Paralegalling: The home truths

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When announcing their enquiry into the role of paralegals last summer, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) presented the worrying Office for National Statistics figure that there are 76,000 ‘legal associate professionals’, classified by having ‘vocational or middle skills jobs’, (based on returns from employers) in the industry. Essentially, the number of paralegals in the profession racks up into the thousands; the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that this will grow again by 17 per cent in the decade.

It is no secret that the majority of paralegals are LLB and legal practice course (LPC) equipped. CILEx says ‘many firms (specifically large corporate companies) now recruit LPC graduates for their paralegal roles as they know they can find highly qualified individuals at a reduced salary without the need to sign them up straight away to a training contract.’ The dwindling number of training contracts is of grave concern, compared to the booming numbers of those taking up a law degree (the latest Law Society annual statistic report found the number of training contracts registered from August 2013 to July 2014 had decreased by 6 per cent to 5,001, and that 16,116 students graduated with a degree in law in the same period).

Cue the plethora of industry advice, resource, and regulation on how to cement and/or further your paralegal career: the Institute of Paralegals (IoP) launched a voluntary paralegal register in December 2014; paralegals are able to join membership body CILEx and pursue vocational routes to the profession; and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) announced the ‘equivalent means’ qualification in the summer of 2014, which allows paralegals to be admitted to the profession as a solicitor if they have gained legal experience that equates to the requirements of a training contract (which, to keep you up to speed, has now been rebranded a ‘formal period of recognised training’).

So, then, what can one expect from entering the profession as a paralegal, either with the intent of later pursuing a training contract or not? What is the career trajectory?

‘This will vary significantly depending on the individual and their employer,’ says the director of paralegal qualifications at Central Law Training, Daniel Byrne, who estimates that within seven to ten years, at the current rate, there will be more paralegals in law firms than solicitors. ‘In some firms, the paralegal “pool” is a processing team where individuals who have an LLB/LPC can showcase talent before earning a training contract and progressing to solicitor.’

He continues: ‘Other firms prefer a stable, reliable, and long-term support team of paralegals without risk of high staff turnover (it can be counter-productive if the support team is made up purely of aspirant solicitors)’.

Former paralegal and LPC student Saowanee Kristin and legal assistant Holly Kennah both agree that the firm’s prerogative comes before a paralegal’s aspirations; however, firms’ stubborn attitudes can be softened through open negotiations and hard grit.

‘Determine your future plans and work out how to achieve them,’ says Kristin, ‘either by taking on further responsibility or by asking for more varied/complex work.’ Kennah similarly advocates carving out a career trajectory of your own, and being prepared to work hard and be flexible to make this happen.

But, after a hard day’s work has been had, paralegals are often left with a sense of wondering whether a firm will want, or has the resource, to invest in them. Paralegal recruitment guru David Thomas explains that although you may not get several hours of partner contact time while in a practice on a short-term contract, a permanent member of the team should expect a tangible level of investment in personal development and training. ‘The key is,’ he says, ‘to make yourself a priority for the senior figures within the firm through excellent delivery of your work, regardless of your role.’

In addition, paralegal Kennah advises a hands-on, research-led approach to
determining whether you will further your career in a particular firm. When assessing firms’ attitudes to investing in their employees, Kennah recommends looking out for the following:

 

  • Does the firm demonstrate personal development opportunities on their website;
  • Have they won any ‘Investors in People’ awards;
  • Are you able to find any case studies about employee development and engagement; and
  • Are there any internal/external training courses available at paralegal level.

If the answer is “yes” to some or all
of the above, then it’s a good sign,’
she says.

Lawyer food chain

Paralegals’ social standing within firms is often a hot topic. Solicitor and mentor to aspiring solicitors Luke Murphy recently was recently criticised by James O’Connell, the head of policy at the IoP. O’Connell referred to a comment written by Murphy for YL’s big sister publication, Solicitors Journal, as ‘[demonstrating] the unhelpfully narrow focus that most solicitors have about the nascent paralegal profession... Too often the underlying assumption is that paralegals are the police community support officers of the legal world: inferior fake legal practitioners slowly replacing real solicitors to save costs’. In the offending piece, Murphy asked whether a career as a paralegal ‘[was] but a consolation prize... For paralegals that do just as good a job, if not better than trainees and some junior lawyers, to confine them to a register of paralegals is somewhat insulting.’ But does the hierarchical nature of law firms affect paralegals the worst?

'I was extremely lucky to be respected by my colleagues’, says Kristin. ‘I was on hand to help with anything and anyone and relieve the associates and partners of their workload. If you are confident in the knowledge that you are doing your job well and to the best of your ability you will be respected by your colleagues.’

Byrne concedes this is a difficult issue to address. ‘There may be an assumption that, since paralegals are paid less within a firm, colleagues may look down on them – but this is no more or less true than with any other role in other sector’. He adds that if employees view paralegals negatively, then they have an outdated understanding of the increasing importance of the rising role of legal support staff.

Kennah comments that colleagues’ perceptions of each other is dependent on a firm’s culture and the attitude in the workplace. ‘If you are willing to work hard, determined to get results, approachable and enthusiastic, it will make the difference in how you are perceived by your peers,’ she says.

Meanwhile, Anthony Lyons, a contract manager at Vivienne Westwood and former paralegal at King & Wood Mallesons, says that until you’ve been recognised for your abilities, you’ll be looking up to most people when you first start.

‘Some workplaces have a clear hierarchy,’ says Lyons, ‘but if you want to get the most out of the people you work with then make sure you, yourself, show respect to all the employees, from the support staff to the partners.’

The subordinate position paralegals find, or are perceived to find themselves in can cause concerns over job security; ‘Is my job safe?’ and ‘Am I an expendable member of the team?’ are questions habitually flitting around the head of a paralegal.

Lyons comments that firms will often attempt to provide their trainees with the more challenging work, but over time and having gained the confidence of associates and supervisors, it’s possible to turn the tables and become the ‘go-to’ person to assist on the most important deals.

Nevertheless, he stresses: ‘Make no mistake, everyone is replaceable and you’ll have to work hard (or smart) to ensure you get recognised as indispensable.’

Kristin advises ‘show-casing your talents’ to impress your firm and get noticed in a new light. ‘Can you speak a language useful to the firm? Do you have particularly good relationships with the clients? Are you knowledgeable in a particular niche area? The competition for paralegals is fierce and [the firm] expects the same standard of work that associates provide.’

Remuneration

As some of the biggest global law firms hike their newly qualified solicitors’ pay to the dazzling, astronomical heights of £67,500, £70,000, and £88,000 (Clifford Chance, Slaughter and May, and Sherman and Sterling, respectively), paralegals’ wages are lacking in comparison.

According to Thomas, whose paralegal recruitment firm promises ‘Paralegals placing paralegals’, the exact salary depends on the organisation, the experience of the paralegal, and the nature of the role.

‘Broadly,’ he says, ‘you could expect to earn £15,000 to £19,000 per year outside of London for junior level roles, and approximately £20,000 to £26,000 in the capital for similar roles.

‘For roles where prior experience is required, you could earn around £18,000 to £25,000 outside of London and circa £25,000 to £50,000 in the City.’

Lyons agrees pay as a paralegal can vary greatly, as seen in the figures above, but some can find themselves ‘a perpetually unpaid intern’. He adds that some of the best paid roles are on hourly rates, which offers some protection against working what can feel like ‘extortionate hours.’

The 2015 CILEx salary survey shows that CILEx members (albeit not ones classified as chartered legal executives) in the South are earning up to £38,000 and in the North £29,000. The membership body’s survey also found that members in the Midlands and in the West were earning up to £25,000 and £23,000, respectively.

But do some practice areas pay significantly better than others? ‘Some do’, says Byrne, who also remarks that paralegals’ wages have risen in the last five years alone, ‘in the same way that solicitors in different areas can expect varying salaries. Corporate paralegals, for example, would expect to earn more than those working with family law.’

Thomas says that as the largest volume and demand for paralegals tends to be in litigation and dispute resolution, where some of the largest firms can employ up to 250 paralegals at any one time, salaries tend to be lower than other areas, where there is not the same supply of available candidates. ‘Corporate and finance paralegal roles usually pay well, as do roles in banking and private equity teams,’ he adds.

Vocational training is fast becoming a preferred choice for many employers.
Just last month, apprenticeship fever hit the North West, where four firms announced they’d be hiring new recruits and putting them on legal apprenticeship programmes. This, combined with the SRA’s allowance of a period of recognised training, will surely cast doubt in many young solicitors’ minds on whether an expensive and lengthy stay is required pursuing the traditional LLB, LPC route. However, given that the traditional pathway is still engrained into many firms’ recruitment requirements, do you need an LPC to become a paralegal?

‘You do not need any formal legal training to become a paralegal and every role is different,’ says Lyons. ‘The general consensus across the profession is that a law degree does not prepare you for legal practice. Whether the LPC does – well, that’s debatable.’

Laura Clenshaw is editor of Young Lawyer

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