What is a Paralegal
A Paralegal is a person qualified through education and training to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of the law and procedures and who is not a qualified solicitor or barrister.
Paralegals may work for, or be retained by solicitors within the legal profession or they may work within a legal environment within commerce, industry or the public sector.
Paralegals may also work for themselves as either freelancers, offering their services to a variety of employers or as Professional Paralegal Practitioners, with a NALP Licence to Practise (subject to the NALP eligibility requirements).
Paralegals are Important Members of the Legal Team
Employers have always relied upon their unadmitted support staff and could not operate effectively without them. Paralegals are important members of any legal team, playing key roles in the legal process. Their duties may involve them working closely with Solicitors and Barristers and may take them from office to courtroom, from clients to conferences, from the law library to the negotiating table.
The work that Paralegals undertake is quite often virtually indistinguishable from that undertaken by the Solicitors who employ them.
When Might you use the Services of a Paralegal?
- If someone takes you to court claiming that you allegedly owe them money and you need to defend yourself
- If you need to take someone to court and need assistance with regard to the process
- If you have been arrested for a minor criminal offence and need representation. Many paralegals are what is known as ‘Police Station Accredited’ and that means that they can be called out to assist you at a police station
- If you need assistance in a Matrimonial matter
- If you wish to take action against your employer through a Tribunal
- To assist you in writing a Will or to obtain a Lasting Power of Attorney in respect of a relative
- To assist you in a housing matter
- To assist you with any welfare matter
The above is not a definitive list of circumstances as there is a broad spectrum of legal areas in which Paralegals operate, however it covers some of the most common situations. There are some activities that Paralegals cannot undertake. These are known as ‘Reserved Activities’:
- Solicitors have an automatic right to represent you in most courts. However, Paralegals can assist and advise you if you do need to represent yourself (as a litigant in person (LIP)) and in some cases, subject to the discretion of the Judge, they can get permission to speak on your behalf.
- Conduct litigation: Paralegals cannot conduct your case and are unable to file documents at court and make applications on your behalf. However, Paralegals can assist you to do this yourself as a LIP.
- Conveyancing: For example, buying and selling property on your behalf. Paralegals cannot undergo such a transaction on your behalf although they can give advice about the process. Only persons who are Licensed by the Council of Licensed Conveyancers are authorised to act on your behalf in a sale and purchase of property.
- When someone dies: if they have left a Will leaving gifts to various beneficiaries such as family and friends, an official document known as a Grant of Probate needs to be attained in order to distribute the gifts in the Will. A Paralegal cannot sign such documents on your behalf but you can do so yourself, and the paralegal can assist you through the process.
Working in Other Sectors
Many organisations within commerce and industry need and benefit from employees who have a broad knowledge of law and procedure together with an expertise applicable to their particular sector.
Paralegals can, therefore, be seen working in areas such as Financial Services, Insurance, Banking, Building Societies, the Retail Sector, Credit Control, Export, Entertainment and the Media, etc.
In the Public Sector are Government Departments, Local Authorities, Court and Tribunal Staff, Welfare, the Probation Services, Social Services, the Police and the like. In these areas a Paralegal qualification can be invaluable.
Working as a Paralegal
The majority of Paralegals work in solicitors' firms and are termed 'fee earning unadmitted staff'.
The term 'fee earning' means that they are part of those employees who directly produce income, or 'fees' for the firm (as opposed, for example, to those who carry out secretarial or administrative duties).
This means, therefore, that they have their own clients and their own files, or caseload.
Unadmitted staff' are those members of a law firm who are not qualified solicitors (when a solicitor qualifies s/he is 'admitted' to the roll of solicitors).
The kind of legal work that a paralegal will do will include civil litigation (i.e. court work) - including general and commercial litigation, personal Injury and medical negligence litigation, criminal work.
Other areas are matrimonial (including civil partnerships) and family, corporate and commercial, probate and administration, wills and trusts, as well as employment, business, insolvency, residential conveyancing, commercial conveyancing, landlord and tenant.
Paralegals can also carry out work in welfare, immigration, taxation, banking and intellectual property and patents. Some of these areas will include the opportunity to practise some advocacy (i.e. representing a client) in front of:
- a District Judge in the 'Small Claims Court'
- a District Judge or High Court Master on an interim hearing in a litigation matter
- a District Judge on an ancillary relief hearing in a matrimonial issue
- a Chairman of a Tribunal
A Paralegal Needs Interpersonal Skills
In addition to legal knowledge and understanding, a paralegal will also need interpersonal skills, as the practice of law involves interacting with other people, be it a client, another lawyer, a police officer, a court official, a district judge or high court master, etc.
Skills, such as those required for interviewing, communicating, negotiating, writing are extremely valuable as are general IT skills.
Paralegals usually tend to specialise in a particular area of law. If they start off, say, in the litigation department of a firm, then they will tend to stay, and specialise in the area of litigation.
When they seek another job for career advancement, they will tend to look for one in that same legal area - litigation. This, however, will very much depend on the type of firm for which the paralegal is working.
The larger the firm, the narrower the area of specialisation. In a small, sole principal, firm, it is more likely that the paralegal will be involved in legal areas across the board.
A Rewarding Career
A career as a paralegal is extremely interesting and full of 'job satisfaction'. Salaries are good and are not far short of those of a solicitor of equal experience.