Unanswered questions and a lack of publicity mean paralegals are not pursuing the alternative route to qualification, explains Max Harris.

On 15 April 2015, the first solicitor to qualify through equivalent means was admitted to the profession. This has put the spotlight back on equivalent means qualification, which was quietly introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) back in July 2014.

Equivalent means allows paralegals who have done the equivalent to the legal practice course, professional skills course, and training contract to qualify as a solicitor (hence it has been dubbed the ‘paralegal shortcut’). At its core, it sounds fair and should have the potential to shake up the legal market. But nearly a year on from its introduction, we have not seen any evidence of this.

The Institute of Paralegals estimates there are 60,000 paralegals working in solicitors firms, and a further 250,000 outside the legal profession who have jobs which entail a significant legal element. With 28 equivalent means applications submitted to date, less than 0.01 per cent of paralegals have applied to qualify via this route.

Why, then, isn’t equivalent means working? The main problem is that many paralegals simply do not know this route exists. Those who do know the route exists still do not understand what it means in practice. Few people understand how to apply and what to evidence.

There is also a worry among paralegals about how firms view the equivalent means route. Many of the Junior Lawyers Division’s (JLD) paralegal members continue to actively look for training contracts, and if paralegals do not consider the equivalent means route to be at the same level as training contracts, firms will not either.

The equivalent means route to qualification has the potential to be a welcome addition to our profession. It could encourage access to the profession, and remove some of the unnecessary red tape. But there is very little information on this route; almost no explanation of who is assessing the candidates (the JLD understands that the assessment is not carried out by the SRA); and no real guidance yet on what a paralegal must do to qualify. There are still some serious questions that the SRA needs to answer about this route. Once it does, we may start to see the number of applications rise.

In theory, as long as the SRA administer and assess the equivalent means route properly and consistently, there should be no difference between newly qualified solicitors (NQs) who qualify via the equivalent means route and NQs who qualify via the traditional training contract route. But will firms believe that? And, perhaps more importantly, with the SRA now reconsidering assessment options for admission as a solicitor, will the training contract – and, with it, equivalent means – be consigned to history?

Max Harris is an associate at Baker and McKenzie and chair of the Junior Lawyers Division.

This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 12 May 2015, and is reproduced by kind permission.