Paralegals are the engine room of many firms. The exact type of work they handle depends on the employer and department. Some firms employ paralegals in similar roles to those of trainee solicitors, while others will load them with tasks most people find too boring to contemplate. Typical duties include document management, proofreading, research, translating legal documents, due diligence and elements of disclosure.
Like solicitors, most paralegals specialise in particular practice areas. While the following is not an exhaustive list, among the departments most likely to recruit are litigation, corporate, commercial property and banking and finance.
Paralegals tend to be employed on fixed-term contracts, although some positions are permanent. The length of a temporary role can vary significantly, with some lasting just a few days.
“Who becomes one?”
Many paralegals are young graduates who are hoping to be a solicitor one day and are filling in time until they get a training contract. Paralegaling provides great experience of doing real work in a law firm environment and can look good on your CV. Indeed, some firms only recruit trainee solicitors from their own paralegal pool.
Beware of getting stuck in paralegal purgatory, though – there is an (unfair) perception out there that if you spend too much time as a paralegal, you are not solicitor material. It is the legal equivalent of entering the ‘friend zone’.
Not everyone aspires to be a solicitor and there are also ‘career paralegals’. They often have a great deal of experience and are trusted with a good level of responsibility by firms.
“How do I become one?”
In theory, a paralegal does not need any legal qualifications; in practice, the market is so competitive these days that candidates are usually required to be law graduates (or those who converted to law), who have also completed the Legal Practice Course or Bar Professional Training Course.
Additionally, both the Institute of Paralegals and the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) run a number of courses. NALP, for instance, runs diplomas that are open to school-leavers who have gained at least two A-levels.
Hannah Jackson specialises in placing paralegals. She questions the need for such qualifications, especially for those who ultimately want to train as a solicitor or barrister.
“Hands-on experience far outweighs formal paralegal qualifications,” she argues. “I have never had a firm turn down a candidate because they haven’t got a certificate in paralegaling.”
If you are looking for a paralegal position, there are a number of options. First, it is worth registering with a couple of reputable recruitment consultants, as they should have teams dedicated to placing paralegals. Second, you can apply directly to firms. Finally, ask your family, friends and any other contacts who are working at law firms to let you know if any vacancies come up. There is no shame in networking.
In addition to law firms, paralegal opportunities are also available in-house, notably in the banking and financial services industry, local government and other public sector areas.
“What’s the pay like?”
Paralegal salaries are fairly reasonable in London and at larger City firms can start at £20,000 and go up to £27,000 within the first two years, although pay has remained fairly stagnant of late.
US firms offer more favourable remuneration. A paralegal with up to two years’ experience can expect to pocket between £25,000 and £35,000 a year, while those with more than two years’ experience can expect between £27,000 and £40,000.