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Paralegal

The term 'paralegal' refers to a person who does a substantial amount of legal work as part of his or her job and may have some legal training or experience, but is not a qualified lawyer. Paralegals work in law firms, as well as in-house in a wide variety of other private and public sector organisations, and often have very different job titles.

Duties vary considerably, but typically include administrative tasks such as researching information and drafting documents, interviewing clients and witnesses, and appearing in court. They often act on behalf of lawyers, specialising in a particular area of law.

Paralegals normally work 37 hours a week, although longer hours are quite common in some solicitors' firms and in more senior positions. They are mainly based in offices, but some occasional local travelling may be necessary if they deal directly with clients.

Salaries may range from around £14,000 to £70,000 a year.

A paralegal should:

  • be discreet with confidential information
  • be patient and understanding
  • pay careful attention to detail
  • be tactful and sympathetic
  • communicate well with clients
  • have good standards of English and computer literacy
  • have good concentration and memory
  • work well under pressure.

There are around 500,000 paralegals in the UK, with around 150,000 working for law firms. They may work in a wide variety of other areas, including the National Offender Management Service, central and local government departments, charitable bodies such as Citizens Advice, the uniformed services and large companies in commerce and industry.

There are no specific entry requirements, but many employers will prefer applicants with some qualifications. Some employers specify an HND or degree in law or legal studies or the postgraduate legal practice course (LPC). The more senior or specialised the position, the more likely it is that legal qualifications will be expected. Those with some relevant experience, either voluntary or paid, may have an advantage.

Most paralegals train on the job under the supervision of more experienced colleagues. In addition, many employers will encourage their paralegals to take relevant courses that involve formal legal training. There is a degree-level qualification that gives recognition as a qualified paralegal.

Many paralegals move on to more responsible posts within their specialism or take on supervisory responsibilities. Some decide to study for professional qualifications in law.

What is the work like?

The term 'paralegal' refers to a person who does a substantial amount of legal work as part of his or her job and may have some legal training or experience, but is not a qualified lawyer.

Paralegals work in law firms, as well as in a wide variety of other private and public sector organisations, and often have very different job titles, such as contracts assistant, case worker or property adviser. In law firms, paralegals may be described as 'fee-earning, non-admitted' staff, as they earn income for the firm and have their own caseload of clients, but are not qualified solicitors.

The work of paralegals varies according to their experience and which area of law they practise in. Duties are likely to include:

  • researching legal information and cases
  • drafting letters and documents
  • organising case files
  • preparing court papers and assisting in court
  • taking statements and depositions
  • interviewing and advising clients and witnesses.

Paralegals specialise in a particular area of law, such as property, family, contracts, criminal, Legal Aid or immigration. Depending on the specialism, their work may involve acting on behalf of a solicitor in:

  • residential and commercial conveyancing
  • appeals and tribunals, such as immigration appeals
  • divorce proceedings
  • probate work
  • small money claims
  • personal injury and medical negligence
  • legal aid cases.

In some roles, paralegals may undertake advocacy work, representing clients in tribunals or at interim or minor court hearings.

Hours and environment

Paralegals normally work 37 hours a week, although longer hours are quite common in some solicitors' firms and in more senior positions. Legal aid paralegals may be on call to attend clients at police stations out of office hours. Prosecution caseworkers may have to work at weekends and bank holidays, if needed.

Paralegals are mainly based in offices, but some occasional local travelling may be necessary if they deal directly with clients or are involved in court work.

A car and a driving licence are sometimes required. Part-time and temporary positions are often available and trained paralegals may also work on a freelance basis.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Starting salaries for paralegals range from £14,000 to £25,000 a year.
  • Average salaries for experienced staff are between £25,000 and £40,000 a year.
  • A senior paralegal may earn up to £70,000 a year.

Salaries for paralegals working in-house tend to be higher than in solicitors' firms. There are also variations in salary between paralegal specialisms.

Skills and personal qualities

A paralegal should:

  • be discreet with confidential information
  • be patient and understanding
  • pay careful attention to detail
  • be tactful and sympathetic
  • communicate well with clients and others
  • be able to absorb and analyse large amounts of information
  • have a good standard of written English
  • be computer literate
  • have good concentration
  • have a good memory
  • work well under pressure
  • be well organised
  • be able to work to deadlines.

Interests

It helps to have an interest in:

  • law
  • current affairs.

Getting in

There are around 500,000 paralegals in the UK. About 150,000 of them work in specialised legal firms, including a growing number of specialised paralegal advisory firms (PAFs). Around 50,000 work for solicitors' firms. Paralegals can be found in a wide variety of other areas including:

  • courts
  • the National Offender Management Service
  • local government departments, such as trading standards, environmental health, housing or planning
  • voluntary bodies, such as Citizens Advice, Equality and Human Rights Commission
  • government departments and agencies, such as the Crown Prosecution Service, Driving Vehicle Licensing Authority and Department of Work and Pensions
  • trade unions and professional bodies
  • the uniformed services
  • legal departments of large companies.

Overall, opportunities for paralegals are growing as their professional status becomes increasingly recognised. Legal aid work is expected to increase.

Entry-level paralegal appointments can be found in the local and national press and occasionally in the legal press and recruitment websites. Outside the public sector, the most successful method of applying is by approaching firms and organisations directly. Those with some relevant experience, either voluntary or paid, may have an advantage.

The Institute of Paralegals can provide applicants with suggestions of firms to approach or applicants can consult the Law Society Directory of Firms at www.solicitors-online.com.

Entry routes

No specific qualifications are required to become a paralegal. However, many employers, particularly law firms, will prefer applicants with some relevant qualifications including:

  • GCSEs (A*-C) or A levels in academic subjects
  • BTEC qualifications in law or legal studies
  • NVQ in business administration
  • foundation degree in law or legal studies
  • NALP Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies
  • NALP Level 7 Diploma in Paralegal Practice

The Institute of Paralegals website has a list of specialist paralegal training courses and qualifications, some of which are suitable for those wanting to enter the profession.

Some employers specify an HND or degree in law or legal studies or the postgraduate legal practice course (LPC). The more senior or specialised the position, the more likely it is that legal qualifications will be expected.

Non-law organisations that employ paralegals in-house may take on unqualified staff and provide professional training. It may be possible to start in a clerical post in a legal office.

A paralegal career can be an option for law graduates who have not found a training contract to become a solicitor, as well as for lawyers from overseas.

Training

Most paralegals train on the job under the supervision of more experienced colleagues. In addition, many employers will encourage their paralegals to take relevant courses. A number of courses are available to paralegals. Details are available from:

  • The National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP)
  • Institute of Paralegals
  • Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX).

Nationally recognised courses include:

  • BTEC Level 2 and 3 qualifications in law and legal work
  • BTEC Level 3 National Award in applied law
  • City & Guilds (C&G) Level 2 Award/Certificate/Diploma in legal studies
  • C&G Level 3 Diploma in vocational paralegal studies.
  • NALP Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies
  • NALP Level 7 Diploma in Paralegal Practice

Membership of the Institute of Paralegals or the NALP offers the opportunity to work towards a degree-level qualification that gives recognition as a qualified paralegal. Members have to meet a combination of work experience and educational qualification requirements, and take part in continuing professional development (CPD).

Getting on

Most paralegals develop their career by specialising and moving on to more responsible posts or a larger employer. Some paralegals take on supervisory responsibility, eg leading a team of temporary staff recruited for a major project. They can sometimes progress to become partners in solicitors' firms and opportunities to do so are increasing. Freelance work is also available.

Some paralegals undertake further qualifications to become solicitors, barristers, licensed conveyancers or legal executives. Others, not working in law firms, may take professional examinations in their specialism, eg trading standards, insurance or human resources.

Further information

Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), Selborne House, 54 Victoria Street, London SW1E 6QW. 020 7210 8500. Website: www.dca.gov.uk

Her Majesty's Courts Service (HMCS), 102 Petty France, London SW1H 9AJ. 0845 456 8770. Website: www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk

Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), Kempston Manor, Kempston, Bedford MK42 7AB. 01234 841000. Website: www.ilex.org.uk

Institute of Paralegals, 2nd Floor, Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, Mayfair, London W1J 6BD. 020 7887 1420. Website: www.instituteofparalegals.org

The Law Society, The Law Society's Hall, 113 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1PL. 020 7242 1222. Website: www.lawsociety.org.uk

The National Association of Licensed Paralegals, 3.08 Canterbury Court, Kennington Business Park, 1-3 Brixton Road, London SW9 6DE. 020 3176 0900. Website: www.nationalparalegals.com

Skills for Justice, Centre Court, Atlas Way, Sheffield S4 7QQ. 0114 261 1499. Website: www.skillsforjustice.com

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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