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