Paralegals and the Future of Legal Services
In this article, Amanda Hamilton, CEO of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP) discusses the role that Paralegals will play in the future of legal services.
Continued developments in the legal sector mean that fewer and fewer consumers will be able to afford the services of solicitors or barristers because of the fees charged. Fuelled by the lack of legal aid, this will result in more and more consumers turning to alternative professionals to assist with their legal problems – especially at the lower end of the scale.
Paralegals are emerging as the go-to professionals for such assistance, but the profession remains an unknown quantity to all but the professional Paralegals themselves. Even Solicitors and Barristers are confused, since many think of ‘paralegal’ as a byword for a law-graduate-would-be-solicitor.
However, this is not necessarily the case: many individuals are qualifying as Paralegals independently. Since this is happening exponentially, the conventional professions should recognise Paralegal qualifications, especially if they are bespoke and regulated nationally by a government body. Unfortunately, however, this is often not the case, with qualified Paralegals being rejected out of hand.
Undoubtedly, Paralegals will continue to play a key role in the future of legal services - especially in assisting clients with everyday issues. Sat alongside Solicitors and Barristers, these professionals will fill a gap and a need that is currently being underserved. Paralegals are already an important, if not always visible, section of the legal services industry – and this importance will only intensify over time. Solicitors and Barristers must recognise the opportunities this brings them and the sector as a whole and embrace Paralegals as providers of accessible legal advice and support.
As part of this, it is imperative that Paralegals are robustly trained and qualified in order to build trust with consumers, and for the sector generally. At present, the lack of respect towards individuals who have qualified by alternative routes is not adding to the trust-building process nor the credibility of the profession.
Organisations such as NALP are offering robust, fit-for-purpose Paralegal qualifications regulated by Ofqual – the government body that accredits nationally recognised qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels. If these are accepted and essential academic qualifications, then why are the Paralegal qualifications offered through Ofqual not accepted in the same way?
Paralegals are picking up the slack left by the withdrawal of legal aid. They deal with the small, low-end claims and matters that Solicitors and Barristers are not prepared, nor would it be financially viable, to deal with. So, where does the problem lie?
The Paralegal profession has come a long way in the past thirty years. Admittedly, there is no statutory regulation as there is for Solicitors and Barristers, but that is not their choosing. The Government has expressed its intention not to statutorily regulate Paralegals because it believes that:
- There is too much regulation within the legal sector already; and
- There is no need to regulate paralegals.
If this will remain the government viewpoint, then in order to ensure synergy with other legal services providers, there needs to be an acceptance of the Paralegal profession, the role they play and a recognition of the Paralegal self-regulatory body, NALP. As an awarding organisation through Ofqual, NALP plays an important part in ensuring that Paralegals are properly trained and qualified for their futures.
In the future, those wishing to embark on a career as a Paralegal should have a recognisable qualification under their belt – in the same way that Solicitors and Barristers do – as well as being part of a respected professional membership body, in the same way as Solicitors and Barristers are.
This will give confidence to clients and consumers that the legal professionals they enlist are properly vetted and trained. It will also ensure that each Paralegal member understands their role in the sector in relation to other legal services providers, as well as the services to consumers that they can and cannot undertake.
The future of legal services must depend on synergy, trust and acknowledgment between the legal service providers and only then can there be clear and transparent information imparted to consumers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit Membership Body and the only Paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres, accredited recognised professional qualifications are offered for a career as a Paralegal. See http://www.nationalparalegals.co.uk for more info.