Next week a conference in Nottingham will seek the views of the profession and educationalists with the intention of establishing a once-and-for- all definition of the paralegal by setting up an educational framework - probably to NVQ standards - for legal support staff.
Financially pressed firms have increasingly been using law graduates and other non-qualified staff. Law Society research shows that solicitors' firms employ some 25,000 fee-earning paralegals, whose qualifications range from Ilex fellowship to none. Rick Saunders, the society's head of legal education, says there is a growing need for paralegal work, particularly as solicitors' costs increase. "Our concern is that work should not be done by people without proper qualifications or without proper supervision," he says. "There should be qualifications geared to competence to do the tasks. The obvious framework is NVQ."
Ilex, which is also involved in the Nottingham conference, believes that everyone coming into contact with clients should be trained at a level appropriate to his or her job. The institute has a subsidiary company, Ilex Paralegal Training Ltd, which offers courses for legal support staff, from secretaries upwards. It is also redefining its own courses and exams to meet NVQ criteria.
As the number of training contracts continues to exceed that of legal practice course graduates, work as a paralegal is increasingly seen as an alternative route into the law. Indeed, one personnel manager of a law firm suggests that the Law Society is seeking to introduce paralegal qualifications to counter criticism that it does not do enough to balance the training equation.
"It may be that some people without a training contract may find one after working as a paralegal. But we are primarily making sure that work is done at the appropriate level by the right people," Nick Saunders says.
"There are parallels with the medical profession, where it would be prohibitively expensive, for instance, to use the resources of a fully qualified doctor for simple stitching procedures."
Any new scheme will probably not be compulsory. "It is not our preferred approach, unless it is seen to be vital in the public interest," says Mr Saunders. "We hope that firms will see its value in helping them to maintain their market position."
The key to solicitor training is the compulsory acquisition of experience in three fields of work, so that as trainees become competent in one, they have to move on to another. A paralegal can become highly competent in one area and stay working in it, which is cost-effective for the firm.
Clifford Chance has embraced this reasoning. According to Chris Perrin, the partner responsible for trainee recruitment, the firm re-examined its use of trainees because the costs associated with recruiting them are very high, and increasing.
"Historically, trainees have been used for a variety of work, from the important to the menial," he says. "It no longer seemed sensible for highly intelligent people to do menial work, nor was it cost-effective for us. So we decided to bring in more people at a lower level to take on some of the mundane tasks and concentrate our trainees on more important work.
"It also makes us more flexible in staffing numbers - we can recruit paralegals at very short notice, whereas trainees are booked two years ahead, taken on for a fixed term, two-year contract and generally kept on after qualification."
Gavin Bacon, a partner at Simmons & Simmons, is also in favour of paralegals. "I promote them in our litigation support group because, in no particular order, they are cost-effective to the client, provide continuity in long cases, allow the trainees to concentrate on law and, increasingly, paralegals have the specialist computer skills which are needed in big cases."
More and more, paralegals at Simmons & Simmons are permanent members of staff. "In big litigation cases, we do use temps, but our aim is to have a large core of permanent paralegals on the US model."
Mr Bacon says he supports the Law Society's move to introduce qualifications for paralegals, but adds: "We don't let them loose until they know what they are doing, and anyway, they work under the guidance of qualified solicitors."
The backgrounds of these paralegals varies: some are IT specialists, and a large number are law graduates. Increasingly, law graduates see being a paralegal as a worthwhile career, especially on the computer side.
But working as a paralegal need not be an end in itself, says Nick Saunders. "The main aims of the new scheme are that it is not a dead end: with proper training and supervision, we hope it will be the foot of a ladder of qualifications."
Richard Blair, who has just finished the legal practice course, offers a novel approach to paralegal work. A year ago, he set up Legal Practice Clerks (LPC), which provides solicitors with back-up support. The company has 450 people on its books, mainly fellow students, who are financing their vocational training as well as gaining experience which, Mr Blair believes, will improve their chances of finding articles. His own, with the City firm Herbert Smith, were secured, he says, with the help of his involvement with LPC.