How to recognise if you are a paralegal

Amanda Hamilton, CEO of National Association of Licensed Paralegals
Amanda Hamilton

Does the work you do mean that you are a paralegal? It is clear that a majority of employers do not actually know what a paralegal is, and what they do.  And many employees are also not aware that they are actually carrying out skilled paralegal duties.

I recently had to examine a CV of an applicant who was applying for a high-status professional membership category. This level of membership required the applicant to have a minimum of five years’ relevant legal experience.

On his CV he categorised four of those years as being employed as a ‘paralegal’. It wasn’t until I looked closely at the work he did prior to this, that I realised he had a further year of working as a paralegal even though his job description was ‘Secretary’. It was evident in the description he wrote about what his duties were on a daily basis and these duties were more descriptive of a paralegal role than that of a secretary.

What’s the difference?

Well, if duties included such work as, answering phone calls and emails, opening files and filing documents then it is more likely than not to be a role of a secretary. However, as soon as you get into the realms of ‘legal research’, ‘legal drafting’ and ‘interviewing clients’ then clearly it holds more responsibility and as such can be construed to be more of a paralegal job role than anything else, as it requires legal know-how and knowledge of legal research and skills as well as legal procedure.

Why don’t employers recognise this difference?

There is a misconception that ‘paralegals’ are just law graduates who are waiting for a training contract or for an opportunity to complete the solicitors’ qualifying experience. In their minds, therefore, you cannot be described as a ‘paralegal’ if you do not fulfil these criteria.

This is, of course, not correct. A ‘paralegal’ is an individual who has been trained and educated to perform legal tasks and who may not necessarily be a law graduate or training to be a solicitor or barrister. However, they may have been trained as a paralegal, or in-house, to perform certain ‘legal’ tasks.

There are plenty of paralegals who may well be qualified barristers or intend to become so, but for whatever reason, they are not practising. Maybe they have been unable to gain a pupillage or a training contract to be a solicitor. Instead, they may take on job roles as ‘paralegals’, or alternatively, set up in practice as a Paralegal Practitioner running their own firm.

Generally, there are plenty of people beavering away in-house, in all sorts of organisations in both public and private sectors who are performing legal tasks and who have knowledge of practice and procedure but who are not given the recognition they deserve.

How do you recognise if you are a paralegal?

There is a simple answer to that. Does the work you do involve any sort of legality? For example, are you involved in drafting or reviewing commercial contracts or employment contracts? Do you do any legal research to assist someone in your department? Are you involved in compliance or regulation involving ensuring that statutory criteria are met and adhered to? Are you involved in reviewing documents in relation to childcare proceedings?

If the answer to any of these questions is affirmative, then you could be a paralegal (the list of examples is not exhaustive).

Why is is it important to you and your employer to be categorised as a ‘paralegal’?

There are numerous reasons why this should be important to you. Firstly, it gives you status and the clients that you may work with will be impressed and hopefully have more confidence in you and your employer. It also gives you an opportunity to join a professional membership body such as NALP which is the foremost paralegal membership body in the UK, and that looks good on any CV. Furthermore, from an employer’s perspective, to have NALP recognised ‘paralegals’ working in-house presents a more professional image to customers.

Generally, being recognised as a ‘paralegal’ gives an individual self-respect in the work they do, as well as giving confidence to an employer that they are employing a NALP member who is an accredited and vetted professional.

Amanda Hamilton, CEO of National Association of Licensed Paralegals
Amanda Hamilton

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