Become a Paralegal
practical advice for you once you have decided to become a professional paralegal
What is a Paralegal?
What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is someone who does legal work or offers legal services who is not qualified as a regulated provider under The Legal Services Act 2007. Therefore, anyone who isn’t a Barrister, Solicitor or Legal Executive but performs legal work and works in the legal sector, will be a Paralegal.
By "legal work" we mean for example, advising and assisting with the law; drafting documents such as contracts; negotiating legal documents or contracts; attending Tribunals in much the same way that a solicitor or legal executive would work.
Doing clerical or administrative work in the legal sector does not count as legal work. It does however enable you to become a trainee or Affiliate Paralegal.
Many paralegals have different job titles: caseworker, contracts manager, legal assistants, compliance officer, housing assistant, company secretary, volunteer adviser, counsellor, trade mark clerk etc. Many senior legal secretaries also do paralegal work despite still being called legal secretary. All of the above would make you a Paralegal and able to be recognised as such.
Legal Support Staff or Legal Assistants are the terms used to describe people who work in the legal system and form part of a legal team(e.g. law firms, legal departments, courts, the police and many government departments etc.) who do not do legal work themselves, but support those who do. The type of support varies widely, it may be secretarial, accountancy or post room support, or it may be business support: marketing, HR, finance, learning & development and the like. The common thread is that individuals work in a legal environment and so need to be aware of the legal, ethical, regulatory and risk management implications inherent in working in that legal environment. In this case you are very likely able to be recognised as an Affiliate Paralegal.
Your job title is irrelevant. What counts is that you do legal work and have enough work experience sufficiently often to legitimately be considered a Paralegal.
Only one in three paralegals works for a solicitors' firm. The rest work for the government, the not-for-profit sector, companies, charities, industry, public sector, run small paralegal practices (small businesses) or are self-employed.
If in doubt about whether the work you do counts as legal work then ask the Institute at [email protected]. We will be happy to advise you, whether you are a member of the Institute or not.
Career PathThe Route to Qualification
The Institute offers a recognised career path for professional paralegals: the Route to Qualification. Its purpose is to provide paralegals and their employers with a simple and consistent paralegal career path based upon standards, proven competency, experience and training.
Why the Route to Qualification was introduced
- Too many paralegals still only have a job, not a career
- Employers do not have the time/resources to create career paths for paralegals
- To provide consistent professional designations to allow recognition of expertise
- The paralegal training market is under-developed
- Development and recognition of the paralegal profession has reached a plateau
- There is insignificant recognition of paralegal expertise
- Recruiters need to have consistent competency benchmarks to work to
- Paralegals need professional designations which are linked to ability
- Professional indemnity insurers need to be able to assess the risk factor
- Clients need to know their paralegal advisers have proven competency
What is the Route to Qualification?
There are four stages in the Route to Qualification:
1. Affiliate Member
Open to all aspiring to become paralegals who do not have legal practice experience (LPE)
2. Associate Paralegal (A.Inst.Pa)
If you have less than 6 years’ LPE
3. Qualified Paralegal (Q.Inst.Pa)
If you have more than 6 years’ LPE
4. Fellow of the IOP (F.Inst.Pa)
If you have more than 6 years’ LPE plus have passed an approved test/course
Professional Titles for Members
- Affiliate Members do not receive a professional title
- Associate Paralegal members can call themselves Associate Paralegals in correspondence, documentation, etc and use the letters A.Inst.Pa after their names (Associate Paralegal of the Institute of Paralegals)
- Qualified Paralegals can call themselves Qualified Paralegals in correspondence, documentation, etc and use the letters Q.Inst.Pa after their names (Qualified Paralegal of the Institute of Paralegals)
- Fellow of the IOP can call themselves a Fellow of the IOP correspondence, documentation, etc and use the letters F.Inst.Pa after their names (Fellow of the Institute of Paralegals)
For more information about the Route to Qualification, please download the explanatory leaflet here (in .PDF format)
If you do not have a PDF reader, please download one for free here
To find out more about the different levels of Institute membership and how to apply, please click here.
The Job MarketThe New Paralegal Profession
It used to be that when people talked about working in the law they really meant getting a job in a solicitors' firm, and the only legal jobs which led to a genuine careers were that of solicitor or barrister (i.e becoming a lawyer).
Everything has changed, and that change is set to continue over the next few years:
There are now eight groups of recognised, regulated lawyer: solicitors, barristers, notaries, patent agents, trade mark agents, licensed conveyancers, legal executives and law costs draftsmen.
Within solicitors' firms there are now an increasing number of career options (paralegal, HR director, training manager etc.).
Beyond solicitors' firms there are now numerous legal jobs: in charities; local authorities; central government departments and agencies; the court system and in industry and commerce.
Within solicitors' firms there are already circa 60,000 paralegals (about 44% of all fee-earners!): more than assistant, associate and consultant solicitors combined. If the current trend continues (but bearing in mind that most trends hit a natural ceiling at some point) then within the next 7 - 10 years there would be more paralegals working in solicitors' firms than there are solicitors!
In addition there are some 250,000 people outside of the legal profession who have jobs which entail a significant legal element: caseworkers; housing advisers; contracts managers; HR professionals; compliance and regulatory staff; company secretaries etc. Compare this to the circa 185,000 lawyers in the said eight groups of regulated lawyers.
There are also circa 6,000 paralegal law firms These have developed over the past 10 years. In comparison, it has taken 400 years for there to be the current 10,100 solicitors firms.
Of course numbers do not tell the whole story: solicitors and barristers still lead the profession and do the most complex, high value, cutting-edge, challenging and often glamorous work. This is not likely to change. What has changed is that now for the first time ever it is genuinely possible to say that a worthwhile and fulfilling career in the law is achievable even if you do not become a lawyer.
The United Kingdom has three separate jurisdictions (another way of saying distinct and independent legal systems): England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own regulatory system and representative bodies.
The government has been deregulating legal services in the UK. Today members of the public or businesses etc., can get legal advice from:
Solicitors working in law firms
Barristers working in barristers' chambers
Paralegals and legal executives working in solicitors' firms
All of the above (but mostly paralegals) working as volunteer advisers in organisations such as Citizens Advice and Shelter
Paralegal law firms associated with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner
Paralegal law firms associated with the Ministry of Justice
Commercial legal helplines offered by telephone and online
Given all of this, today it makes more sense to refer to the legal sector rather than just the traditional legal profession (solicitors, barristers and notaries).
Overall,the future is looking very bright for paralegals. Almost every major development and trend at present looks likely to increase their numbers, status, responsibility and authority - and in turn improve salaries and career opportunities.
Some of the developments and trends are:
Many clients consider solicitors to be too expensive and so press solicitors' firms (a.k.a law firms) to reduce, or at least not increase, their charges. At the same time, many solicitors' firms find that their profit margins can be increased significantly by using paralegals instead of solicitors. As a result, the number of paralegals being used by solicitors' firms of all sizes continues to increase.
Legal Services Act 2007 (England & Wales only)
The Act, amongst other things, allows non-lawyers to own solicitors' firms called Alternative Business Structures.
Early indications are that many non-lawyers will look to offer legal services (especially lower cost, high volume types of work) and will be using primarily paralegals to deliver it.
Legal Aid Reforms
Many people on lower incomes are entitled to get all or most of their legal work (on certain types of matter) done by solicitors' firms paid for by the government's Legal Services Commission.
Recent reforms to legal aid, primarily motivated by a desire to cut cost, are strongly pushing solicitors' firms doing legal aid work to use many more paralegals - and for more senior and responsible work.
Increasing Complexity of Society
The practise of law can basically be broken down into five main areas. There is a growing need for more legal practitioners (both lawyers and paralegals) in all five areas:
1. Wealth creation and maintenance. In essence most commercial, probate, tax, trust etc. lawyers work to create, maintain, transfer, divide and protect wealth. Despite the recession, society is getting wealthier.
2. The criminal justice system. Legal practitioners are involved in every facet of it: they detect, prosecute, defend, judge, appeal, administer and punish. New crimes are being committed and all the old ones continue to be committed.
3. Social welfare law. This covers non-financial, non-criminal matters such as divorce, and immigration appeals, employment disputes, libel cases, child custody battles, etc.
4. Risk management and compliance. There are ever greater obligations imposed upon us from health and safety requirements through to rules governing the disposal of our rubbish and the words we can or cannot use to describe people or things. Although many of these obligations are very beneficial to society, cumulatively they lead to the need much more frequently to seek legal advice.
5. Political, constitutional and administrative matters. The machinery of government at all levels, and the machinery of the legal system itself is often attacked or needing clarification or change: in what circumstances can the government legally go to war? Can the Queen abdicate in favour of Charles? Legally speaking is Scotland able to demand independence and, if so, on what terms? Can your council use anti-terror legislation to fine people for putting out their rubbish too early? Can a Turkish company ask an English court to enforce a Turkish court order without knowing anything about the matter? What can the government do if it strongly dislikes a European Union Directive which it is meant to enforce? All these types of question are increasingly common.
Paralegal involvement varies dramatically in the above five sectors. Paralegal involvement is quite rare in matter type 5, but very common in matter types 2 and 3.
There is no national pay scale for paralegals. Salaries vary widely depending upon such things as:
- Practice area (corporate or conveyancing for example)
- Type of employer (small firm, large company, government)
- Whether you work for a legal aid firm
- Level of responsibility
- Your qualifications/prior experience
Typically however if you work for a solicitors' firm then you should expect to be paid somewhere between £14,000 - £22,000 as a non-graduate (entry-level) starting salary, and £18,000 - £25,000 if a graduate. This figure will, typically, rise to between £30,000 - £40,000 for more experienced paralegals. More generous employers (typically larger law firms) may pay up to £55,000. We have heard of salaries reaching £70,000, but those are rare.
Entry-level work in paralegal law firms, generally speaking, pays slightly lower than the above figures. However those who succeed in the business may well become partners and senior managers and thus earn profit-share.
Traditionally the most generous group of law firm employers have been the UK (i.e. London) offices of US law firms. This is because they generally pay better salaries than UK firms anyway, but also because many do not have trainee solicitors and so use paralegals to do trainee/newly qualified work: more responsibility equals more pay. The downside however is that American firms are some of the toughest employers to get work with. Often they will only consider LPC graduates who already have experience of working as a paralegal in a City commercial firm.
Amongst the best paid group of paralegals are compliance paralegals in the financial sector, who typically earn £25,000+ after one year's experience.
The best way is to look at the paralegal pay surveys issued periodically by some legal recruitment companies (just Google "paralegal pay") and also at current paralegal vacancies posted on jobs board and by legal recruitment companies - again this information is easily available from a large variety of sources using Google. We also have a very good article written by TotallyLegal and published on our website. You can read it here.
In an ideal world, yes. We hate employers to take advantage of people just as much as you do. However you do need to think pragmatically. The hardest thing of all is getting that initial experience that turns you from being a wannabe paralegal into an experienced one. We are certainly not recommending you just accept any outrageously low salary offered, but you do need to look at the longer term and see whether the experience you would get during the first 9 - 12 months will be good enough to allow you to get a better, and better paid, job elsewhere. If so, then it might be worth taking the low salary to get that all-important initial experience.
Be careful. An employer offering a criminally low salary is probably a bit rubbish in other respects too, so do ask about what you will be doing. A poor salary but fantastic experience is probably an acceptable trade-off. A poor salary and doing nothing but photocopying is probably a job you need to think twice about accepting!
Please note that solicitors' firms doing legal aid work traditionally pay quite poorly. This is because the amount of money they receive from the Legal Services Commission for doing legal aid work is itself very poor - in other words they may be great employers, but they simply don't have the money themselves to pay you more. The upside is that you are likely to get really good work experience and good responsibility early on. Plus you will also be helping people who really need you.
In Hong Kong there is no 'national' pay scale for paralegals. Salaries vary amongst different practice areas, and there are differences between local law firms, international law firms and in-house employers. Earnings typically fall into the following ranges based on two categories: paralegals employed by law firms and paralegals working in-house.
Law Firm Employers:
- Non-graduate (entry level): range HK$17,000-HK$20,000 per month
- Graduates and more experienced non-graduates: range HK$2,500 - HK$30,000 per month
- More generous employers: range HK$30,000 – HK$50,000 per month
- Non-graduate (entry level): range HK$16,000-HK$20,000 per month
- Graduates and more experienced non-graduates: range HK$2,500 – HK$3,500 per month
- More generous employers: range HK$4,500- HK$5,000 per month
The Institute of Paralegals is delighted to be working with CQrecruit to provide career information to those who are interested in exploring the legal profession in Asia Pacific. If you would like further information please visit https://www.cqrecruit.com.
Who hires paralegals?Almost everyone!
Paralegals work in solicitors' firms; paralegal law firms; the in-house legal departments of large companies; in central and local government; for charities and the not-for-profit sector. Even the military uses paralegals.
Who doesn't use paralegals? Barristers' don't - barristers' clerks are not paralegals. Legal executives are usually employees of solicitors so they rarely do. Notaries tend to work alone and law costs draftsmen arguably don't usually practise law at all (although they do provide a vital support service to lawyers).
In local government paralegals work in trading standards departments; parking prosecution; benefit fraud prevention; estates management etc.
Remember though, that outside the traditional legal profession the term 'paralegal' is rarely used. For example, in the Independent Police Complaints Commission paralegals are called caseworkers.
When looking for work, think flexibly. Entry level paralegal positions in solicitors firms are by far the hardest jobs to get. If you are unsuccessful, get a job somewhere else, learn your legal skills there and then transfer across later.
DO I NEED EXPERIENCE?Experience is King
It is important for you to appreciate that what employers want more than anything is relevant prior experience. It is not possible to prove competency unless you have actually done the job or followed the process and procedure for the task in hand. They want it because:
(a) training courses (with a few honourable exceptions) tend not to be as good as actual experience;
and (b) they don't have to pay so much to train you.
Minimum experience wanted
The minimum period of experience is six months. Less than that won't hurt your application, but won't get you into the "experienced" category. Many employers look for a minimum of a year's experience.
It follows that any work placements are valuable in terms of gaining experience and testimonials or references.
What constitutes "relevant" experience is experience that matches the job you are applying for. Six months experience in Family Law will not help much if you are applying for a conveyancing job.
Relevance applies to skills learned as well as technical legal knowledge. Maybe in a previous non-legal job you learned negotiating or interviewing skills, IT skills or how to handle clients in a professional environment? Wherever possible talk in terms of transferrable skills.
As a member of the IoP you will have access to our competency standards so that you can see which skills are valued. If you do not have any experience, then join as an Affiliate member.
Any relevant prior experience is helpful. Where you got it matters little, for example many successful paralegals first worked as part-time Citizens Advice volunteer advisers. If you are a member of the IoP then you can use our networking opportunities to make contacts.
DO I NEED QUALIFICATIONS?The short answer is 'No'.
Contrary to the inaccurate impression given by some others, you do not need any qualifications at all to become a paralegal - it is an unregulated profession. You become a paralegal by getting a job as a paralegal. There are circa 200,000 paralegals, of whom some 70,000 work in solicitors' firms. Five years ago most did not have any legal qualifications.
Although you are not obliged to have any legal qualifications, the competition for places is intense and so those with legal qualifications tend to beat those without. There are now many law graduates seeking paralegal jobs and also many legal secretaries are taking the opportunity to up-skill.
Therefore if you do not have a minimum of six months legal work experience (i.e. actually doing legal work) then you should at least consider bolstering your CV by doing a legal course.
The legal profession survives on being credible ie possessing training or qualifications and membership of a professional body.
What qualifications will help you find work?
You are not obliged to do any course or get any particular qualification to work as a paralegal. But if you don't have prior paralegal work experience, then doing the right course or having the right qualification can make a big difference in the competitive jobs market.
There are a bewildering range of courses out there - of varying quality. We recommend a number of courses and training providers who have had their qualifications approved by us under our Education and Training Network. In general, we recommend that whichever
course you choose it is one that:
1. Leads to a qualification that is recognised by employers throughout the country. Employers tend to value those courses which lead to an approved qualification direct from the sectors professional body who sets the standards for the sector.
This is because there are a many small courses run by private
providers of dubious benefit.
2. Choose a practice-orientated course such as a vocational course. Paralegals do things: incorporate companies; interview witnesses; attend court with barristers; complete and submit important official documentation, etc. The courses or qualifications that employers value most highly are the ones that teach you these things. Academic courses such as law degrees, the GDL and even Masters Degrees in law are often viewed as near-irrelevant by employers (especially solicitors' firms) as they are not perceived to teach either the practical knowledge needed (yes, you know about the principles of tort, but do you know which courts hear tort cases, how to complete the court forms, what the claims deadlines are etc?).
The IoP is introducing a suite of qualifications and training courses under our Awarding Body arm.
For details of courses that we have Approved click here
3. Focus on the practice area you want to work in. Paralegals specialise. General courses covering a range of topics are not helpful unless you need to get an introduction to the law. Ideally you would work out that you like, say, personal injury, and do a course covering that topic. Studying conveyancing and then applying for a job in family law is not going to impress.
4. Look at the IoP career path for further information.
skills & personal qualitiesThe skills required of paralegals are listed in the IOP Competency Standards for Paralegals (see our Standards pages).
The skills required of paralegals are listed in the IOP Competency Standards for Paralegals. These are available to all IOP members.
Individuals and employers who would like to receive a copy, please e mail [email protected] with your request. In addition, successful legal practitioners such as paralegals have important personal qualities.
- Are clever
This does not mean you need qualifications. It means you need to be able to understand sometimes complex situations; understand, analyse and make sense of many different facts and to work out the possible implications rising from those facts.
- Are honest
This means more than not stealing, not cheating and not lying. It also means looking after your clients' interests generally even when it is uncomfortable or to your disadvantage. It means being willing to disclose when you've made an error so it can be corrected. It means admitting when you do not understand something so that when employers or clients put their faith in you and rely on you, you do not let them down simply because your pride would not let you admit that you do not know everything in the world!
- Are methodical
This means that you can work out what needs to be done, and do it step-by- step, not missing anything out. A lot of problems that clients face arise because they are not methodical and so fail to do essential things - which leads to legal problems. They will rely on you to methodically look at every potentially relevant issue and to resolve every potential problem. Legal practitioners have to know what needs to be done and then do every step with care.
- Have good spoken and written language skills
Legal work involves lots of communicating. You might communicate by phone, or in meetings or by e-mail or letter or even by the terms contract you have drafted. It is essential therefore that you have good spoken and language skills.
- Are meticulous
As a legal practitioner you will operate in a world where the meaning of just one word can change a great contract into a terrible contract. It is a world where what is not said can be as important as what is said. In such a world you have to be meticulous - always paying close attention to the detail.
- Are professional
Everyone claims to be a professional nowadays. However a true professional assumes obligations above and beyond the strict interpretation of the law. Put simply you are expected to act to a higher standard of behaviour, conduct, probity, competency, client care and general ethics than the average businessman or woman. You are also expected to have up-to- date legal knowledge and so professionals are expected to undertake regular continuing professional development (CPD) so their skills and knowledge are not just kept up-to- date but are actually increasing.
membership will give you the right to use a professional designation, you will receive an annual hallmarked membership certificate and a smart badge.
- Are good with people
Very often what you are trying to do as a legal professional is convince people. During litigation you try and convince the other side and the judge that your interpretation of the facts and law is correct; in business matters you try to persuade the other side that your client's offer should be accepted or his/her preferred contract terms should be adopted. If you do welfare law then you are often trying to persuade the Council or Welfare office or a landlord or employer to treat your client better etc. This is much easier to achieve if you are good with people. Being good with people does not mean being able to flatter those you think important, whilst treating poorly those people you think irrelevant. That is the opposite of good people skills - if only because in the law it is not always clear at the outset of a case who is important and who is not!
One important area where many legal practitioners fail is the way in which they communicate with clients. Most clients have not had legal training and therefore do not understand the legal jargon used by many legal practitioners in their letters etc. A good legal practitioner will tailor his/her style of communication so that it is easily understood by the client.
- Can network
As with any business, it does not matter how good your service is if you have no clients. Good legal practitioners - even junior ones - will be thinking about how to promote himself/herself and his/her employer to potential new clients.
- Understand their client's world
Your clients do not want to receive law lectures. They (usually) do not want to have court cases and Acts of Parliament cited to them. They have come to you because they have an opportunity they wish to exploit, a problem they wish resolved or a matter they wish explained. In other words, they want practical, usable, advice tailored to their personal situation. It is very difficult to do this for, say, a construction company if you know nothing about the construction world. Good legal practitioners therefore make sure they understand the sector that their clients work in so that they can give proper tailored advice, couched in the correct terms and addressing all the relevant issues.
Getting a job as a paralegalBecome a member and take advantage of our career counselling service.
Become a member and take advantage of our career advice service and look at the IoP career path for further information.
Working For a Solicitors' Firm
Most solicitors' firms employ paralegals. These paralegals do a wide variety of work: document preparation; research; filing papers at court or Companies House etc., corresponding with clients, interviewing witnesses, preparing court bundles and more. The type of work paralegals do (and the amount of responsibility given to them) depends upon what practice area they work in (crime, property, family law, probate etc), the size of the firm and how much experience the individual paralegal has.
Contrary to what some training providers may imply, most solicitors' firms (NB: solicitors' firms can be partnerships, limited liability partnerships, sole practitioners or companies, but are still traditionally referred to as firms, even though a "firm" usually means a reference to a partnership) are looking for experience more than anything else.
Therefore, possessing a law degree/having taken a paralegal course is rarely a guarantee of employment. Legal recruitment companies (of which there are quite a few) tend not to be interested in people who haven't passed the Legal Practice Course and have at least six months paralegal work experience. This is because it is not worth employers spending the money on using legal recruiters to find and vet less experienced/qualified applicants. However, please note that people who have passed the Legal Practice Course are usually looking for vacancies as trainee solicitors. In the larger commercial firms therefore, paralegal jobs tend to be temporary posts lasting approximately one year. If you do not have that level of qualification/ experience, then you should contact your local law firms direct. Smaller, local, firms tend to have permanent positions on offer.
The Institute's own research shows that the legal departments of companies employ, on average, five paralegals. You should therefore consider contacting the in-house legal departments of large local companies.
Unlike many law firms, in-house legal departments are willing to take on people without prior experience and train them.
Working for Government & the Not-For- Profit Sector
Central and local government and many other non-commercial organisations (from the BBC to the Commission for Racial Equality) employ many paralegals. They are rarely called paralegals: they tend to be called contracts assistants, property advisers, case workers etc.
Regardless of job title however, many offer good salaries and excellent paralegal experience. They also tend to offer better training and career development opportunities.
Again, unlike many law firms, these employers are usually willing to take on people without prior experience and train them. Maximizing Your Chances of Success Try and get some experience of paralegal work, even if temporary and voluntary. Identify the area(s) of law that interest you (property, commercial, family law, personal injury law, criminal justice system, trading standards etc) and approach employers doing that sort of work.
If you do wish to do a paralegal course first, then try and choose one that (a) relates to your chosen practice area, and (b) which is recognised by employers and (c) is not too expensive.
The IoP is introducing a suite of qualifications and training courses under our Awarding Body arm. For details of courses that we have Approved click here.
Do some basic research on your chosen practice area (e.g., if property law then knows the simple basics of what happens during the sale of the house, the lease of a flat, etc.)
Think about what you can to demonstrate that you are seriously interested in a career as a professional paralegal: for example, do you have membership of the Institute or other relevant organisation? Remember initially that employers will be looking for any reason (regardless of how flimsy) to discard applications. That is why small stuff counts, like typos, bad handwriting, use of A5 paper for the covering letter, the use of "fun" email names that risk making you sound immature, hassling the employer to check your CV has been received, etc.
Appreciate that all contact with a potential employer creates an impression - even phoning for an application form. Don´t chat away like you have all day, and don't display self-doubt. Do be professional and friendly and use the opportunity to ask a few questions to get information that other applicants won't have (e.g. if applying to a law firm ask who the interviewers will be then look them up on the firm's web site and in solicitor directories - find out their specialties, when they qualified, etc.). If an advertisement invites you to phone someone to find out more about a job, phone them and treat it as a phone interview. It gives you an extra opportunity to shine and to stand out from the crowd. Again, at the very least you will probably learn some additional information of value.
Bear in mind that most employers can tell when they are sent a pro-forma cover letter and CV - pro-forma applications come across as stale and impersonal and thus send the message "I don't really care about this job" If you can't be bothered to make an effort to get the job, the chances are that the employer can't be bothered to interview you.
Research the employer and the sector they work in. If the employer has a website, you had better have visited it! Saying you found it hard to get on-line will be seen as a weak excuse. If you can, visit the employer's office and pick up any brochures in the reception area.