The paralegal profession explained

  • Last updated 11-Jul-2017 13:58:34
  • By James O’Connell , Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, and Becky Kells, Editor, AllAboutLaw

Paralegals are people who carry out legal work, even though they are not lawyers. There are approximately 300,000 paralegals in total (although this number varies depending on how you define paralegal). They work in solicitors' firms, the government (both central and local), industry and commerce and the not-for-profit sector. Basically, anywhere where there are organisations that have legal issues, e.g. virtually everywhere!

Following the government’s concerted effort to end the solicitors' monopoly on the provision of most types of legal advice/services, there are now over 6,000 paralegal law firms. These are commercial organisations offering legal services to the public and other businesses without the involvement of lawyers.

What does a paralegal do?

Paralegals are not yet a distinct profession (although it is going that way). What unites the 300,000 is that they all do significant amount of legal work that would previously have been and often still is, done by solicitors.

Because “paralegal” is a catch-all, default term, it encompasses everyone from a legal secretary regularly helping out his/her boss on their conveyancing files all the way through to the many qualified and experienced overseas lawyers working here in the UK. As a result, many paralegal jobs have different titles, such as caseworker, adviser, legal assistant, housing office trademark manager etc.

Given that the definition of “paralegal” is so broad, and that there is no unifying requirement for prior training, experience or qualifications, or even proven levels of competency, the paralegal profession has been slow to develop.

How popular is the paralegal field?

However this is changing fast, mainly because of the huge increase in the number of paralegals. Employers in all sectors realise that there are many legal jobs that do not require a solicitor or other lawyer. Paralegals are filling these posts. There are already circa 60,000 paralegals working in solicitors' firms: more than all the associate, assistant and consultant solicitors combined. If the trend continues (and there is no reason why shouldn't) then within approximately seven years there will be more paralegals working in solicitors firms than there are solicitors!

The above increase in paralegal numbers is coming about because ever more complex work is being delegated to paralegals. This in turn requires paralegals to be treated better, and requires highly trained paralegals.

In response, there have been several moves to introduce a national career path for paralegals which leads to qualification.  Most recently, the government has introduced the Trailblazer apprenticeships to the Paralegal profession - you can now embark on a shiny new level 3 apprenticeship that will enable you to work as a paralegal.The route to qualification has turned a job into a career, and an occupation into a profession.

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