Should I become a paralegal or a lawyer?
Paralegals and ‘lawyers’, who are defined for the purpose of this article to be Solicitors, both work in the legal profession. So, what is the difference and why should you choose to be a career paralegal?
What is the function of a paralegal?
A lawyer practises law having gained the requisite education and training required to be admitted to the role of solicitors. Lawyers may be generalists; for example, offering private practice areas such as wills and probate, family law, conveyancing, to name but a few, or they may be highly specialised in areas such as construction law, intellectual property or cyber crime.
A paralegal in England and Wales can work within a regulated entity such as a law firm or can have their own business or paralegal practice. The roles and responsibilities of paralegals are therefore very wide.
Generally, paralegals in law firms do not give legal advice and are usually responsible for researching a case, drafting documents and processing documents. There are, however, many paralegals who run their own caseload, referring to the lawyer for aspects of the work that they are forbidden to undertake.
Career paralegals work in commerce, for charities, local government and most other sectors that have legal departments. They also can work as sole traders or run their own paralegal practices. Will writers are, of course, paralegals.
The distinction comes in the name of ‘Reserved Activities’, which are exclusively available for regulated providers such as Lawyers. Check out the Legal Services Board for reserved legal activities.
Education and training
There are differences in the education and training of lawyers and paralegals, although many paralegals also come through the more formal legal education route.
Lawyers often go to university to study law and then progress to practical skills training before or during their on-the-job training. Their legal education is broad, covering many areas of law and generally is academic in nature.
In the UK, paralegals are considered as non-lawyers, although the term ‘lawyer’ is not protected and therefore can be used by paralegals. The training for paralegals is not mandatory, but those who wish to have a professional career will engage in training and join the Institute of Paralegals. Paralegals generally undertake vocational training, making them ideal practitioners to be able to ‘do the job’. Paralegals are encouraged to specialise and to take qualifications that are relevant to their area of practice. The days are long gone when a ‘Level 6’ broad scope qualification is needed or desired.
How long is training?
Lawyers must complete a degree or equivalent qualification and undertake the skills element of training and have practical experience. This usually takes six years.
Paralegals can enter the market with no formal qualifications but must prove competency in their area of practice. On average, a career paralegal can get to the same stage as a lawyer within 2-3 years.
Cost of training
Becoming a paralegal will not involve accruing a large amount of debt. Attending law school in order to become a solicitor, however, is likely to cost tens of thousands of pounds. See Law School Fees for more info.
Lawyers salaries are dependent on geographical location, seniority, and area of law. Qualified solicitors salary starts at around £22,000 and can reach six-figure sums. Paralegals can expect to earn from a similar starting point if they have qualifications or experience and they too can earn £40,000+ in-house and reach £70,000+ in some organisations. For self-employed, freelance or business owners, profits can be high.
Without a doubt, the paralegal profession is the fastest growing sector in legal services. One of the reasons for this is the diversity of opportunity that the profession provides. Large law firms are setting up paralegal teams, sometimes 50-100 in number; graduates and entrepreneurs are setting up paralegal law firms and businesses; there are now many more freelance paralegals who can offer their services to consumers, SMEs, law firms and barristers' chambers.
Paralegals, will writers and probate researchers can also register with the voluntary register and regulator Professional Paralegal Register (PPR) and may be able to apply for a Paralegal Practising Certificate.
For current job vacancies, check our Jobs page.
Continuing Professional Education
Both lawyers and paralegals are expected to undertake CPD. The Institute of Paralegals and the PPR monitor CPD and do spot checks of their members.
Whether you decide to become a lawyer or a professional paralegal will depend upon the type of training that suits you best, the cost, how quickly you want to be qualified and whether you want to run your own business. A career as a professional paralegal is a diverse one, with lots of opportunities for you to progress quickly and do almost the same as a lawyer. If you would like to join a professional membership body for paralegals or you would like to find out more about becoming a paralegal, contact the Institute of Paralegals (IOP). You can also follow the IOP on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
About the Author
Rita Leat is Chief Executive of the Institute of Paralegals, a professional membership body that connects individuals with the shared purpose of providing professional legal services. The Institute is the standard-setting body for paralegals as recognised by the unregulated legal services sector regulator, the PPR. They are the only paralegal body that is recognised by the voluntary regulator as having robust professional standards.
Alternative Routes into Law