A paralegal is a person who performs substantive legal work but is not qualified as a solicitor, chartered legal executive or barrister.
Paralegals play a central role in many legal firms and are increasingly being employed throughout the sector. Traditionally they have been seen as support staff to solicitors and barristers but the work can vary depending on the employer. Many are now handling tasks that are very similar to those given to trainee solicitors.
Paralegal roles are popular among law graduates as temporary work until they find a training contract to become a solicitor. This is a great way to gain some of that essential work experience and get some real insight into the industry. For this reason, many of these roles tend to be fixed-term contracts. To become what is known as a ‘career paralegal’ and secure a permanent role, you will usually have to build up some experience in several paralegal roles.
If you have an interest in the law, are highly organised and can work well under pressure, a career as a paralegall might be for you.
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Paralegals are required to provide legal support in a variety of institutions. They do valuable work in law firms, private and public sector organisations, charities and not-for-profit organisations, and in chambers. The exact role of a paralegal can therefore vary dramatically from one organisation to the next. Clerks, legal assistants and caseworkers are all types of paralegal and carry out work ranging from simple administration tasks to work similar to that of a recently qualified solicitor. Lawyer2B recently conducted a survey of paralegals and found that, ‘on a day-to-day basis, half of all paralegals surveyed said the work they are asked to do is essentially the same as that of a trainee.’ In fact, one in five said that their work was above the level of what a trainee would typically be given.
As a paralegal you can expect to undertake at least some of the following tasks:
- General administration duties for the office
- Organising meetings
- Taking notes in court
- Letter writing
- Managing and translating legal documents
- Legal research
- Drafting documents and proofreading
- Liaising with clients
- Taking statements from witnesses
As paralegal work can be so diverse there are areas that you could specialise in such as:
- Criminal law
- Employment law
- Family law
- Personal injury law
- Wills, probate and inheritance
With such variation in the direction you could take as a paralegal, working hours will depend on the company, location and industry. Many paralegals have official working hours of 9am to 5pm, however, they are expected to work longer hours when necessary. In London and big cities, usual working hours may well be longer. It is always worth checking to see how overtime hours are paid.
Paralegals can expect to complete most of their tasks in the office, although meetings with clients in other locations and attending court is also common.
It is worth noting that many many students seek paralegal work on completion of the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and are filling in time until they confirm a training contract. This means that levels of competition for paralegal jobs can often be high. It also explains why many are employed on short-term contracts. You will usually need some experience before securing a permanent role if you want to become a ‘career paralegal’.
In theory, you could become a paralegal with just a good set of GCSEs under your belt. In reality, it is such a competitive profession, with many roles being filled by graduates hoping to be solicitors, that the majority do hold a degree (86% according to Lawyer2B).
A degree in law, or converting to law via the GDL (Graduate Diploma in Law), will make your CV much more attractive to potential employers. A further step is to take the LPC (Legal Practice Course) or even the BPTC (Bar Professional Training Course).
If you do decide against the university route, there are several options open to you. The National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) runs diplomas for school-leavers who have at least two A-levels. Paralegal Trailblazer apprenticeships are available and you can visit the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) website for more details on these.
As the path to becoming a paralegal is so competitive, work experience is an essential element to your CV. Work experience will not only demonstrate that you are a motivated candidate but could also give you ideas as to which area of law you would potentially like to specialise in. Shadowing a lawyer or paralegal, getting an internship or just a week’s experience in an office are good ways of demonstrating your dedication.
Attending events put on by law firms, open days and seeing if there are any court hearings you can attend will boost your understanding, as well as demonstrating your enthusiasm.
If you want to boost your CV even more, volunteering for charities or similar organisations is valued. Depending on what area of law you want to specialise in, for example family law, volunteering in the community could be a good opportunity.
With recruiters increasingly looking to employ paralegals, there are many opportunities throughout the UK. There is a great deal of competition for roles in commercial law firms which are usually located in London or other major cities. Work experience might help you decide whether you want to work in one of these big firms or would prefer to be part of a smaller firm. For alternative ideas, you might want to consider working in the public sector. There are opportunities for paralegals in the Metropolitan Police, government services and the Crown Prosecution Service.
The application process varies depending on the type and size of the firm. Many of the smaller law firms will accept a CV and covering letter detailing your experience and what you can bring to the role. The larger commercial firms where competition is fierce, will ask you to complete a highly detailed form and may even use test centres to help them select the right candidates. Some employers don’t formally advertise roles so speculative applications are always worth doing.
As a paralegal you will be expected to complete a diverse range of tasks. As you become more experienced or specialise in specific areas you will develop more skills. The following skills will be useful as a foundation to tackle common paralegal tasks.
- Basic administration and IT skills
- Written and verbal communication skills
- Good organisation as you will often be required to tackle multiple tasks and work under pressure
- The ability to work in a team
- Research skills, especially in legal areas
- An eye for detail in order to analyse information and data
- Commercial awareness and the ability to understand clients’ needs
Non-graduate junior paralegals: £14,000 to £22,000
Graduate junior paralegals: £18,000 to £25,000
Paralegal with three to five years’ experience: £20,000 to £25,000
Experienced paralegal: £40,000+
This is a general guide and salaries vary depending on location, the size of the company and the area of law you are working in. For example the equivalent London salary of a paralegal with three to five years’ experience is more likely to be in the region of £25 to £40,000. Salaries in Scotland will also vary. See the Scottish Paralegal Association website for more information on this.
Some paralegals have the intention of qualifying to be a solicitor. Many graduates take paralegal roles to gain experience while applying for training contracts and then follow the usual route to qualify as a solicitor. Spending some time as a paralegal is a great way to gain some hands-on experience in a law firm and recruiters recognise this. Many law firms will offer training contracts to paralegals working for them directly.
Changes are being made in the legal sector that will allow more diversity. These changes aim to make a career in the legal sector more accessible and open up opportunities to more people. For example, the ‘paralegal short-cut’ was established in 2014. This is a new equivalent means route for paralegals to qualify as a solicitor. This route allows paralegals who have experience in at least three areas of law to apply through equivalent means directly to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). These candidates are deemed to have accumulated sufficient experience to work as a solicitor. This means that you can skip the two-year training contract with a firm but it would still take quite some time to build up the necessary experience. The Professional Skills Course that trainee solicitors take on qualification is still mandatory for equivalent means applicants.
The Institute of Paralegals helps paralegals with their career paths with it’s recognised route to qualification. There are four stages which you can progress through based on how many years experience you have and your skills. This will be particularly useful if your aim is to work towards a senior paralegal position.
There are also apprenticeships available which can help you qualify as a paralegal via a different route. You can find more information on these on the Institute of Paralegals website. Graduate apprenticeships might be worth considering if you wish to get a degree whilst working for a law firm.
For further information, see our paralegal vacancies on Simply Law Jobs.
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