What to expect as a paralegal

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By Sophie Dillon on

Legal Cheek explains…

Graduating from a law degree can feel a little paradoxical. On one hand, you’ve finally achieved that lauded goal you’ve been working towards for three plus years. But, on the other hand, if you don’t have a training contract offer or any clear next steps, it can feel a little disorientating. Those few years after uni can feel like floating around in the ether trying to figure out what you want to do next.

Fortunately, there are many ways to add to your legal CV before you’ve successfully secured a training contract or a pupillage, and one of the best ways is to paralegal. Working in the “engine room” of a legal team can give you a huge insight into what it’s really like working in law. This can be great for garnering legal experience for your CV as well as giving you a heads up on where you might want to go next. Working in a law firm from the bottom up can give you incredible opportunities to move up in the legal world (if you so desire).

But, what does being a paralegal really entail? And, how can you best prepare yourself for channelling your inner Rachel Zane? Here’s an explainer to answer your burning questions.

What is a paralegal?

A paralegal is a key role in the functioning of a great legal team. Paralegals sit at the bottom of the fee-earning hierarchy; lowly but no less mighty. The top of the tree of each legal team is usually commanded by a partner or a senior partner overseeing the associates, trainees and paralegals. Skirting on the outside of the legal work are the administrative assistants and non-fee earning roles, such as the secretarial and legal administrative staff. In many ways, the paralegal role straddles the role of a legal assistant and trainee in the sense that many paralegal tasks will overlap both whilst sitting comfortably in the middle.

What does a paralegal do?

“What does this mean?” you may be thinking. Well, a paralegal in essence, will take on legal administrative work that can be charged back to the client. This means that, in many teams, a paralegal may be called up to, for example, draft e-mails (yes, when you first start out, e-mails will need to be drafted and checked by a supervisor before being sent out to a client!). They will also need to become very familiar with two areas of the office: the printing station, and the tea and coffee machines. Making copies and scans won’t be the main meat of the paralegal role, but will definitely find a regular appearance on to-do-lists.

Paralegals will also find themselves well served by more trainee-level tasks, too. This means getting involved in drafting; be that particulars of claim, witness statements or board minutes. Getting stuck into the meatier trainee tasks is fantastic law interview fodder, as well as a handy heads-up on whether life at a law firm is for you.

Outside of the legal work, a paralegal will also be called upon to get involved in “business development” initiatives. To explain, each firm will have a non-legal team in business development (or ‘business services’) which helps the firm in its marketing, risk and compliance, and diversity and inclusion. The size of these teams can vary greatly between each firm, depending on its size. But, paralegals will be sure to get to know the faces of their business-orientated colleagues. As a paralegal, you may be drafted into initiatives such as events organisation. This means organising events for your team: team drinks anyone? Paralegals may even be drafted onto the firm’s social committee to help with organising those big firm events or junior colleague nights-out.

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Does a paralegal always do the same thing?

Just like a trainee, a paralegal will find that their role and responsibilities vary greatly from firm to firm and from team to team. Unlike a trainee, though, a paralegal will sit in the same team for the duration of their employment. A paralegal at a larger firm with more resources may find themselves seeing less of the juicy legal work as opposed to their small or mid-sized firm counterparts. Nevertheless, working in a large firm with a fast-paced environment may similarly suit an ambitious career starter looking to rise the ranks in the City.

Paralegal work also varies greatly team by team. A paralegal sitting in residential property may find themselves with a high volume of work that is quick to complete, whereas a corporate paralegal may find that their work follows the general trend of famine and feast. And, it’s not just the volume or pace of work that differs departmentally. A litigation paralegal will find themselves with very different to-dos than a non-contentious paralegal – think trips to court and drafting witness statements rather than creating land registry documents or board minutes. So, for the aspiring paralegal, it is paramount to be sure of both your legal interests as well as your own style of working before embarking on the application process. To quote the much over-used graduate recruitment proverb: “do your research!”

What does it take to be a great paralegal?

Organisation and time-management are key. Often taking tasks from multiple members of the team, a powerhouse paralegal will need to be adept at keeping their to-do list tip top. This means carving out time in their calendars for each task, and keeping a healthy level of communication with colleagues. More often than not, starting a paralegal position can be the first foray into the legal industry for many aspiring lawyers. So, feelings of anxiety and self-doubt are normal. But, being a great paralegal means soaking up your surroundings like a sponge and being quick to bounce back from those early blunders.

Given that many paralegal tasks will be more on the administrative side, paralegals also need to have a sharp eye when it comes to detail. That means reading, then rereading then rereading again. Before handing any piece of work to a supervisor or an associate, a paralegal should be sure to give it a thorough prove to save themselves from the embarrassment of a missed typo. Keeping great time, and handing in quality work is guaranteed to get you to gold as a paralegal in a new legal team.

Finally, enthusiasm is fundamental. Even though it may sometimes feel laborious, it’s key to keep in mind that the work of a paralegal is vital to the operation of the team. Great work being done at the bottom ensures the success of the work that’s being done at the top. So, being a go-getter and always being ready to get involved is a key way to ensure that as a paralegal, you’re not just a cog in the wheel, but a key player in your legal team.

Sophie Dillon joined Legal Cheek as a writer and researcher in September 2023. She studied law at Newcastle University before becoming a corporate paralegal at a regional firm. She went on to complete the Bachelor of Civil Laws (BCL) at the University of Oxford.

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