The alternative route into the legal sector

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The vast majority of you probably ended up in the legal sector through the traditional route of university and a training contract, possibly with a conversion course sandwiched somewhere in between. For the past few decades, this has been the only option if you wanted to work as a solicitor, lawyer or barrister, but that’s no longer the case thanks to the rise of the paralegal. 

Robert Houchill made waves in 2015 by becoming the first person to qualify as a solicitor through ‘alternative means’ after working as a paralegal for four and a half years as part of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) ‘Training for Tomorrow’ programme. This initiative was launched to inject more flexibility into the routes to qualify in the profession.

The move highlights that the role of the paralegal is significantly changing. Where in the past the position was solely focused on admin support for qualified solicitors, now the distinction between the two is considerably smaller and operating as a paralegal represents a viable route into the sector for professionals who were unable to secure a training contract, for whatever reason.  

The trend is still very much in its infancy, but times are changing. While less than 10% of training contracts are currently awarded to paralegals, there are some firms acting as outliers, including Trowers & Hamlin which recruited 40% of its trainee workforce from paralegals. In addition, DAC Beachcroft has given 60% of its entry level roles to existing paralegal employees. 

There are no definitive rules for what skills are required by paralegals as the role can vary depending on the work of the firm and what area it operates in. However, generally good organisation and administrative abilities are always highly sought after, as are research skills and the ability to communicate findings with senior professionals and qualified solicitors. Opting for this route also highlights to potential employers that you have the drive and determination to work for what you want and that you’re keen to progress in the sector. 

It’s still the norm for professionals to operate as career paralegals, but the ‘alternative means’ option provides a second viable route within the sector. It’s estimated that in the next seven to ten years there will be more paralegals than solicitors and it’s highly likely that a significant chunk of qualified solicitors will be those who started off as paralegals. 

Naturally, there are some doubts and some commentators have suggested that the move could potentially undermine the profession or reduce the quality of people being admitted. However, the SRA has made securing the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor a demanding process and all paralegals must prove that the experience they’ve gained equates to the requirements of recognised formal training. 

It’s highly encouraging to see another route opened up into an area that has historically had rigid entry requirements. Such a move could also help to increase social mobility within the profession, a target that many firms have been struggling to meet. The success of the programme can only be judged further down the line, but the idea, and the development of the paralegal role, should be greatly welcomed.

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