Are you a recent graduate thinking about starting your career in the legal profession? Unless you’re one of the increasingly lucky number to have a training contract lined up for immediately after completion of your LPC, then becoming a paralegal is generally considered to be the sensible thing to do as you look to get your foot on the ‘legal ladder’.
Not to confuse paralegals in the traditional sense (i.e. junior-level, typically law graduates) with those more experienced, non-qualified fee earners who are also confusingly termed ‘paralegals’ in many firms, it is true that becoming a paralegal is a logical step towards qualifying as a solicitor.
Paralegals get the first-hand experience of working on case files and are given responsibility for administrative tasks, such as preparing contracts and other legal documents, which require some legal understanding. They will also get accustomed to handling client correspondence and dealing with other ad hoc duties that keep a case file moving. Indeed, paralegals are an integral part of most firms and a crucial resource that enable solicitors to be more productive.
But, as the legal industry continues to change and evolve at a faster rate than it has arguably ever done so, we ask whether becoming a paralegal is the safe bet many aspiring solicitors believe?
The pros of becoming a paralegal
Training and Experience
Like with everything, there are always exceptions, but the chances are that if you are thinking of becoming a paralegal, you will have studied law, or at the very least you will harbour a passion for law, and will eventually be looking to qualify as a solicitor.
Working as a paralegal will give you first-hand exposure to the law in practice; you’ll get to see the theory you’ve learnt, or are in the process of learning, put to work day in, day out. You will get to see solicitors in action and, not only discover what a day in the life of a solicitor is genuinely like but also start to develop your practical skill-set to suit a potential future career as a solicitor.
Most firms will insist on some form of formal training too, which will often mirror some of what their trainees undergo. Essentially, it would appear to be a clear stepping stone towards becoming a solicitor, in terms of bridging the gap between your academic studies and the reality of legal practice.
Working on the same assumption as above, and provided that you end up with a decent enough firm, you will have the opportunity to be involved in work that you will find interesting. Seeing the law applied practically every day in a variety of cases is what attracts many lawyers to the profession and is something that you’ll get in your role as a paralegal. The problem questions you’ll be used to analysing and picking apart from your LLB days will suddenly become stimulating, real-life cases with all sorts of associated intellectual and ethical questions surrounding them.
You’ll have a foot in the door
An ever-growing number of firms are now beginning their search for trainees internally, if not formally stipulating a minimal term served as a paralegal at the firm as the criteria for applying for a training contract. That begs the question, however, of whether getting your foot in the door is a benefit or now just a necessity; if becoming a paralegal is now a prerequisite to a training contract with a firm that falls into the latter category.
That said, as a paralegal you’ve effectively got an extended window of opportunity to impress, with every day being an on-the-job interview for a training contract. Whether your firm demands umpteen months service before applying for a training contract or not, working alongside a senior solicitor and impressing them with your efforts is surely the best way to ensure you’re in the running. You’ll also generally get the opportunity to speak with and meet external lawyers through your day-to-day tasks, which is a useful, albeit sneaky, way of impressing other firms that you might also apply to for a training contract.
Better work-life balance
Whilst many solicitors complain about long hours, some more justifiably than others, the same isn’t necessarily the case of all staff employed within the legal profession. A paralegal will have a lot less responsibility than a solicitor, albeit they’ll generally be paid a lot less too, so there tends not to be an expectation of putting in quite as many hours. Of course, if you’re wanting to fully exploit the point above, the chances are that you’ll be going above and beyond what’s required of you, but that still ought not to mean much more than an extra hour on top of the run of the mill 9-5, which, if you ask juniors in many other professions, is not to be scoffed at!
The cons of becoming a paralegal
Progression is not guaranteed
As hinted at above, securing a paralegal role does not necessarily equate to a sure-fire route to qualifying as a solicitor in the same way that qualifying as a solicitor is no guarantee of eventually becoming a partner.
It is a sad reality, but many legal graduates fall into paralegal positions only to find themselves in a similar role with another firm a few years down the line, without any tangible progression having been made. It is difficult to contest that there’s merit to obtaining practical legal experience en route to securing a training contract, but it certainly is not a solution for a CV lacking the calibre of academic record and/or wedge of extra-curricular activities that would typically lead to a successful training contract application, and is therefore not a guarantee of progression.
You might work on menial tasks
In the scenario alluded to above, a significant number of paralegals will see years pass them by feeling as though they’ve never really done any proper legal work. Admittedly some firms are better than others, in terms of the levels of complexity and stimulation involved in the work they give their paralegals, and indeed, the way they perceive paralegals in their business. The reality though is that paralegal work by definition is not as technical as that of a solicitor. Paralegals support solicitors in handling the less complex and more administrative tasks, in order to free the solicitors’ time up for the stuff that necessarily requires a qualified solicitor!
It could be hard to distinguish yourself from other graduates
As more and more graduates pile into paralegal roles in the hope of building their CV, with training contract applications in mind, might there be an argument to be made that becoming a paralegal is not necessarily the best way to distinguish yourself from the crowd?
The post-recession legal profession increasingly demands lawyers who are not just technically competent, but who are also business savvy. That infamous trait, ‘commercial awareness’ appears on more and more job specifications with each passing day. So, perhaps an individual who goes off and tries their hand at something altogether removed from the law for a year or so might be better positioned, in terms of their ability to separate themselves from the competition.
The average pay of a paralegal in the UK is around £18,500, with some paid as little as minimum wage. Given much more than ten minutes scrolling through an assortment of graduate positions on an online job site, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that there’s better money to be made elsewhere. And whilst most paralegals won’t be expected to work unreasonably long hours, depending on the area of law you work in and the firm you work for, that isn’t always the case. And if that isn’t the case, then the financial rewards, or lack thereof, become more difficult to swallow.
So, is being a paralegal for you?
Like most jobs, there are definite pros and cons to being a paralegal. If you go into a paralegal position with your eyes fully open, in the sense that you’re aware of what is expected of you, what you hope to gain from the experience and, crucially, of the limitations of the role, it would seem that up to a few years’ experience as a paralegal is no bad thing for any aspiring solicitor.If the other ingredients are there in your CV and application. Accepting a paralegal job certainly might help you get to the Holy Grail that is qualifying as a solicitor, whilst also giving you a helpful insight into the legal profession along the way, but it is by no means a stand-alone guarantee.