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Becoming a UK paralegal by Innes Donaldson

Becoming a UK paralegal by
Article Posted: 01/05/2015
Article Views: 280
Articles Written: 2885
Word Count: 835
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Becoming a UK paralegal

Until the mid-1980s, hardly anyone in the UK would have considered making a career as a paralegal, not because they didn't think it was a proper legal job but because they had not heard of the term 'paralegal' or understood how this important role fitted into a modern law practice and, indeed, other forms of employment.

Since the time of Charles Dickens and before, legal practices have employed clerks to carry out administrative jobs under the supervision of a solicitor or barrister but they were not able to earn qualifications or carry out any work which had to be authorised by a qualified lawyer.

As UK law has become more wide ranging and more people have recourse to legal advice or action for a number of reasons, so the business of solicitors has increased and they have needed to devolve some of their work load to assistants or paralegals.

Some of these employees would not recognise themselves as paralegals but are called managers, administrators, clerks and similar terms. The term 'legal support staff' is commonly used to describe jobs such as secretaries, accountants, HR officers and couriers whose jobs are with a law firm, the police or public body, but do not do actual legal work.

Anyone may call him or herself a paralegal and it is not a criminal offence to do so or offer legal advice except in three circumstances. These are: activities listed as for solicitors only in the Solicitors Act 1974; dealing with immigration work unless registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner; and some types of claims and compensation work which need to be registered with the Ministry of Justice.

Paralegals have quickly become recognised as useful both to their employing legal firms and to their clients, giving the public access to less formal law services at a lower cost than if a partner or fully qualified solicitor was dealing with their affairs.

Some firms use paralegals more than others and their duties may include appearing in courts and tribunals, and acting as police station representatives.

Starting a career as a paralegal requires no official qualifications, such as a law degree, and until the last decade most people employed in such legal work learnt from experience while working, but now there are recognised qualifications and training schemes in a bid to set standards across the UK.

The National Association of Licensed Paralegals and the Institute of Paralegals are the self-regulatory professional bodies for those who have jobs or work as freelances in this branch of the legal profession. Both are actively involved in lobbying for proper status, training and career structure to be adopted both in law firms and other employers. In Scotland, the Scottish Paralegals Association is similarly recognised.

Variety of prospects for career as a paralegal

It is believed that more than 500,000 non-lawyers are carrying out legal work of some sort within the UK. However, only about one-tenth of these paralegals are employed in high street solicitors' firms or in chambers.

There are a surprising variety of paralegal careers open to those with an interest and ability in managing aspects of the law within a range of industries, but who don't have a formal law qualification.

These include: contract managers, law clerks, investigators, health and safety officers, probation staff, enforcement officers, regulatory body staff, company secretaries, prosecution caseworkers, claims assessors, trading standards staff, NHS claims handlers, human resources (HR) administrators and insurance claims staff.

Some of the people employed in these types of work may not realise that, technically, they can be classified as paralegals but all have responsibility, to some degree, for laws being interpreted or obeyed.

Obviously, anyone entering one of these other fields of employment, which have a law element in day-to-day activities, may well be expected to have educational or training qualifications and relevant experience, even if these don't include a law degree.

Depending on which type of paralegal job you have, finding the next position up the career ladder may take a lot of research. Local newspapers will have advertisements for basic grade appointments, while national newspapers and niche industry publications are likely to have vacancies for management roles.

A good legal recruitment agency will be able to help across a range of opportunities and may well be able to pinpoint where transferable paralegal skills developed in one industry can be enhanced for a move and promotion into a slightly different area of employment.

Although Erin Brockovich was a real paralegal whose work on exposing pollution in California was made into a film in 2000 starring Julia Roberts, there are not too many examples of this type of employment having captured the public imagination yet.

However, we can hope that with the continuing expansion of the law into everybody's lives and the developing variety of law jobs which can be undertaken, a career as a paralegal gradually will become much more recognised by individuals, employers and the wider community as a worthwhile and useful profession.

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