Definition of a paralegal
A paralegal is a person qualified through education and/or training to perform substantive legal work that requires knowledge of the law and legal procedures. They are not a 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.
Within the legal profession, solicitors have always relied upon paralegals and could not operate effectively without them. Paralegals are very important members of any legal team and play key roles in the legal process. Paralegals work very closely with all solicitors and barristers and in all aspects of legal work.
The work that paralegals undertake is quite often virtually indistinguishable from that undertaken by the solicitors who employ them.
The term paralegal is generic
The term, or title, ‘paralegal‘ has caught on within the legal profession and is now used almost exclusively to describe fee earners or part fee earners amongst unadmitted staff who are not legal executives.
The title legal assistant is used in a few firms, but it is only a small minority. Paralegal and legal assistant, like titles, are synonymous. However, unlike the term legal executive or licensed paralegal, which are specific titles, the term paralegal on its own is, as stated, is generic.
Paralegals must strive for professional excellence
It is essential that paralegals strive for personal and professional excellence. They should possess integrity, professional skills and dedication to the improvement and expansion of the paralegal role in the delivery of legal services.
The importance of this can be seen from the relevant statistics. Whereas there are some 100,000 (plus) practising solicitors, there are estimated to be over 200,000 unadmitted staff who carry out direct fee earning work. Out of this, some are legal executives. The rest are by definition, paralegals, the largest sector of the legal profession.
Subject to the restrictions set out below, most legal work is now deregulated so there is nothing to stop anyone setting up their own paralegal law firm, regardless of how much legal training or experience they have (a fact which worried many!).
Types of paralegal practice
Paralegal law firms usually adopt one of the following ‘corporate vehicles’:
- Sole practitioner – this is a paralegal who does not incorporate a company and does not go into partnership with somebody else (although they may have someone working for them as an employee). They are effectively self-employed.
- Partnership – this is where two or more paralegals decide to work in partnership (as distinct from a situation where one paralegal employers another). They then have a legal partnership.
- Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) – this is a special type of company, incorporated and registered at Companies House. Although it is a limited company it is structured in such a way to mimic a partnership. LLPs are very popular with solicitors and other professional services.
- Limited company – a standard private company incorporated at Companies House.
All of the above are typically referred to as ‘firms’ although technically only partnerships are really firms. A paralegal law firm (that term is used to distinguish it from a solicitors’ law firm) can call itself a law firm.
Anyone can, in theory, offer any form of legal service provided that the work is not:
- A reserved activity – i.e. work which is statutorily reserved to one or more of the eight groups of lawyers regulated under the Legal Services Act 2007. The main reserved activities are the right to conduct litigation (i.e. bring, defend or be otherwise represent a client in a court action); rights of audience (i.e. the right to present a client’s case before the court); certain elements of the conveyance and probate registration procedures and witnessing certain documents.
- Immigration advice or assistance – Paralegals can do this work, and many do. However, it is an offence to do so without first being registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner. In other words, immigration work is regulated.
- Work which is covered by the Compensation Act 2006 – For full details of what work is covered and in what circumstances please visit www.justice.gov.uk/claims-regulation
- Legally aided – In some areas, most notably criminal law and family law, much of regular work is covered by legal aid. Although paralegals would be entitled to do the work privately (subject to reserved activity restrictions) they would not be able to receive reimbursement from the Legal Services Commission under the legal aid scheme unless they were an approved provider. This is not technically a restriction on paralegals doing such work but in practice, few clients will want to go to a paralegal and pay themselves for work that they could go to a solicitor and get done for free.
Do you have what it takes?
All legal practitioners, including paralegals, tend to be held to very high standards by the courts, trading standards departments etc. The courts etc are very opposed to people doing their ‘training on the job’ where that training is not closely monitored at every stage by an experienced supervisor. In other words, anyone wanting to run their own paralegal firm will be expected to get it 100% right, 100% of the time from day one/client number one. The courts etc (and us for that matter) think it is deeply unprofessional for legal practitioners to use their early clients as ‘practice’.
What you should expect from a paralegal
The legal services market is not like most businesses. For example in the fashion world, customers expect to get a different quality product and service depending on whether they go to Jaeger, the Gap or Primark. The price they pay has a direct influence on the quality, depth, breadth and speed of the service they receive. This does not apply in the legal world/to legal services. Clients (and trading standards and the courts and regulators) will expect paralegal practitioners to give exactly the same level and quality of service as a solicitor with his/her own practice.
So what standard of service does a solicitor give? Well, it varies widely of course, but solicitors are not allowed to set up their own practices until they have:
(a) passed a law degree or GDL
(b) passed the LPC
(c) done a two-year training contract
(c) had a minimum of three years practice experience; and
(d) completed a minimum of three years’ worth of continuing professional development training obligations.
All of that implies a pretty high level of service expectation!
Of course, paralegals are not solicitors, and should not be equated with them. What tends to happen in practice is that paralegals specialise in a particular area, become an expert in it through prolonged work experience and then set up their own business exploiting that expertise. The key point here is that they have already gained that expertise and experience – they’re not purporting to provide legal advice having just done a law degree or even a practice and procedure course.
TESS Law is a paralegal law firm and is strikingly different in that it deals with only one aspect of law – timeshare. We reject all other instructions and refer those seeking assistance to others.
Part of the reason why specialisation is a good risk-management tool is that when you know an area, you also get to know the peripheral issues that crop up and which of these you need to watch out for. By way of example, paralegals can do non-contentious (i.e. non-court-related) timeshare work. But anyone doing timeshare work would need to know a lot more than just the practice and procedure of conducting a timeshare. To give their client a proper level of service they would need to know many peripheral areas of law, constitutional, jurisdictional, contract, etc
Paralegals are required to give just consideration to the issues and be able to outsource if required.
Last modified: 8th April 2021