Paralegals: The Fourth Arm of the Legal Profession or the Stepping Stone to a Training Contract?
In the past, some have looked down on paralegals, considering them inferior to those with a solicitor or barrister qualifications. However, today, old prejudices are slowly breaking down as legislation and the changing face of the legal industry has thrust the “humble” paralegal into the spotlight.
Paralegals are essential to the success of the legal sector. More recently, it was accepted that a stint as a paralegal would boost aspiring lawyers’ chances of getting a training contract. Paralegal work is increasingly becoming the norm for many graduates as "that stepping stone into securing a training contract.
There are many reasons to apply for a paralegal role after you graduate from your law degree or GDL. I asked a graduate at a Magic Circle Firm and 2016 Diversity Award Winner, Linklaters – an already qualified Greek Lawyer but also a trainee paralegal – about the benefits of paralegal work and whether it can be a stepping stone to a training contract.
According to the Institute of Paralegals (IOP), there are approximately “6,000 paralegal law firms in the UK”. It is evident that these have developed over the last 10 years. In comparison, it has taken 400 years for there to be the current 10,100 solicitors firms. Surprisingly, at this rate of growth, it appears that paralegal law firms could possibly outnumber the traditional solicitors firms within the next 10 years.
At present, this growth is amazing but it is still largely unrecognised and unregulated. How long will this be allowed to continue?
This is one of the big questions that shapes the future of legal services at present.
What is a paralegal?
As highlighted in the Oxford English Dictionary, the term paralegal can be defined as “a person trained in subsidiary legal matters but not fully qualified as a lawyer”. However, there is a level of difficulty in defining the paralegal profession. This lies with the differing levels of experience that exist between paralegals, and their different titles in law firms. To expand, many people might be paralegals and not realise it, with titles such as adviser, caseworker, housing officer, legal assistant, trademark manager and others being commonly used.
How paralegal experience can help launch your legal career
If has been said that if approached the right way, a paralegal role can enhance your prospects of getting a training contract following your legal practice course (LPC).
Margarita Karkantzou gained experience as a paralegal at Linklaters for two months before being offered a training contract at the firm.
“The paralegal position was ‘crucial’ for me”,
She has quite a unique situation. Margarita has already qualified as a lawyer under Greek Law; however, to be able to qualify within the UK, she has opted to repeat her GDL, LPC and Training Contract again. Although it was only required of her to repeat her training contract to successfully transition into UK practice areas as a solicitor, she felt as if she needed to do the LPC and GDL to gain more of an understanding and experience as an English Lawyer. She goes on to say:
“…since I didn’t have any experience within the UK, I wanted to be a paralegal/legal assistant as it has allowed me to get to know the working environment/corporate lifestyle”.
Why did you decide to become a paralegal? What are the benefits of paralegal work?
“Being a paralegal has allowed me to develop the skills I would need as a lawyer. The first being attention to detail. This varies from doing a range of administrative work. Some days you can be doing anything from photocopying and filing (although it can be repetitive), to replying to emails. The work at times can be compared to that of someone who works in HR; however, it is important because you can master the skills you need. This is the same with reviewing documents, you are paying close attention to detail and thus develop these skills further. The second one is being able to perfect your analytical skills”.
Margarita points out that:
“The paralegal position is not just for redacting documents, it’s also doing research of a point of law. This can range from, drafting a legal memo, which requires research skills also. For me, most important were the organisational skills. You can be handed anything up to 5 tasks at once and you will need to be able to prioritise tasks so that you develop as a professional. This also gives you a competitive advantage with others, especially when it comes to the training contract, as most of what you would have been doing as a paralegal, you will be doing within your first two seats as a trainee”.
The requirements for paralegal work
One could argue that a lawyer’s responsibility is that of considering a matter from all angles; working out implications, consequences, issues, liability, important gaps in knowledge and strategy. In contrast, the paralegal’s job is typically to carry out the course of action suggested by the lawyer: interview that witness; research that question; incorporate that company; complete and file that legal document.
How long do most paralegal roles last for?
“Firms recruit for roughly six months and this is on a fixed term contract basis. Mine was for six months until last year December; however I was fortunate enough to receive an offer to stay for another six months, until June.”
She tells us that:
“If the firm like you and see that you are a real asset to the company, they will invest in you. They could potentially extend your contract beyond the initial time that they wanted you for. You still need to work hard and demonstrate how valuable you are, regardless of your position within the firm”.
“Working as a paralegal gives the firm you are working for the opportunity to see how you work in a variety of different ways,” says Margarita.
‘For example: how do you perform under pressure? Do you work well with other members of the team?
Margarita recognises that:
“It is important to prioritise your workload accordingly. Don’t make a habit of leaving things to the last minute. As soon as you are given your tasks, make sure you start them as soon as. Prioritising things is not only a good skill to have and perfect within the firm or workplace, but it is a life skill that you could need for almost, if not, everything! As you climb the ladder through training it is also important to maintain harmonious relationships with other members of your team, as they will be some of the people within the firm that you would come into contact with the most.”
However, the question at present is where do paralegals and lawyers cross over? – From paralegals to solicitors
Working as a paralegal either in-house or within a law firm can provide law graduates with an excellent opportunity to see how the organisation works, and potentially put into practice some of the skills acquired from university/law school; various administrative tasks such as: drafting and legal research. For some, working as a career paralegal is preferable to working as a solicitor, and many people choose this route for more work-life balance and stability, for example.
Does my paralegal experience count?
If you have worked as a paralegal carrying out legal work, there is no doubt that you go on to secure a training contract, you are permitted to apply to have your paralegal experience to be recognised and count towards your time as a trainee solicitor. This is known as ’time to count’, and has to be both confirmed by the firm in which you undertook the paralegal work and accepted by any firm you join as a trainee. You are able to recoup up to half of the time you have worked, up to a maximum period of six months. For example, a four-month period would count for two months of your training contract. The only caveat is that in order for your time to count to be eligible, the time you spend as a paralegal must have been gained within a period three years prior to your application.
Experience gained working as a paralegal will show prospective employers that you are committed to the legal profession, regardless of whether you are looking to work as a career paralegal or a solicitor.
Other reasons to add paralegal experience to your legal CV:
A position as a paralegal also demonstrates your commitment to work in the legal sector, and is a great networking opportunity. However, it is worth checking with your firm and also researching your preferred firms if they would consider such work favourably.
Margarita Karkantzou is already qualified as a Greek Lawyer. However, she is a future/incoming trainee solicitor at Linklaters. She worked as a paralegal at the firm for two months before being offered a training contract. Margarita Karkantzou graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Master’s degree in Competition Law in September 2015. After graduating, Margarita applied for both a paralegal position and training contract within the firm simultaneously and secured both! She currently sits as a paralegal in the competition law department at Linklaters.
To conclude, the road to a career as a solicitor when you are working as a paralegal can be very tough, and you will inevitably have set-backs along the way. However in the long-term, if and when you do progress to become a solicitor, spending a few extra years as a paralegal will not necessarily be to your detriment, but may actually make you a better lawyer. Keep going, you will get there eventually!
(A big thank you to Margarita Karkantzou and Linklaters for allowing me the opportunity to conduct such an amazing interview.)