Through the back door
This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 31 March 2015 and is reproduced by kind permission (www.solicitorsjournal.com)
Entry numbers into the legal profession suggests there is a distinct disparity between those who are accepted to study law at undergraduate level and the number of training contracts registered.
With competition fierce, an increasing number of graduates are attempting to secure qualification by ‘getting in through the back door’ by obtaining paralegal roles. Yet, this route is not without potential pitfalls, and there are a number of frustrating dichotomies that graduates face when they pursue paralegalling as a way of obtaining a training contract.
The Law Society acknowledges that the 'need to stay in the legal profession to gain experience whilst trying to secure a training contract... [is] usually achieved by taking up a paralegal position’. It even goes so far as to advise hopeful graduates that a paralegal role could ‘help you get your foot in the door’ with a firm.
However, these concessions come with a warning that ‘law firms can also be demanding of paralegals’, cautioning against becoming one ‘of [the] paralegals who have been waiting years on a promise that never materialises’. This recognises the tension between law graduates wanting to demonstrate drive and ambition among their competition, and not exposing themselves to having their hopes of a training contract opportunity exploited, or, as the Law Society guidance puts it, ‘burdened with debt, under the guise of “work experience”.’
Obtaining a paralegal role, and proving your worth, is an achievable route to qualification, in addition to being invaluable experience. That said, some guidance also warns against the potential of being ‘pigeonholed’ by a drawn out paralegal position.
Although paralegals can benefit from the ‘time to count’ scheme, evidence suggests many graduates are unaware of how it operates and what they need to do to take advantage of it. Similarly, the ‘equivalent means’ (EM) route to qualification was introduced by the SRA in 2014, enabling LPC students who have undertaken paralegal work to prove they have gained experience to a level comparable with having completed a training contract and are therefore able to qualify as a solicitor.
While the new route may sound innovative, the practicalities of LPC graduates having to take control of ‘DIY training contracts’, while also being a notable paralegal within their firm and satisfying the necessary SRA requirements, seem taxing to say the least. There has been mixed opinion on whether this supposedly more flexible alternative will be not only practically workable but actually employed in reality – or simply serve to further raise the spectre of the ever-elusive traineeship that is utilised so effectively by some exploitative employers.
The benefits of ‘time to count’ and EM must still be balanced against the risk of the ‘carrot’ training contract in less scrupulous firms. It is a stressful and inequitable landscape for students and paralegals, especially in an industry suffering under the lingering cloud of the recession and the relentless necessity to adapt in an increasingly consumer-driven society.
Some firms have adopted a paralegal-only trainee recruitment process. This structure would certainly help to alleviate the unenviable pressures of the dual paralegal/hopeful trainee role, but can also be achieved by finding a firm that wants to encourage and support you, whichever route you wish to pursue.
It would be prudent to research firms thoroughly before taking a paralegal role, balancing desire to secure a training contract against the recognition that not all employers will prioritise progression over cost-effectiveness. Even conscientious firms cannot create a business need where one does not exist.