The Paralegal Profession in 2020
In late 2019, TotallyLegal surveyed 3,000 legal professionals about the details of their daily working lives for our annual Audience Insight Report. The responses we received included those from over 300 Paralegals who, at 9% of the total respondents, make up one of the largest groups in our audience.
The survey indicates a gradually rising number of career Paralegals taking on the fee earning work traditionally reserved for Solicitors and filling the gap left by cuts to legal aid. These professionals aren’t using the role as a stepping-stone to qualification or as a means of gaining experience but are instead choosing to carve out long-term Paralegal careers.
Accounting for 13% of all Paralegal respondents, the Residential Property practice area was most in demand of Paralegal talent last year, followed closely by Litigation and Company & Commercial with 11% and 9% of the share respectively. Despite being a popular practice area, those working in Litigation received one of the lowest average Paralegal salaries at £23,275.
The highest earning Paralegals are to be found within Energy & Environmental with a very competitive average annual salary of £55,000 in 2019, perhaps spurred on by the emergence and sustained media presence of environmental movements and high-profile activists, as well as the increasingly proactive stance taken towards climate change by individuals, governments and corporations alike.
Elsewhere, the Corporate practice area was home to Paralegals who earned an average of £40,000, while those working in Regulatory & Compliance received an average of £39,000 – a figure likely bolstered by a post-GDPR landscape that demands investment into data protection experts.
At the other end of the pay scale, Paralegals working in the private client focused disciplines of Child Law (£23,333) and Family Law (£22,916) reported some of the lowest average salaries by practice area.
Rita Leat, CEO of the Institute of Paralegals (IoP) argues that “the private client sector has seen many disruptions due to the lack of legal aid and an absence of firms willing to take on areas of law that do not generate much revenue, such as welfare and housing law. Even wills are often run as loss leader services in the hope of attracting more lucrative probate clients.”
Paralegals are drawn to this sector as it offers a good, steady supply of work which, according to Leat, may be more important for sole practitioners than fewer clients with higher revenue.
Location, Location, Location
For Paralegals, the highest annual salaries are to be found abroad, with those based in mainland European countries reporting earnings of £35,714 per annum. Meanwhile, with average pay of £25,000, Paralegals working in the Middle East took home larger sums than those in several of the surveyed UK regions.
Surprisingly, Paralegals in Scotland reported higher average salaries than in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, reaching an average of £35,000 per year.
Paralegal salaries in other UK regions were reported as follows:
|South East (Excluding London)||£25,249|
Nearly half (47%) of all surveyed Paralegals indicated that they would consider relocating for a promising career opportunity, with the majority unsurprisingly indicating preferences for locations that promise higher average earnings including London (36%), Europe (23%) and the Middle East (7%). 11% of those willing to relocate selected the Midlands as their destination of choice.
Capital in the Capital
With average annual salaries of £45,000, Paralegals working in Canary Wharf comfortably took home the highest sum in 2019, followed by City of London respondents whose annual pay reached £33,333 on average. Rounding out the bottom of the London pay table are West and North London Paralegals, with earnings of £26,153 and £25,666 respectively.
The Perks of Going In-House
The highest private practice salaries for Paralegals are to be found in US law firms (£40,000) and Magic & Silver Circle firms (£32,500), while other firms offer around £23,000 - £26,000 on average to their Paralegal staff.
However, with average salaries of £34,393, some of the highest earnings were reported by Paralegals working in-house, and while lucrative roles in private practice may be hard to come by – US and Magic Circle firms each account for just 3% of Paralegal respondents – a quarter of Paralegals are currently employed in-house.
Rita Leat suggests this salary discrepancy is attributable to the difference in responsibilities taken on by in-house and law firm Paralegals: “In the UK, in-house employers will not necessarily have legal staff called ‘Paralegals’. Instead, they often have their own in-house job titles such as Legal Adviser or Commercial Contracts Manager. This leads to higher paid opportunities where companies do not pay by job title but by the work that is undertaken. This is not always the case in law firms, where Paralegals are often still seen as support staff only.”
Gemma Williams, Paralegal at UK news publisher Reach plc, reiterates this point, referring to her own experience of working in-house: “It seems to me that in-house Paralegals often take on a similar role to a trainee Solicitor, whereas law firm Paralegals continue the work traditionally associated with the role. Working in-house, my value lies in how integrated I am with the company. My understanding of the business and of the industry allows me to take on greater responsibilities.”
Despite their high average salaries, only 36% of in-house Paralegals are offered a bonus on top of their basic pay while, conversely, 49% of Paralegals working in large law firms and 50% of those in US and Magic & Silver Circle firms benefit from the incentive of extra cash. At the bottom of the table, just 12% of Paralegals currently employed at a small law firm receive a bonus.
Mind the Gaps
The responses to our survey revealed a stark gender representation gap among our Paralegal audience. 76% of Paralegal respondents were female, perhaps owing to a historical lack of lucrative fee earning roles for these professionals - the limited number of which are statistically more likely to be occupied by men.
Despite boasting an almost equal gender split in their membership, the Institute of Paralegals' CEO suggests there are many factors that influence gender demographics in the profession.
“Factors surrounding the mobility of Legal Secretaries, who are more likely to be female than male, and look for opportunities to progress their career to learn law and become Paralegals,” says Leat, “owning your own business has also attracted more females over the past five years, with more Paralegal law firms being formed with women at their head.”
Despite making up the minority of Paralegals, men out-earn their female counterparts. With average male earnings of £29,274 per year compared to the £27,399 paid to women, Paralegals in 2019 faced a pay gap of 6%. While far from ideal, this gender pay gap sits significantly lower than both the national average of 17% and the overall 28% gap in the wider legal profession. In fact, Paralegals reported one of the smallest gender pay gaps by job title in the legal profession.
The majority (94%) of surveyed Paralegals shared their ethnicity, with 39% from BAME backgrounds. Despite this, our survey revealed an ethnicity pay gap between white and BAME Paralegals of 7% - higher, though marginally, than the gender pay gap for the same group of professionals.
The Balancing Act
Well over half (64%) of Paralegals receive benefits from their employer, with popular perks including private healthcare (31%), gym contributions (16%) and travel loans (15%). Interestingly, average salaries are around £6,000 higher for the 36% of Paralegals not offered benefits.
Significantly, last year saw an overall shift in attitude towards work/life balance and flexibility in legal. Up 21% year-on-year, 47% of all legal professionals were granted flexible and/or remote working. At 37%, this figure was slightly lower for Paralegals, but is still a particularly enticing proposition considering the traditional long working hours associated with the profession.
While many Paralegals are still in the process of establishing themselves in the legal sector and are planning on working towards full qualification, in 2019, a fifth of all Paralegals were 3 or more years into their current role.
Additionally, 32% of Paralegals were offered a bonus on top of their basic earnings, indicating a significant number carrying out the fee earning work traditionally reserved for qualified Solicitors and Chartered Legal Executives.
What does this mean for Paralegals in 2020?
It appears that, more frequently, those in the profession are choosing to remain Paralegals and work their way up into increasingly senior fee earning roles – as opposed to practising as a Paralegal for a year or two before moving onto a training contract and eventually qualifying as a Solicitor.
The root of this career Paralegal trend likely stems from the several waves of Legal aid budget cuts sanctioned by the government since 2004.
Once accessible to 80% of the United Kingdom, legal aid helps to cover the cost of legal advice, mediation and court representation for those who would be otherwise unable to pay for it. However, with sweeping budget cuts and tighter restrictions on eligibility, just 20% of those dealing with legal issues but unable to afford advice now seek the help they need.
According to Rita Leat, this barrier preventing access to justice for those without means is a sector-wide problem, but one which the work of Paralegals is, at least in part, remedying. “Paralegals are generally able to offer their services at a lower cost,” says Leat “which can help those unable to afford the higher professional fees of Solicitors or Legal Executives.”
By carrying out Solicitor-level work at a fraction of the price, fee earning Paralegals have found and filled some of the gap left in the market by legal aid cuts, but it’s not just the cost of their services that make Paralegals suited to bridge this gap: the way that they operate and the regulations around their profession have a part to play too.
“Many Paralegals work as sole traders and do not have the same overheads and regulatory costs that Solicitors have,” remarks Leat, “We have seen many Paralegals signing up for voluntary regulation through the Professional Paralegal Register (PPR) and thus are operating in a responsible way, with real redress available to consumers.”
Reassuringly, the Paralegals in our audience reported salaries in line with their tenure and experience level. Those with less than a year in their current role reported average earnings of £25,723, climbing to £28,102 after 3 years and £32,500 at the 6-year mark. However, with some Solicitors and Legal Executives of the same tenure taking home disproportionately higher pay cheques for carrying out similar work, many legal employers seemingly continue to reward Paralegals for their qualification over their responsibility level. If Paralegals are to continue picking up the slack, a fairer system of compensation needs to be implemented.
Paralegals of the Future
With budget cuts affecting all professions and industries, the number of Paralegals carrying out fee earning work at more affordable rates looks set to continue in the coming years.
Rita Leat anticipates that some Paralegals will find employment in the growing number of large teams that operate on a triage basis within law firms. Meanwhile, other law firms will likely place increasing importance on “sophisticated career paths for their Paralegals, enabling them to offer fee earning work relatively quickly.”
Likewise, Paralegals seem set to continue their trainee-level work within in-house teams. Gemma Williams speculates about the growing number of Paralegals entering the profession via an apprenticeship: “Recently, there’s been an increasing number of people carving out a career as a Paralegal from school, rather than going down the law degree route.” It may be that, in the next few years, we see these Paralegals gain an advantage from their practical experience, over those who spend a few years at university prior to commencing their career.
“In many cases, career Paralegals are the answer for law firms that cannot retain LPC students who move on to other firms in search of a training contract. Professional Paralegals are and will continue to be in high demand,” says IoP CEO Rita Leat, “and the Institute of Paralegals enables these professionals to gain the credibility that they need to either become employed in-house, in a law firm or to start their own businesses.”
“There’s a growing need for law firms to offer efficient and cost-effective services to clients,” says Gemma, “meaning the demand for career Paralegals is only likely to increase.” It seems that this demand is the real driver behind the exceptionally high level of job security among Paralegals, and, with any justice, will be the driver behind greater – and equal – compensation among Paralegals as we move forward.