By Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP)
If you are a school careers officer or are offering career advice at a college or university then you’re probably already be aware of what is happening in the legal sector.
Qualifying as a solicitor or barrister is not only time consuming but also extremely costly. As a result, fewer and fewer students are able to take this route – even if they are passionate about a legal career. Not only do they have to pay £27k for the privilege of gaining a law degree, graduates then have to find another £15k to complete the professional examinations, whether it’s the Legal Practice course (LPC) for solicitors or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) for barristers.
Even then, their career may well come to a full stop. Why? Because the next stage is to gain a training contract or a pupillage – and these are in very short supply.
Statistics show that there are around 9,000 graduates competing for around 5,000 pupillage each year, and about 1000 competing for about 500 training contracts. Year on year, these figures are compounded. It can be a thankless task applying each year in vain. There are just not enough training contracts and pupillages to go around.
Many graduates are therefore finding work as paralegals and some are choosing this as a viable permanent career pathway option.
Encouraging school leavers or law graduates to qualify as a paralegal from day one can save a lot of time, heartache and money!
There are several reasons why.
Firstly, it is not as costly to gain qualifications. NALP (an Ofqual awarding organisation), through its training arm, NALP Training is the only paralegal organisation offering nationally recognised and regulated bespoke paralegal qualifications, for under £2k.
Secondly, Paralegals can now operate as independent professional practitioners in a similar way to solicitors. For example, they can apply for a Licence to Practise from NALP, and as long as they have been vetted as to their experience and/or qualifications, have Professional Indemnity Insurance (PII) in place (NALP has a recommended bespoke broker), they can operate from a high street office and have other paralegal partners to develop their own Paralegal firm.
There however, are some legal activities that are ‘reserved’ and remain the monopoly of solicitors. These have to be avoided at all costs. Examples are: ‘rights of audience’ e.g. the ability to represent a client in all courts. Having said this, paralegals are able and permitted to represent clients in the ‘Small Claims Court’ (part of the county court) and in most Tribunals. Furthermore, this restricted activity whilst still regarded, is being eroded in practice.
With the virtual eradication of legal aid for all but the most urgent cases, consumers needing to attend court (either to bring an action or defend themselves) are unable to pay solicitors’ or barristers’ fees. These can be quite onerous for even the simplest of matters: solicitors may charge upwards of £200 – £500 per hour for their services – a cost that most people cannot afford.
The lack of legal aid has meant that consumers have been attending court to represent themselves. They are referred to as Litigants in Person or LIPs. This in turn has put huge strain on the court system. Many Judges are halting proceedings to give advice to LIPs themselves. This has resulted in massive delays in the timetabling of cases. Ten-minute cases are now taking as long as two hours, according to information given to NALP recently.
Paralegal Practitioners are now filling this gap left by the ‘legal aid’ void. Paralegals may only charge £30-£80 per hour for equivalent services offered by solicitors.
If you think that a Paralegal is not a Solicitor, then you will be correct in that assumption. Paralegals are not solicitors. However, they are trained, educated and qualified in law and through the self-regulatory membership body NALP, will have been vetted and checked in respect of their experience and competency.
Apart from the ‘reserved activities’, paralegals can practice in similar areas of law that a solicitor can, with the exception of Conveyancing and Immigration work. These areas are regulated by the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) and the Office of Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) respectively.
Provided that a Paralegal Practitioner does not infer in any way that they are solicitors, they can offer advice and assistance to consumers, thereby, offering access to justice at a reasonable cost which fulfils the statutory guidelines and objectives of The Legal Services Act 2007.
It is vitally important that this message is passed on to school and college leavers so that they are fully aware of their options and save themselves time and heartache before they embark on the costly path to qualification as a solicitor or barrister.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced 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 training arm, NALP Training, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.