Last week I Interviewed Amanda Hamilton, CEO, National Association of Licensed Paralegals around the issue of why qualifying as a Paralegal is becoming the only career option for those wanting to enter the legal services profession.
Q1: Can you give a brief background of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals and its key objectives/aims?
The aim is to create the role of paralegals as a separate profession, independent of solicitors and barristers.
The key objective is to give training, qualification and membership to people who operate and work both within the legal sector and outside of it. Not just individuals in law firms and law graduates but anybody who works in any organisation where there is an element of legality in the role they are performing.
Made up of who we represent. Also, last few years it has become increasingly apparent that consumers need extra help due to the reduction in access to legal aid. Paralegals stepping in to assist people who maybe cannot afford to pay a solicitor/barrister fee.
Our objective is to train, educate give professional membership to individuals, to lobby on behalf of members and to educate consumers and businesses as to the benefits the role of licensed paralegals can bring.
Q2: There have been a lot of changes in the legal sector in recent years. Do you think these changes have opened up opportunities for Paralegals?
Most definitely, you can pinpoint the dates paralegal became a more popular option for people. It boils down to lots more graduates coming into the sector. In the early 80s only 5 colleges ran the LPC, by the time 2000 came there were 28 colleges and in 2010, 42 colleges. The Law Society franchised out LPC to educational institutions around 15-18 years ago and as consequence Universities running LLB course then encouraged people to do LPC course to make it work for the institution. As a result, there was a flooding of the market and not enough training contracts/pupillages. There was a group of graduates with nowhere to go. They realised that they needed to gain experience in order to gain a training contract so went into a paralegal role.
For many of those the chances of getting a training contract or pupillage are minimal. They are therefore looking for alternative routes into the legal sector, hence the rise in the number of paralegals but also independent practitioners who have set up their own firms, with professional indemnity insurance, offering paralegal services,
Recent statistics show that there are only 500 pupillages and 4000 applicants and 5000 or so training contracts with approximately 10,000 applicants competing.
Q3: Why should law firms be looking to utilise Paralegals more effectively?
It’s down to the law firms to accept that there are people who want to be career paralegals and to utilise their services and to value them. A lot of law firms are finding it very difficult in this economic climate to survive and unless you are a medium or large firm, finding it very difficult to thrive. Even as a medium-sized firm it is challenging. To utilise people who are in their own right training and to educate and to value them and give them space benefits the legal sector all rounds.
It is important to recognise Paralegals, to utilise them a ‘would be’ solicitors. For many of those they may not get a training contract so why not utilise them, value them and give them recognition within the firm.
Q4: How can HR help to change/challenge the traditional perception of the paralegal role?
HR has a very important role. Once firms realise that Paralegals have got training, qualifications why shouldn't they be as valid as a solicitor? Ok, they are not a qualified solicitor but still their worth could be equivalent of that of a junior solicitor. Therefore it is very important to ‘puff’ up their status. It is important for sector generally with so many paralegals setting up in practice in competition with law firms in many ways, although dealing with the lower end of the sector in terms of the cases they can deal with and of course they are still restricted by reserved activity.
It is important for HR to pump up the value of a paralegal to give them status so that solicitors and their clients have greater confidence in the work that is being done by the paralegal. If a client comes in to contact with someone in the firm who is regarded as low status they may not be too happy if that person is doing work for them but if they are helped by a highly qualified paralegal then perceptions will change.
Firms often lose sight of the end user i.e. the client. They are the most important factor to take into account. Firms need to bolster people’s confidence in the legal sector and this need to happen quickly.
Q5: Where do you see the role of Paralegal in 5 years time?
I think it will end up with paralegals working alongside solicitors and barristers. With the fact that paralegal practitioners can instruct counsel directly means that there will hopefully be a compliment going on between paralegals and solicitors with perhaps paralegals taking on the types of cases, which are not viable for a solicitor to take on thereby offering the consumer a full package. For example, if you have a civil claim and you can’t afford to go to court, you might want to do it yourself but don’t know what to do, a paralegal can step in and charge much less than a solicitor. There is a complimentary career path and offering as far as legal services go.
I see in 5 years, paralegal firms increasing, paralegal practitioners increasing. Paralegals taking on the role that currently litigants in person are doing themselves. Helping the court system run more smoothly because of the eroding of the rights of audience – they will accept the competence of a paralegal coming before them in court to represent a client. At the lower end of the scale, we will have paralegals dealing with that kind of business. Middle and upper-end cases will still have solicitors and barristers dealing with them. That is the way I see it developing over the next 5 years.
I do feel that paralegals are the future of the legal services sector.