I am fascinated about how different professionals fit together as part of legal service delivery teams. We hear a lot about ‘silos’ getting in the way of more effective legal teams. These silos have an adverse affect on many things such intra-team communication and perception about who is best qualified to do particular tasks.
Good resource management is rarely easy. It is made more difficult by the changing nature of legal services and the skills, roles, expectations and desires of the professionals within it (just ask a millennial). It becomes more difficult still when trying to look ahead and imagine the work they could be doing in future (such as how legal project managers might work in 2020).
I hope this interview with Amanda Hamilton, Chief Executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), is the first in a series where I get to shine the spotlight on various professionals engaged in legal service delivery.
What do paralegals really do and how might they fit into the legal services industry in future?
This was the question I had in the back of my mind as I put the following more detailed questions to Amanda:
- The term ‘paralegal’ for many conjures up images of young people spending most of their time sifting through and filtering huge swathes of documents as part of a disclosure / investigatory process. Is this what most paralegals do?
No. Absolutely not! For sure, there may be some law firms that employ paralegals to do this type of work but it is not a realistic portrayal of what paralegals do. For example, some paralegals working in solicitors’ offices have their own clients and are fee earners, interviewing and attending court.
- Many associate paralegal work with cheaper and lower cost data centre work. This model seems to work for some law firms. Does it work well for the paralegals too?
Again, this does not bode well for paralegals. Undoubtedly, some law firms utilise their paralegal staff as cannon fodder to do such work but this is not what career paralegals want. Having said that, it may well work for those would-be solicitor paralegals looking for a training contract who are happy working in this way on the basis that it may get them what they want.
- Is there scope for paralegals to move-up the legal service value chain, and do more s legal tasks?
It is not just ‘scope’ – it is happening now! Paralegals are taking on more and more legal tasks within the legal services sector. Some have their own firms and offering services to their own clients.
- OK, so paralegals are doing more complex legal work; what reassurance do those instructing them have that paralegals are sufficiently competent to do the work?
Consumers utilising the expertise of paralegals should check their competency by enquiring about their qualifications and experience, and whether they are regulated by a professional body such as NALP. Having professional indemnity insurance cover is a requirement before a paralegal can apply for a NALP Licence to Practise.
- Leaving aside case data centres for a moment, in your estimate, what proportion of paralegals are found in: private practice law firms; in-house; local and central government?
An approximate estimate would be based on NALP membership statistics: 40% in private practice law firms, 35% in-house, 10% local/central government and 15% self-employed.
- Is there a market for independent or consultant paralegals, offering their services in any of the above sectors?
Yes, most definitely.
- What skills (as opposed to knowledge) do you think paralegals require to be successful?
Obviously, good people and communication skills, research, organisation and time management, advocacy and a lot of common sense!
- In your view, to what extent are paralegals familiar with legal project management methods and techniques?
While I do not believe that many are familiar with the specific methods and techniques, it is within the capacity of paralegals to be able to adapt and learn very quickly.
- As things currently stand, are paralegals taught about the principles of legal project management as part of their professional training?
Not specifically as part of their training at the moment, but paralegals learn that every organisation has their own methods of handling situations and, as mentioned, will be able to adapt easily.
- Some people believe that the core work of paralegals (assuming for the moment this is sifting through documents and doing basic legal research) will be done by the new wave of legal IT systems. Regardless a to whether you believe in this scenario, what kinds of work do you envisage paralegals doing in, say, 5 years time? What skills do you think they will need to do that work?
It may well be the situation that legal IT will take over such work but, as mentioned, this is not the only work carried out by paralegals. The paralegal profession is developing into a profession in its own right.
Professional paralegals will, in the near future, be working alongside solicitors, barristers and chartered legal executives in offering legal services that are not financially viable to be offered by such regulated professionals. Since legal aid was withdrawn for all but the most urgent cases, it is already being noted that paralegals are stepping in to fill the gap. Some consumers of legal services are no longer able to pay solicitors’ fees without legal aid and are litigating for themselves. Litigants In Person (LIPs), as most readers will know, are a real concern for the Litigants in Person Support Strategy. Many paralegals are already being accepted, at the discretion of some judges, as competent to assist LIPs in court and ease the strain on the court system. The skills that a paralegal must have to do this kind of work will not differ from the skills required by a solicitor.
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of NALP, a non-profit Membership Body and the only paralegal body recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England).
Through its training arm, NALP Training, accredited recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.