Paralegals: The Future of Legal Services
The way the legal sector is developing means that fewer and fewer consumers will be able to afford the services of solicitors or barristers because of the fees that are being charged. This, fuelled by the lack of legal aid, will mean that more and more consumers will be turning to alternative professions to assist with their legal problems, especially at the lower end of the scale.
Paralegals are emerging as the go-to profession for such assistance, but the professions still remains an unknown quantity to all but the professional paralegals themselves.
Even solicitors and barristers are confused, since most believe that 'paralegal' is a by-word for a law-graduate-would-be-solicitor.
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 by a government body on a national basis. Unfortunately, this is not happening since they appear to be rejected out of hand.
Without a shadow of a doubt, paralegals will play a key role in the future of legal services - especially in assisting consumers with everyday matters. These professionals will sit alongside solicitors and barristers within the legal sector - filling a gap, and a need, that is currently being underserved. Paralegals are already an important, if not very visible, section of the legal services industry - and this will only increase. Solicitors and barristers should recognise the opportunities this brings them and the sector as a whole and embrace paralegals as one of the ways consumers can have access to legal advice and support.
As part of this, it is important that Paralegals are robustly trained and qualified in order to build trust with consumers, and for the sector generally. Currently, 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... and it is indeed a 'profession'.
Organisations such as NALP are offering robust, fit-for-purpose paralegal qualifications regulated by Ofqual. Ofqual is the government body that accredits nationally recognised qualifications such as GCSEs and 'A' Levels. If these qualifications are an acceptable part of the academic training and qualifications process, then why are the Paralegal Qualifications offered through Ofqual not accepted in the same way?
Paralegals are taking up the slack left by the withdrawal of legal aid. They are working alongside solicitors and barristers in that 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, what's the problem?
The Paralegal Profession has come a long way in 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: 1) there is far too much regulation within the legal sector already and 2) there is no need to regulate paralegals.
If this will remain the viewpoint of the Government, then in order to ensure synergy with the other legal services providers, there needs to be an acceptance of the Paralegal Profession by the sector generally, 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 trainied and qualified moving forward.
In the future, anyone wishing to embark on a career as a Professional Paralegal should have some specifically recognisable qualification under their belt, in the same way that solicitors or barristers have, as well as being part of a respected professional membership body, in the same way solicitors and barristers are. This will give confidence to anyone utilising their services that they are properly vetted and trained. It also ensures 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 profession paralegal qualifications are offered for a career as a paralegal professional.