As the foremost professional membership body for paralegals in the UK, NALP has gained an insight into how its members have fared during the pandemic. It is clear that those in the first scenario, working within the legal sector, have been worst hit. Solicitors have long held the view that paralegals are no more than law graduates unable to find a training contract and willing to take on paralegal roles in the hope of being given the opportunity to apply for that elusive contract and qualify as solicitors. This is the reality for many, and as such, they are the most expendable. Unfortunately, a number of paralegals in that position have now lost their roles and are drifting towards the next scenario, working in-house.
Despite this, some law firms have had the foresight to see the benefit of keeping their paralegals on during lockdown in order to offer legal assistance at a lower cost to those clients who have suffered financially during this period. Paralegals working in-house seem to have fared better than those working in law firms. Companies employing paralegals have kept them on through the furlough scheme and are now utilising their services to assist in recovery from the financial hardships of lockdown. But not all paralegals want to become solicitors, and those that have decided to branch out and become independent paralegal practitioners with a Licence to Practise, have fared best of all.
Even prior to the pandemic and lockdown, consumers were starting to realise the benefit of seeking the assistance of a paralegal rather than going directly to a solicitor. Since 2013 when legal funding (‘legal aid’) was virtually eradicated for all but the most urgent cases, consumers have found it difficult to afford the services of a solicitor. With solicitors’ fees being anywhere from £250 – £600 per hour, it’s understandable that this is beyond the pockets of most. Whereas fees charged by paralegals may range from £30-£80 per hour dependent on the nature of the work. Making the choice is not rocket science. Paralegals have certainly taken up the slack left by the withdrawal of legal aid.
The argument that the role of paralegals is different to that of solicitors and, therefore, it should be one that is ‘less professional’ since it is not a statutorily regulated profession or that paralegals are not trained in the same way, is old hat. It is true that they are not solicitors, but that is the whole point. Solicitors have a prescribed pathway of training and qualification, and because they are so heavily regulated, they must charge their clients fees accordingly. However, even though paralegals are not statutorily regulated, they do have a prescribed pathway, and this is especially the case if they wish to become licensed and offer services directly to the consumer or to businesses. In order to gain a Licence to Practise, paralegals are heavily scrutinised. They must have a minimum recognised legal qualification and a certain number of years’ proven legal experience/competency before they can be considered. Plus the fact that they must have professional indemnity insurance and adhere to rules of ethics and practice. So, at the end of the day, except for reserved legal activities, why can’t they perform many of the tasks that solicitors do? They may well have the same level of competency, (perhaps higher, since it is likely that they have specialist knowledge rather than general practice knowledge)? The Law is the Law in whatever way it is studied. Relevant legal experience is the same for a graduate completing a training contract as it is for a paralegal wishing to gain practitioner status.
Consumers and businesses are realising that utilising the services of paralegals can be of great financial benefit to them. Paralegals can offer legal assistance in a wide variety of ways without charging the earth.
Paralegals that are independent licensed practitioners are the ones that have benefitted most from the pandemic. Indeed they appear to be thriving in an environment that has caused many consumers and businesses severe hardship. Many are trying to get back on their feet since lockdown has been lifted, and whether it be employment cases or debt collections or mediation, approaching paralegals for assistance is undoubtedly the most financially viable choice in such circumstances.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit Membership Body and the only Paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.