Paralegals play an integral role in the proceedings of a legal case and the overall operation of law firms. Their hard work, knowledge, and skillset allow firms to save time and money as the lawyers are able to focus on the more specialised aspects of casework.
Because of the nature of legal work, paralegals have to be fastidious and keen-eyed, but they also have to have excellent communication skills and be administrative whizzes. So the role and responsibilities of a paralegal are many and varied, and their day to day work can be demanding in its scope.
But what exactly do paralegals do? Are there any legal duties that they are not allowed to perform? And can paralegals be said to practice law?
We are going to take a look at the paralegal profession, what the day to day work of a paralegal is comprised of, how to become one, how much they earn, and whether or not they can practice law.
Can paralegals practice law?
Paralegals can carry out many of the duties that licensed lawyers also perform, but they cannot practice as a solicitor or barrister. They can also only perform certain legal practices if they are supervised at an approved firm.
There are many practices involved in law and legal proceedings, and paralegals can perform many of these practices to aid or assist lawyers with their work. They may conduct research, liaise with clients, and perform interviews, among other roles, but they cannot represent clients or offer them legal advice.
So let’s jump in and take a look at some of the details of the paralegal profession.
What is a paralegal?
A paralegal is a member of a legal team that will often have extensive knowledge of the law and maybe even some legal qualifications, though they are not a qualified lawyer. Paralegals perform a wide range of administrative tasks and legal work within a law firm. However, there are still a number of practices and jobs that they are not permitted to do.
Ultimately, the role of a paralegal is to support lawyers in their work and provide assistance with anything they are allowed to help with. Like lawyers, paralegals can choose an area of law to specialise in, and it is not uncommon for experienced paralegals to be experts in their fields after working in it for many years.
What are paralegals allowed to do?
Paralegals will usually find their days to be busy and varied. They may have office and admin based duties to complete, client-centred responsibilities, or even jobs that involve accompanying lawyers to a courtroom.
Here we will take a look at just some of the duties that paralegals are allowed and required to do on a day to day basis.
Clients want to be informed, up to date, and knowledgeable about their case and where they are in the proceedings. While the lawyer in charge of a case will still have regular contact with their clients, often, paralegals will take a front seat in client communication as the lawyer is busy with the more detailed aspects of the legal proceedings.
Paralegals, therefore, must keep abreast of the case in question and have the communication skills necessary for dealing with clients from a range of backgrounds, some of whom may be in challenging and testing circumstances.
Research is a critical component of legal practice. Understanding the facts, context, and history of a case is crucial to knowing how best to approach it. Although lawyers may conduct much of their own legal research, they may also ask that a paralegal helps them with some of the more general research necessary for a particular case.
Interviewing clients and witnesses is an essential part of a paralegal’s duties. They may have questions and cues given to them by the lawyer in charge of the case, but they may also be left to conduct the interview questions based on the research and case notes. In either case, respecting client confidentiality and having fine-tuned communication skills are necessary for the paralegal.
Assist at trials
Paralegals can assist the lawyers they work with at trials, though they cannot perform any representative duties. The role of their assistance is determined by the lawyer involved, but they may be asked to take additional notes or locate documents during the trial.
Prepare legal documents
Paralegals prepare all manner of legal documents for lawyers. They may draft legal notices, letters, transaction documents, or even contracts before they are signed off by a lawyer.
Office and administrative duties
Paralegals are key to the smooth running of a law firm’s office. Without them, the offices would be full of incredibly busy lawyers with little organisation or order as they are consumed by their cases. Any office worker will tell you that the administrative staff are crucial to the functioning of any well-oiled machine, and paralegals are often the people who perform such roles at a law firm.
What aren’t paralegals allowed to do?
While paralegals are integral to any law firm, they are still restricted in their roles. Here, we will take a look at some of the things paralegals cannot do as part of their job.
Offer legal advice
One of a lawyer’s main jobs is to offer legal advice. As knowledgeable and well versed that they may be in a particular legal field or case, paralegals are not lawyers and therefore cannot provide legal advice.
The core relationship at the heart of any case is the one between the lawyer and the client. Therefore, paralegals are not permitted to accept or reject cases that come to a law firm.
As we have seen, practising law involves many different responsibilities and tasks. However, paralegals cannot present themselves as lawyers, nor can they represent clients as barristers or solicitors or work without being supervised by a lawyer.
What qualifications does a paralegal need?
There are no formal qualifications beyond A-levels officially required to become a paralegal. However, that does not necessarily mean that certain law firms won’t need a certain level of training or education or that specific candidates won’t be better placed than others due to their qualifications. For example, while having a law degree is by no means a pre-requisite for working as a paralegal, it will undoubtedly improve your chances of getting a job.
Some law firms will only recruit Law school graduates or those who have passed the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). Others will accept applications from candidates with a degree in any subject.
Many employers will want to see previous work experience in a related field. You can get this by interning at a local firm or volunteering on a pro-bono basis for a charity, NGO, or legal organisation.
Can paralegals become lawyers?
Many paralegals choose to stay in their role, though many do ultimately decide to pursue a career as a lawyer.
So working as a paralegal is a good way to see if a career as a lawyer is a good choice for you. However, even if you have worked many years as a paralegal, you will still need to pass either the SQE or the Legal Practice Course (LPC) to qualify as a lawyer.
Under the new rules, previous work in a paralegal position does contribute to Qualifying Work Experience and can be considered on-the-job training.
Paralegal work and Qualifying Work Experience
With the introduction of the SQE, graduates of the exam no longer need to complete a two-year training contract to become fully qualified lawyers. Whilst this route is still available, there is now a broader range of on the job training opportunities available known as Qualifying Work Experience (QWE).
QWE must still amount to two years in total, but it can include up to four different placements in various legal settings, as long as the work is signed off by a recognised officiate.
Paralegal work can even be considered as QWE if you completed it before you finished the SQE. However, if you are working as a paralegal before completing your exams, you do still need to get your hours approved by an officiate.
Paralegal work counts as QWE, and many legal graduates are choosing this over a two-year training contract as there is less competition.
How much do paralegals earn?
Paralegals typically work for 40 hours a week and have a wide range of salaries depending on their career stage, the field of law in which they practice, and where they work.
- Junior paralegals without a degree can expect salaries between £14,000 and £22,000 when they enter the profession.
- Junior paralegals with a degree can expect salaries between £18,000 and £25,000 when they enter the profession.
- Paralegals with three to five years of work experience can expect salaries between £30,000 and £40,000.
- Highly experienced paralegals can even earn upwards of £55,000.
Salaries for paralegals are highest in London, especially within corporate City firms. Compliance paralegals in the financial sector are usually the best paid.
The UK government has guidelines on hourly rates that people at different levels of experience and qualification in the legal profession should charge for their legal services. Trainee solicitors and paralegals are recommended to charge up to £186 per hour if they practice in London and £126 per hour if they practice outside of London.