What is a Paralegal

| Career Insights

What is a paralegal?

A Paralegal is a legally trained, and often educated, individual who will undertake legal tasks and services. This will often include preparing legal documents and undertaking legal research, often at the behest of a solicitor but they are not themselves qualified solicitors. Commonly, law graduates seek out paralegal roles to gain practical insight and experience into the legal world prior to making a financial commitment to undertake the LPC and seek out a training contract. 

There are generally two types of paralegal roles available, the first being in house paralegals. These are individuals who are employed as paralegals directly by a corporation or business to take care of their specific legal needs and who work with their in-house legal team. 

The second type of paralegal is an individual who is employed by a law firm or government agency, this is the most common and readily available role. This type of paralegal will undertake and participate in, work for the law firms varied clientele. 

Paralegal work is available in every facet of the legal sector, but for the most part those paralegals employed at a solicitors firm, will work within one specific area. For example, where a paralegal is employed at a family law legal firm, they will deal with matters that relate to family law such as assisting with child orders.

Comparatively a paralegal employed in house at a corporation is likely to deal with commercial and unlike in a solicitors firm, in house paralegals will also get exposed to the cycle of a business strategy and are involved with the entire cycle of a deal. They will shape concepts, policies and procedures improving the company’s future for success. However, this is often limited to a single client as you are working for a specific company whereas paralegals working at a law firm get the opportunity to jump from deal to deal and client to client encountering a range of different stakeholders. 

What are their responsibilities?

The roles and responsibilities of paralegals are similar across the legal sector regardless of what legal specialism they work in. Paralegals undertake basic legal tasks and services, often to assist with a solicitors case or workload. Although, job descriptions can vary slightly based on the seniority of the role and experience gained, specifically where it comes to training or managing more junior paralegals. 

There is often a large degree of autonomy for most paralegals, especially those who have their own workload of claims or cases. This is because those paralegals are required to review a large volume of information and evidence, cross-reference it and provide their findings both orally and in writing either for them to make a decision or for others to rely upon. Therefore, it is essential that you are i confident to ensure quality, and consistency within your work. This is especially important when providing, or contributing to, work that may be relied upon in court. 

However, the reality is that paralegal roles involve a lot of admin and ad-hoc duties such as drafting documents and correspondence, analysing and inputting data, organising diaries, scheduling meetings and responding to telephone queries. This can include talking to stakeholders, clients, team members and those within the wider company. 

Pro tip: when applying for paralegal roles it is a good idea to carry out a search of the firm or company on online review sites. This will give you a broader understanding of the reality of the role and firms expectations from, individuals who have worked that role. Alternatively, where you apply for a role through a recruitment company such as JMC, it can be helpful to ask whether the recruiter can link you to anyone within a similar role at the company or firm. 
 

What salary can I expect?

A junior paralegals salary at a non-graduate entry-level ranges between £14,000 to £22,000 a year. At graduate-entry level, there is a minor jump in salaries, as they range from £18,000 to £25,000, often increasing with experience. 

Comparatively, a paralegal with three to five years' experience can expect a salary in the region of £30,000 to £40,000. This can vary dependent on the sector, firm and city. 

Pay is highest in large cities, such as London and Birmingham where established firms have a global clientele compared with regional law firms and high street firms which tend to have a smaller and more local pool of clients. 

What qualifications are required?

Many law firms and corporations now require applicants for entry-level paralegal roles to hold an LLB degree, and quite often they specify a legal degree with firms seeking out legal graduates in particular. 

This is often the case for larger firms seeking paralegals to undertake roles in areas that are heavy in case law and legal jargon, such as conveyancing. This ensures that applicants have a basic understanding of basic legal concepts and that they can read and consume large volumes of legal text and data. 

However, for many firms and companies, this is not enough. We are now also seeing more and more firms requiring applicants to have work experience in the sector of law that the role operates within. For example, it is very common for Family Law Solicitors to advertise roles with a requirement of a minimum of 6 months paralegal work within a family law team. Similarly, immigration paralegals are often required to have immigration experience and an OISC qualification.

That being said, many firms and businesses do not employ specific rules about what qualifications and training you must have. However, as a rule of thumb, you will be expected to have a good standard of general education, a good understanding of the law and legal system, and good administration skills. Additionally, some employers may ask for a qualification such as:

  • a paralegal practice award, certificate, diploma or higher diploma
  • a legal secretary certificate or diploma
  • an award in legal studies
  • an HNC/HND or foundation degree in law, legal studies or paralegal practice
  • a law degree

What skills are required/will I learn and develop? 

As aforementioned, law firms in particular often seek out legal graduates as you should have a basic understanding of the law and legal principles and be more accustomed to consuming and interpreting legislation and case law. 

However, whilst paralegal roles are law heavy, they often centre around customers. Therefore, many firms and corporations require applicants to have an exemplary level of customer service, with excellent communication skills both orally and in writing including, dealing with a range of stakeholders. These are skills that are also developed on the job as you become accustomed to preparing correspondence to other law firms, courts and clients developing a more professional and polished approach.

The legal sector is also big on privacy and data protection due to the often sensitive nature of work undertaken. As such, it is essential that applicants are reliable and discrete, able to self-manage their workload and effectively prioritise tasks. This is because paralegal roles are demanding and individuals will be met with conflicting demands, therefore an ability to prioritise your workload is essential. Again, for graduates, this should come naturally as you juggle competing deadlines throughout the year and exam season, part-time jobs and extra-curricular activities. However, this skill is also developed on job as you learn the role and discuss management techniques with colleagues you can hone in on effective practices. 

IT literacy is also a basic requirement of any paralegal role. As the world moves into the online world, especially in the wake of the pandemic more firms and businesses hold important data, information and work electronically. This can include good knowledge of Word and Excel, however, many firms operate using their own case management systems, therefore the use and experience of such platforms will grow as you work. 

What work experience would be beneficial?

The legal sector is very competitive, and this is not just limited to training contracts and solicitor roles. Therefore, it is always advisable to complete some work experience before applying for a paralegal role, in fact, some firms require a minimum of 6 months’ work experience within their firm legal area.

Where you cannot secure a paid role it is still important to demonstrate your motivation and passion for working in law. Therefore, attending firms’ open days, attending court hearings as a member of the public or court marshalling are good alternatives to demonstrate your interest in the law and develop some understanding of the practical legal world. This is especially important for law graduates as you will be aware that a degree does not offer any practical experience of the working legal world. Therefore, it is important to seek out some sort of practical legal experience before committing to a career in law to establish whether, in practice, it is for you as let me tell you, it differs greatly to Hollywood’s glamorisation of the legal sector. 

Throughout university, this can include applying for and participating in vacation schemes. These are short term stints in a law firm, commonly lasting between one and four weeks. They give you an opportunity to experience life as a trainee solicitor in a firm and give invaluable insight into a firm's key areas of legal practice and client base. When attending any University job fair firms will have stands to provide more information on this, and most big firms have sections of their websites dedicated to these often with testimonials from previous participants to help you make the right choice when applying.

Pro tip: The Civil Service offer a number of great work placements and volunteering roles which will expose you to a number of stakeholders, this includes witness volunteering. These roles can be great to complete alongside your university degree as they do not often require high levels of weekly participation. 

Pro tip: Make sure your experience is relevant to the area of law you want to work in. However, transferable skills are also highly valued by recruiters. 

What are my career prospects as a paralegal?

Paralegals or litigation assistants are one of the most available roles at law firms. At present CILEx, a professional body for Chartered Legal Executives in England and Wales, represent the largest number of them. Like any legal role competition to secure paralegal roles is fierce with individuals from all back grounds competing for the roles. This may include, law graduates, LPC graduates and individuals without specific legal qualifications but years’ worth of experience. In recent years more firms have even been advertising paralegal roles with a requirement that you have already completed or are working to completion of the LPC which may start to narrow the pool of available roles. 

Of course, the obvious career progression for a lot of paralegals who are law graduates is to complete the LPC and seek out a training contract. At times, firms may even advertise the possibility of a paralegal role evolving into a training contract. This is why it is often a good idea for legal graduates and other individuals who are interested in qualifying as a solicitor, to apply for paralegal roles at the specific firm that they are interested in working for in the future. This will not only offer practical experience and insight into the inner workings of an office job at a law firm, but also the specific working and social culture of that firm. 

Securing a paralegal role at a specific law firm can then put you in good standing for training contracts in the future even where the role Is not advertised as progressing to one. This is because you will have a better understanding of the firms’ working style and culture which can help you in your application. It can also provide excellent networking opportunities so that you can seek guidance from qualified solicitors, managers and those who recently secured a training contract at the firm. 

However, for those of you who are not sure that you want to spend the time and incur the expense of qualifying as a solicitor, the CILEX course may be a great option for you. Unlike those who qualify under the LPC, individuals who complete the CILEx qualification qualify with practice rights in one area. This is a good option for those who have worked within a legal area as a paralegal and have established that they want to pursue a career strictly in this area, for example, personal injury, enabling you to build upon your knowledge and progress within this area. 

Alternatively, if you are happy in your paralegal role and enjoy the working culture of a solicitor, but without the same hours, you may continue to develop in your existing role or build expertise in a specific area of law. This can include working towards a senior paralegal position with increased responsibility for your own work and the work of the team.

Pro Tip: A great way to find paralegal roles is to search online job forums, utilise LinkedIn or, where you have a specific firm in mind it can be helpful to check their website for up-to-date listings.
 

What are some related jobs?

Your time as a paralegal will give you a good understanding of what it is like to work as a part of a legal team, and help you relate to paralegals who may be contributing to your workload in the future. 

However, as stated above, those who enjoy the lifestyle and work of a paralegal can simply seek to work their way up in a business or firm, becoming a senior paralegal or even a team leader. You would be responsible for the quality of the wider teams work and have greater influence on training new starters. 

Alternatively, qualifying as a legal executive may be a better option where you have already discovered a niche that you wish to practice in. The day-to-day role of a legal executive is similar to that of a solicitor however, the training routes are different and unlike a solicitor, chartered legal executives specialise early on in their career and study one legal practice subject to an advanced level. 

Paralegal work can also be a great way to branch out into other roles within a law firm or government agency. For example, those paralegals dealing with civil matters can progress to a litigator, clerk or court reporter. 

Where a housing paralegal enjoys working at a business level but does not enjoy the legal aspect of their role a clerk or bookkeeper may be more appropriate. A Clerk, or Bookkeeper, is responsible for performing administrative tasks to support daily business operations. Their duties include responding to phone calls or emails, maintaining an organized filing system and restocking office supplies as needed.

Court reporters produce word-for-word recordings of court proceedings using traditional shorthand techniques or shorthand (stenotype) machines.

You should seek the next step of your legal journey on the Legists website, under the paralegal section. Here you will be able to identify the best role for you and be alerted to new job postings. 

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