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A paralegal in a solicitors’ office should not be seen as a trainee’s poor relation. In this day and age, the post can be either a useful stepping-stone to a training contract, or increasingly, even a career in its own right.Paralegal is a broad term used in the UK market to describe a person who has practical legal experience, but is not a UK-qualified lawyer. The term can cover a law graduate who has completed the Legal Practice Course (LPC) but not started a training contract, or a foreign-qualified lawyer who is yet to re-qualify in the UK and is working for the intervening period at paralegal level. Paralegals’ skills are diverse, and those filling in the gap between law school and a training contract can provide litigation or corporate support to City firms. It is a viable option for those who have completed the LPC/Bar finals, but find no training contract waiting for them.So how do you go about finding a paralegal position? Some are advertised in the press or, more often than not, you will need to contact your chosen firm’s personnel department and submit a CV.Usually, the larger the firm, the higher the pay, but this is just one consideration. A smaller firm might provide you with a greater degree of hands-on responsible work, but there are pitfalls to watch out for. Some of these firms might hold out the prospect of a training contract, but meanwhile be using you as cheap labour. If a relatively small firm is continuously advertising for paralegals/trainees, it should set some alarm bells ringing. With a larger firm it can be necessary to avoid the opposite situation, where you could find yourself part of a large team of paralegals carrying out mundane work and kept at a distance from equity partners.Often firms have a policy of not taking trainees from their paralegal ranks, but many do – or you can apply elsewhere using the experience gleaned as a paralegal as a calling card. Those still working as paralegals for more than a year or even for several, with no foreseeable traineeship on the horizon, might want to reconsider their options.However, there is no set pattern and many paralegals reach their Nirvana in the profession after long stints. Time served as a paralegal is rarely wasted. One major advantage is that it can count towards your training contract. If you have done suitable quality work as a paralegal, you can apply to the Law Society for a reduction in the length of your training contract; usually a year as a paralegal will count for a six-month reduction of the contract.It seems clear that a good paralegal position can give you an excellent route to and preparation for a training contract. Failing to win a training contract straight from law school does not mean that you will never be a solicitor. Nowadays being a paralegal is also increasingly being viewed as a career in its own right. The position has long been recognised abroad as a legal qualification with a structured career path and some standing, but it is only relatively recently that such views have percolated through to the UK, where for a long time the role was seen as just one for ‘failed trainees’.Many UK firms are now providing a career structure for paralegals, enabling them to ultimately assume similar responsibilities to junior lawyers and deal with colleagues and clients at various levels. Obviously there are economic benefits for the firms in hiring paralegals; they are cheaper than qualified solicitors and they can also be used to help trainees along the path. In many law firms, paralegals have proved useful for maintaining morale among trainees, minimising fallout due to under-stimulation. In turn, this can prevent a loss of about £70,000-80,000 per annum in City firms, if salary and assistant/partner time in training is taken into consideration.Rather than inundating the trainees with administrative work, many firms employ paralegals for these duties and so allow the trainees to spend the time on more stimulating, hands-on work. From the paralegals’ perspective, while not always being the most exciting job, administration is the opportunity to gain valuable experience and see which way they want to proceed. With the growth of the career paralegals, firms increasingly have to look at how to maintain loyalty by providing more challenging work with prospects for progression. The majority of candidates in this category will have missed the boat for a training contract. But while this opportunity may be gone, most paralegals will have been studying for about six years and will be keen to use the knowledge they have gained. The duties of the professional paralegal can vary from firm to firm. Larger firms generally decide to take on temporary teams to handle particular projects. In the smaller set-ups, these teams are rarer and permanent paralegals usually assist with the general daily office activities – for example, research, basic document drafting and attending client meetings.Another growing option for the career paralegal is to move in-house. Companies looking for junior lawyers are often happy to fill the role with a non-qualified person with the appropriate experience.As internal clients generally are less interested in how senior their adviser is, paralegals working in-house often find they are not restricted by the ‘glass ceiling’ which can exist in private practice.

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