The changing role of the paralegal in the legal industry

  • Last updated Jul 11, 2017 3:01:08 PM
  • By Samuel Clague, Founder of The Stephen James Partnership

The legal industry has seen a number of changes over the past few years, including the implementation in late 2011 of the Legal Services Act.

The Act has enabled non-legal entities to participate in the ownership, management and provision of legal services. As a result, many law firms that operate business models centred around lower cost, higher volume work are facing new entrants to the market and increased competition. This has necessitated a change in approach, which in some cases has led to changes in resourcing given the costs of employing staff within firms.

Securing a training contract: interviews or working as a paralegal?

In the past, paralegals were predominantly hired by law firms to assist with various legal and non-legal tasks and would likely be particularly prevalent in the litigation or corporate teams of larger law firms.

Increasingly, other organisations are recognising the benefits of employing paralegals: a fact represented by the large number of paralegals now working in the UK and not solely within private practice.

Some people choose paralegalling as a career in itself - now even easier thanks to the Trailblazer paralegal apprenticeship - whilst others aim to use their paralegal experience as a stepping stone to obtain a training contract. A few firms are taking this concept a step further by only recruiting trainees from their paralegal staff, thus doing away with the traditional graduate recruitment method whereby one would apply to a firm usually two years before commencing as a trainee solicitor.

Advantages of hiring paralegals…

This approach of employing potential trainees as paralegals first will arguably allow firms to better assess future trainees before offering training contracts, instead of recruiting trainees on the basis of performance at an assessment centre or interviews.

If this new model of trainee recruitment were to be adopted by every law firm, candidates might potentially be at a disadvantage. For example, if a candidate had to work at a firm as a paralegal for 12 months to be considered for a training contract there, that same candidate would be unable to work as a paralegal at another firm, and therefore be effectively confined to applying to the one firm for a training contract for at least a year.  

Benefits for paralegals

Alternatively, only hiring trainees from incumbent paralegals could be seen as an advantage for some. For example, paralegals working at a firm who may have been overlooked for training contract places in the past under the traditional model of recruitment would potentially face less competition if a law firm adopted this new model, as they would likely already be part of the training contract “pool” of candidates that can be considered. Conversely, this could mean tougher competition: with career paralegals and new graduate paralegals fighting it out to try to secure a training contract.

This new model of recruitment could be beneficial for firms as they would be able to see how their future trainees work with fellow members of staff on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, the firms will likely have a more flexible stance in terms of resourcing, as trainee positions being offered to paralegals would be dependent on merit and the business needs. However, from a prospective candidate’s point of view, this could mean that there would be no guarantee of a training contract. Whether or not this may put off prospective candidates in applying is difficult to say at this point in time.

What is certain is that the way in which legal services are provided is changing, with many firms looking at new improvements and their utilisation staff. Time will tell whether this new model of recruitment will exist as a niche, not at all or become the main way for firms to hire trainee solicitors in the future.

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