Training a paralegal army

Sharon Wallach reports on the prospect of a better educational framework for legal support staff

Any discussion about the future of the "paralegal" has first to define the word, which can be used loosely to describe everyone from a highly qualified fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives (Ilex) to a solicitor's secretary who sometimes fills in conveyancing forms.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

£25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor