Alex Aldridge explores the growing number of paralegals providing legal services and how it may affect the future landscape of the profession.

Few realise it, but there are far more paralegals (over 300,000) in England and Wales than there are solicitors (approximately 125,000) and barristers (around 12,000) combined. And soon the ratio will be weighted even more greatly in favour of the traditional poor relation of the legal profession: according to recent research by Skills for Justice, the number of paralegals in this country is predicted to rise by 18 per cent over the next five years.

The drivers behind the likely increase are two-fold.

Firstly, there is the decline in the number of training contracts available, with the fall in training places - the Association of Graduate Recruiters’ (AGR) biannual survey found that graduate vacancies in law firms are expected to decrease by 16.5 per cent this year alone - sharper than the relatively moderate drop we have seen to date in Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Contract (BPTC) enrolments.

With less training contracts and pupillages to go around, more law school graduates will inevitably end up working as paralegals.

Secondly, learn-on-the-job legal apprenticeship schemes targeted at school-leavers - who begin as paralegals, with the option of going on to become lawyers via the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) route - are growing in popularity following their successful adoption by several large law firms, including Kennedys, DWF and Gordons over the last couple of years.

Earlier this month the government formally unveiled plans to provide £1m in funding to create 750 higher legal apprenticeships. The scheme may only be just the beginning, with the Coalition said to be keen to make further investments to support an annual flow of legal apprentices.

More recognition, less constraints

Amid the rising paralegal numbers, an appetite is developing to better regulate a branch of the legal profession which to date has found itself subject to surprisingly few rules - and protections.

James O’Connell of the Institute of Paralegals says that paralegals ‘deserve recognition and support’. He gives the example of a well known builders merchant which has a team of paralegals trained in advocacy who, between them, have done over 400 County Court applications. ‘These men and women are hugely experienced advocates who have made more court appearances than most junior solicitors, yet there remains ambivalence towards them,’ O’Connell explains. ‘We often find that young lawyers have contradictory attitudes towards paralegals at a time when there are concerns about jobs in the legal profession.’

Looking ahead, O’Connell predicts that having non-lawyers involved in the running of law firms - one of the changes brought about by the Legal Services Act (LSA) - will cause a shift in culture that ‘gets rid of some of the old prejudices against non-solicitors’. O’Connell also reckons that the lower rates charged by paralegals will count in their favour as a growing incentive emerges to reward ‘those who can serve clients to the highest standard at the cheapest cost’.

O’Connell makes the point that many paralegals don’t want to qualify as legal executives ‘because the title doesn’t necessarily confer additional rights for those focusing on a particular area’, and is keen to see the role of paralegal become a respected career path in its own right. Still, for many wannabe lawyers, part of the attraction of becoming a paralegal is the possibility the role offers to qualify as a legal executive lawyer via the CILEX route.

Currently, the system works well for school leavers, who can become fully fledged legal executives after six years of study while they work. But it is less appealing for LPC graduates, who must re-trace some of the stages they have completed at law school if they chose to give up on getting a training contract and instead opt to qualify via the CILEX graduate fast track route.

A solution to this problem - and indeed to the wider issues of disconnection between elements of the current legal education and training framework - was proposed at the recent Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) symposium in Manchester by legal academics Julia Black and Linda Jotham, of the London School of Economics (LSE) and City University respectively. The pair suggested that qualifying as a lawyer should be contingent on reaching a certain generic competency (which would be set at level six of the government’s national competency framework), with the titles of solicitor, barrister, legal executive and paralegal relegated to secondary importance behind a new, clearly defined title of ‘English and Welsh lawyer’.

Under the plan, ‘English and Welsh lawyers’ could reach level six by whatever route they please, be it the traditional LLB/Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) + LPC/BPTC, on the job apprenticeship training via the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX), a combination of both, or some new method that would allow for the growth in online education options. Meanwhile, training contracts and pupillages would be dropped, replaced with modules that lawyers would be required to sit according to which areas they want to practise in.

Shifting sands

Of course, it is far from certain that such a proposal will be adopted - although there is a strong expectation that the LETR panel will recommend that legal training and education be made more flexible. Accordingly, looking ahead, an erosion of the boundaries between paralegals, legal executives, barristers and solicitors does seem likely, even if the exact method by which it happens has yet to be determined.

It is in the context of these shifting sands that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) would like its decision to scrap the trainee solicitor minimum wage to be understood. How can a minimum salary be maintained for solicitors when other legal professionals performing equivalent duties are not similarly protected, the SRA argued back in May as a justification for scrapping the old rule. The body also claimed that by reducing the level trainees are required to be paid, LPC graduates will be better able to compete with those entering the profession via paralegal paths.

However, opponents of the decision to abandon the minimum wage have, similarly logically, argued that the SRA has let trainee solicitors down at a time when they most needed it to be strong and stand up for their rights. If trainees are paid at a lower rate, the JLD has asked, how will they pay back the hefty debts they have incurred as a result of their decision to go to law school?

Whatever rights and wrongs of that debate, it is of course now over. The question, then, turns to how current law students and junior solicitors can best position themselves to take advantage of a brave new world where some of the old certainties will soon no longer apply.

Firstly, in an environment where professional title-based snobbishness is becoming increasingly frowned upon, it will be important for young solicitors to be humble.

Influential people like Co-operative legal services chief Bob Labadie gives a hint at the type of mindset that will be required. ‘We are trying to build the whole picture, which means allowing people to join us at different stages - whether after their A-levels, degree or traditional postgraduate legal qualifications,’ he comments. ‘At senior level, our managers are mixed - lots are solicitors, some are not. And that will continue to be the case ever more going forward.’

At the same time, solicitors need to recognise that the university education and law school training they have will still count. The top City firms seem unlikely to embrace the paralegal apprenticeship model because their clients value so greatly the educational capital of their academically excellent lawyers.

The premium of a top class education will continue to apply throughout the profession, marking solicitors out as better equipped to handle more complex, high value work. Recent comments by Lord Sumption, who said that it was ‘very unfortunate’ that many young lawyers cannot speak a foreign language and have ‘much less in the way of general culture’ than their predecessors suggest that the very senior ranks of the law aren’t enamoured by the paralegal apprenticeship route.

Balancing these contradictory attitudes won’t be easy for the next generation of lawyers. The ones that thrive will be adept at matching the skills they have with an ever more varying professional landscape - not an easy task with 300,000 (and counting) paralegals breathing down your neck.

Alex Aldridge is the editor of Legal Cheek and a regular Guardian Law contributor.