There are hurdles to overcome for anyone with ambitions of becoming a lawyer, not the least of which are the cost of study and tutelage requirements. But if you really want a career in law, there is another route – train to be a paralegal.
Paralegals can undertake almost all the same activities as a solicitor, with a few exceptions known as ‘reserved activities’.
Being a paralegal is a rewarding career in itself and gives you the opportunity to work within a legal practice, in industry, or to set up your own business. It can also be used as a stepping-stone to qualifying as a solicitor if that’s what you decide you wish you to do.
The best way to get started is to complete an Ofqual recognised paralegal qualification. There are quite a variety on offer, so how do you choose the right one for you?
The answer is very much dependent on why you want to enrol in such a qualification.
So, let’s go through the possible reasons, one by one.
Curiosity, necessity or general interest
Unfortunately, learning about your legal rights has never been on any school curriculum. Consequently, it appears to be unattainable information that only a solicitor or barrister can give. This gives it undue reverence and mystery when in fact an individual’s legal rights should be available and accessible to all.
Is it any wonder then that many individuals enrol for a legal course when something happens to them that may affect or reflect on their legal status. This could be a dispute with a neighbour, or a debt owed by you or to you, or matters relating to property (renting, buying or being a landlord) or possibly something related to family or even a criminal offence.
If it is just basic legal information that is sought, such as how laws are made and what laws are meant to do and how the English Legal System works, then a Level 3 Paralegal Qualification could be appropriate.
A Level 3 is equivalent to an ‘A’ Level. There are three possibilities at Level 3. An Award may be the best economic option. It is only two units of study and does not cost the earth. If further knowledge is required, such as how to draft a Will or gaining details on how the Civil litigation process works, then a Level 3 Certificate may be appropriate. This is two further units of study, so four in all. Finally, a Diploma is two further units of study – six in all.
This is a great way to gain general knowledge and help you understand your rights, it is also a perfect beginner’s course for anyone seriously interested in progressing their law career.
Enhancing current job knowledge and know-how, or changing careers
Some people find themselves in a role involving a legal element where their only credential is the experience of doing the job itself. You may not have a background in law, but since you have been doing the job for so long, you know exactly what to do. However, you may not know ‘why’ you are doing it and the legal reasons behind it.
At a certain point you may therefore wish to bolster up your experience with particular knowledge of the law by completing a qualification. This will also benefit an employer as they would have relevantly qualified employees which adds to customer confidence.
A Level 3 Paralegal Certificate or Diploma would suffice. However, if the employee is mature and has already gained qualifications at Level 3 or above, a Level 4 Diploma would be appropriate. Unlike the Level 3, there are ten mandatory subject areas of law to study, so this is quite a commitment, but a successful graduate would be able to describe themselves as a fully qualified paralegal.
A Level 4 Paralegal Diploma would also be appropriate for someone who wishes to change careers. Maybe this person already has a degree in another discipline and is considering a change into the legal profession. Conventional careers into the profession take time: qualification as a solicitor may take anything from four to six years, and to become a barrister it is three to five years, depending on whether an individual has a Law Degree or not.
The cost is also quite hefty taking into consideration the fees for a degree and postgraduate course fees. Whereas, qualifying as a Paralegal will take approximately one year at a small percentage of those costs.
Forging out a career as a Paralegal Professional
Going to university is not for everyone. Especially as we now know that it doesn’t always guarantee a job/career. Competition is huge for any role including one involving law, and the currency is now ‘experience’. The sooner one can get on the ladder of experience, the better chance there will be of gaining that ideal job.
Going straight from school to enrol onto Level 4 Paralegal Diploma is the quickest way to get qualified in law. Then the next step is to get as much experience under your belt as you can, and this may not just be with a solicitor.
It is a fallacy that all paralegals work for solicitors. While many of them do, a substantial number do not. Experience can be gained by working in companies, organisations, or charities. In fact, most organisations and businesses have an element of legality to what they do, and paralegals fill those legal roles.
Experience can be gained anywhere: from Premiership football clubs to car manufacturers to movie production companies to retail outlets such as ASDA or Morrisons.
If you have already gained a law degree you may feel that you’ve already spent enough time and money and do not wish to pursue qualification as a solicitor or barrister. If that is the case, you can enrol onto a Paralegal Level 7 Diploma. This qualification bridges the gap between your academic law degree, and practice and procedural law and will qualify you as a paralegal.
For either of the above career pathways, once enough relevant legal experience is gained and can be evidenced, an application can be made for a Licence to Practise. This is subject to attaining Professional Indemnity Insurance and fulfilling other eligibility criteria.
This would enable a Paralegal to set up their own Paralegal Practice and have their own clients (subject to strict practice guidelines which have to be adhered to in respect of reserved activities and holding out). More information can be found on the NALP website: nationalparalegals.co.uk
If a career in law is your dream, then don’t let time and cost hold you back – there are genuine alternatives that deliver the excitement of law and the opportunity to make a real difference.
Author Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced 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 around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.