have recruited solicitors,” she said, adding: “Once they have qualified they want more money. But clients want paralegals and want to pay paralegal rates. What do you do?”

It was appropriate that the ‘Paralegal Enquiry’ launch was held at DWF, another outfit with a major paralegal presence. The firm is currently grappling with the success of its ‘Paralegal Academy’. Launched in September 2011, the initiative has seen a first wave of paralegals pass through its ranks to arrive at a point, three years on, where it’s normal to ask what’s next.

Currently DWF operates a strategy of keeping the career paths of its paralegal academy members and trainee solicitors separate — a divide reflected in the much lower pay received by those in the former category. But in the day-to-day life of a law firm paralegals and solicitors of course work alongside each other. What happens when a star paralegal academy graduate shows up one of the more sluggish newly-qualified solicitors? It’s this sort of awkward question that law firms are going to have to deal with on an ever more frequent basis over the next few years. Fail to come up with a fair response and there could be trouble.

While most people would probably agree that the stereotype of the paralegal as a happy technician who loves doing repetitive work is a fantasy of law firm managing partners, there remains a less-questioned belief in the myth of the solicitor as the multi-dimensional legal renaissance man or woman. Perhaps this needs exploring. At Thursday’s event, when confronted with a rather patronising comment about paralegals which implied solicitors were higher beings, CILEx chief executive Diane Burleigh (who is a former solicitor) replied:

“How many solicitors are still doing the same thing, day-after-day, as they did 20-30 years ago? A lot.”

Could it be that paralegals, chartered legal executives and solicitors aren’t as different from each other as we thought? Perhaps it’s time that we referred to them all simply as ‘lawyers’.