What's in a name? That which we call a ‘Paralegal’ 7th August 2014

If someone asks what I do for a living, it’s a simple response. I am a Paralegal. However more often than not, I am met with puzzledStephen Gowland, CILEx President at the presentation of ‘The Paralegal Enquiry’ launch, 26th June 2014 expressions. It would seem that very few people outside the legal profession actually know what this word means and what, the so entitled job entails. Even those who work in the legal profession would appear to have varying different views regarding the role and responsibilities of a Paralegal.

The word its self is not necessary self-explanatory, in the same way as a ‘Teacher’, a ‘Surgeon’ or perhaps a ‘Race-car Driver’. A Paralegal is effectively the equivalent of a ‘File Handler’, ‘Legal Assistant’ ‘Claims Handler’ or ‘Litigation Assistant’.

So now I have explained, are you any the wiser? Or is this still as clear as mud?

The term ‘Paralegal’ has become more and more popular over the last few years within Law firms and it is now almost exclusively used as an umbrella term for anyone who carries out legal work, who is not a qualified Legal Executive or Solicitor. The general consensus is that a Paralegal is someone qualified through some education or training. However it also applies to anyone who has the necessary knowledge to carry out specific practical tasks and progress files from start to finish. The important factor though is that a Paralegal is not fully qualified, and therefore resides under the supervision of those Legal Executives and Solicitors who are qualified.

The problem is that this name Paralegal is used as an umbrella term to describe a great many different roles and responsibilities, ranging from those who do little more than the filing up to those who are almost indistinguishable to that of a Solicitor or Legal Executive.

Traditionally, within law firms there would be 3 main types of staff. The first being a Solicitor and the second a Legal Clerk/ Secretary and the third a Trainee Solicitor. These roles are clearly defined by specific levels of education and experience. However in recent years the recession has hit law firms and as a result they have had to adapt or perish. It is no longer economical for law firms to hire Solicitors only, they are highly qualified and experienced professionals who are costly to hire and in turn charge clients higher legal fees to pay for their valuable time.

In order to survive law firms have sought to find more economic ways of completing all of their work load therefore the need for a ‘middle man’ such as a Paralegal means that the work can be completed quickly and efficiently at a lower price. One ‘legal employer’ was quoted in the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) saying;

"I want technicians who are prepared to do something 100 times over and over again and are happy to be really good at that for 50 years."

This would ensure that each ‘technician’ works on the same tasks over and over again making law, not unlike a production line and Paralegals not unlike cogs in a machine. However the majority of Paralegals are not in this role to stay, they are ambitious and are typically working towards the next qualification to become a fully qualified Solicitor or Legal Executive.

The Office of National Statistics and the register of Standard Occupational Classification estimate there are currently 76,000 mid-skilled "legal associate professionals" In the UK. It is notable that this is only an estimate, but with so may people under the umbrella of ‘Paralegal’, it is unclear what individual Paralegals do and how their responsibilities range and differ between different firms.

To use Woodward Solicitors as an example, we have 11 Paralegals who range in responsibility, skill, specialism and experience. To read more about the staff here at Woodwards click here.

The uncertainty that surrounds this profession has come to the attention of CILEx (The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives in England and Wales and an examination board providing qualifications for Chartered Legal Executives, Paralegals and Legal Secretaries). As a result they have launched ‘The Paralegal Enquiry’, in order to investigate this matter further.

The Paralegal Enquiry was launched on Thursday 26th June 2014, with the aim of determining whether Paralegals can meet requirements of a future legal market, looking at the regulated and unregulated context of Paralegals and their evolving roles. To read more about the enquiry proposal in more detail click here.

CILEx President Stephen Gowland said: "We hope this enquiry will make legal businesses aware of the ethical, regulatory, consumer and market issues of utilising paralegal talent, the skills and progression opportunities they will need, and ultimately inform business choices in the use of paralegals for the future. With research indicating a 17% increase in medium-skilled business professionals within a decade, we want to know if this will be reflected in the paralegal workforce and what opportunities and challenges the increased use of paralegals will bring".

CILEx represents 7,500 Chartered Legal Executives and 12,500 paralegals, holding the largest paralegal membership in the UK. "CILEx will commission research which will be scoped and defined through a series of focus groups and roundtable discussions and will consider the characteristics of the legal workforce and employer attitudes towards the use of paralegals in future" They will commission research, which will aim to deliver a holistic view of the future legal market both regulated and unregulated.

It is apparent from the attention that this enquiry has attracted that this is an interesting and poignant issue in current and future practices within law. Paralegals are important members of the legal bubble, and play a vital role. It will be an interesting enquiry to follow and one that will provide some much needed research and incite into this broad and evidently expanding field of law.

Results and updates of ‘The Paralegal Enquiry’ will be posted on our blog over the coming months. Stay tuned…


Charlotte Lyon BA (Hons)

Paralegal. Industrial Disease Department. Charlotte joined Woodward Solicitors Industrial Disease Team in January 2013.