Paralegal work: the key to a training contract or a career in its own right
Just as paramedics are medical personnel but not doctors, paralegals carry out legal work but are not qualified solicitors or barristers. They apply and interpret the law and advise on legal points. They work in teams and provide administrative and drafting support to their colleagues. The amount of substantial legal knowledge needed as a paralegal varies from post to post.
According to the Institute of Paralegals, there are 250,000 paralegals in the UK – 60,000 of whom work in solicitors’ firms. Paralegals also work within large companies, charities and not-for-profit organisations, the military, the NHS and in central and local government (eg in benefit fraud prevention or trading standards departments). Working as a paralegal can be a stepping stone to a training contract or a career path in itself.
How paralegal experience can help launch your legal career
- Approached in the right way, a paralegal role can enhance your prospects of getting a training contract following your legal practice course (LPC). Becky Powell gained experience as a paralegal at Field Seymour Parkes (FSP) for four months before being offered a training contract at the firm. ‘Working as a paralegal gives the firm you are working for the opportunity to see how you work in a variety of different ways,’ says Becky. ‘For example: how do you perform under pressure? Do you work well with other members of the team? How do you communicate with clients?’ Becky recognises that: ‘Paralegal work also provided me with a bank of experience that I could refer to in training contract interviews.’
- Becky also found that paralegal work helped shape her future law career plans. ‘Working as a paralegal and getting a taste of my future career only increased my drive to qualify. I would advise anyone doubting whether they want to take this path to seek paralegal work and you will soon know if it is for you,’ advises Becky.
- A paralegal role, like a vacation scheme or mini-pupillage, lets you experience working within a legal environment to check whether a law career is a good match for you. After graduating with a degree in law from the University of Nottingham, Becca Jones didn’t want to jump straight into the LPC and training contract applications so she secured a job as a paralegal in the corporate department at FSP. ‘After graduating, I decided that being a paralegal would be the perfect stepping stone in my legal career,’ says Becca. ‘I was still unsure if a career as a solicitor was the right path for me but becoming a paralegal has given me a valuable insight into the working life of a solicitor to help reassure me of my career choice.’
- Paralegal work can help you discover which areas of practice to seek out as a trainee. ‘Between finishing my law degree and starting my training contract at Mills & Reeve, I worked as a paralegal at the firm,’ explains Ross Buckingham, trainee solicitor at Mills & Reeve. ‘I gained exposure to different areas of the firm and an indication of potential practice areas I’d like to experience on my training contract. I did a lot of property, corporate, commercial and some private client work.'
- As a paralegal within a law firm, you are likely to assist solicitors with their caseload and complete administrative tasks such as proofreading documents. Paralegal work can not only help confirm that law is the right career path for you; it also gives you a chance to hone those vital, sought-after skills for a successful career in law that are difficult to practise elsewhere – commercial awareness and client-relationship skills, for instance.
- Becca has also found that her paralegal work is good preparation for the LPC as she has learned to prioritise and organise her workload effectively and has encountered concepts that will be covered during the LPC but not touched upon in her undergraduate degree, such as drafting. ‘Although I undertake a lot of administrative tasks, this job is not all about photocopying and filing,’ emphasises Becca. ‘As a member of the corporate team I get to assist everyone, from the trainees to the managing partner, with a range of responsibilities: drafting documents, conducting research for clients and sitting in on completion meetings when a deal is being finalised.’
- Becky agrees that paralegal work offers a great opportunity to develop skills for lawyers. ‘It became clear very quickly that effective time management and the ability to prioritise are vital skills for anyone working in a law firm,’ says Becky. ‘Even if you do not have much legal work experience, I think it is reassuring for employers to see that you can perform well under pressure, whether that be when completing legal work or administrative tasks. During my time as a paralegal, I worked hard and learned as much as I could. In particular, I developed the skills of drafting, research and negotiation. The experience of working with real clients was invaluable and provided a far better insight than I ever could have gained on the LPC.’ Ross agrees: ‘Being a paralegal gets you used to working in an office and gives you time management skills. It was hugely beneficial in terms of making contacts at the firm and building a network.’
Other reasons to add paralegal experience to your legal CV
A position as a paralegal also demonstrates your commitment to work in the legal sector, and is a great networking opportunity. However, it’s worth checking with your preferred firms that they would consider such work favourably.
The brutal fact is that prospective solicitors outnumber the training contracts available and, with student debts and living costs ever escalating, many law graduates find paralegal work to pay the bills.
The requirements for paralegal work
The word ‘paralegal’ is a generic term covering everything from support work (admin, preparing paperwork and court preparation) to fee-earning, and the requirements to become a paralegal vary from employer to employer. It’s an unregulated profession and it is down to the employers to set their own requirements.
In theory paralegals require no formal legal training and some firms, such as Bond Dickinson, take on paralegals as apprentices straight from school. But increasingly recruiters are requesting a legal academic background – a law degree or graduate diploma in law as a minimum; in fact, some law firms only consider paralegals that have completed the LPC. With so many graduates coming out of university without a training contract lined up and looking for legal work experience, firms are choosing graduates from a legal background. As a result, getting a paralegal role is competitive and not a soft option.
Be warned also that some positions require previous experience, so it’s worth taking the time to find the right position for you. Becca realised that: ‘Even doing a week of work experience at a law firm can help kick-start your career in law. I did work experience at FSP last summer and the good reference I got from the trainee I shadowed during that week helped me to get the paralegal position I have now – more so than the reference from my personal tutor.’
Put as much thought into these applications as you would when applying for your training contract – ensure that you meet the stated requirements and offer something more; you never know where it might lead.
Becky Powell is a trainee solicitor at Field Seymour Parkes. She worked as a paralegal at the firm for four months before being offered a training contract. Becca Jones graduated from the University of Nottingham with a degree in law in June 2016. After graduating, Becca secured a role as a paralegal in the corporate department at Field Seymour Parkes. Ross Buckingham is a trainee solicitor at Mills & Reeve. He worked a paralegal for a year at his firm in between securing and starting his training contract. Ross proves the point that you don't have to be called Rebecca to be a paralegal.