Is the increase in part-qualified paralegals a sign of
With an unprecedented remit and the ambitious aim to carry out the most in-depth exploration of the legal education framework in this country since the seventies, the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) was always going to attract controversy.
Previous reports of this ilk barely assessed anything more than the traditional professional separations of solicitor and barrister. With LETR, the full breadth of legal service provision is being considered. This, in part, is the result of fundamental changes to the sector as a whole: where in the past legal services were relatively stable in definition, form and function, all facets are now subject to continuing change.
From the practitioners’ point of view there is plenty of scope for discontent. In recent months critics have called into question not only the timescale and methods of the review, but also the timing of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Bar Standards Board (BSB) and Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards (IPS) in commissioning it in the first place.
So far we have seen two of the three discussion papers it intends to publish before reporting back in full to the three frontline regulators in December. The first paper was a literature review which analysed all existing research into legal education and training to “illuminate the complex relationship between legal education and regulation in England and Wales today, so as to be better able to make recommendations for the future”. Six months on, some might question whether the scale of this illumination has hampered longer-term clarity but the literature review was the first chance for the sector to respond, and that they did.
The paper aired some “radical reforms” in a bid to test the water with stakeholders. These included retiring the qualifying law degree, redefining the pupillage and training contract stage and introducing a universal CPD scheme – to name a few topics ripe for debate. Although the introduction of universal CPD might not be well received, CPD itself was one area to reveal a rare consensus: that the system was ineffective in its current state.
In other aspects it is proving harder to find common ground and to agree on what incremental changes would be required to circumvent the ‘radical’ reforms that the sector appears so wary of. But the effect of a subtler set of proposals for regulatory change could be just as radical. If the review is successful in its mission it will present a report that identifies the commonalities that run throughout the profession and bind the sector together as legal providers. It will propose a framework that not only regulates the current education and training system but is flexible enough to endure an unpredictable future.
A more diverse profession
In the second phase of its research the review opened the equality and diversity debate. Running adjacent to the government’s own report into access to the professions led by Alan Milburn, the second discussion paper hung on the Legal Service Act’s regulatory need to “encourage an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession”.
In the new liberalised marketplace there is little room for snobbery. Competition is increasing and new business structures are driving the agenda for a robust regulatory framework that protects the public and covers legal service provision in all its guises. A representative legal profession is a pivotal element of this and one that hinges on fair access at all levels. Equally, as pointed out in the introduction to the second paper, the role of higher and professional education is to encourage equal opportunities.
Jessica Guth is a lecturer in law at Bradford University and is unconvinced by the need for a qualifying law degree. She accepts though, that scrapping it would call for a complete rethink of the following stages, potentially leading to greater elitism if regulated legal education was only to start at postgraduate level. That said, she argues that, as an academic, delivery of a liberal legal education is her main aim. “We know that less than 50 per cent of graduates go into the legal profession, so if we have qualifying law degrees that are regulated in terms of outcomes based on the legal professions, there is a huge proportion of our students that are being assessed on outcomes that are not relevant to them,” she explains.
The other way
But what of those that do enter the profession in one form or another? Are they being served well by the current system? Guth says that at Bradford a good number of students decide not to go on to study the LPC, mainly due to the financial pressure. Instead they look for work as paralegals. From there some may choose to move onto CILEx or a similar training body to advance their careers, very few will ever go back and do the LPC. According to Guth, the majority regard themselves as “career paralegals”.
This could be the shape of things to come as the gulf between the number of graduates and the number of training opportunities gets wider. A few hundred miles south-west of Bradford, Steven Vaughan has a similar story to tell of his students in Cardiff. “I see a lot of my students now asking about CILEx and about paralegaling,” he says.
“It’s the route into qualification or entry into the profession for them, so lots of the smaller firms in the south-west offer training contracts only to the paralegals.” While the ‘once a paralegal, always a paralegal’ stigma is likely to remain in the City and top 30 firms, managing partners and HR teams in regional firms have evidently spotted a benefit in employing a paralegal who will demonstrate their fit with the firm over time, rather than trainees who are an unknown quantity.
David Thompson, managing partner at Moore Blatch, a mid-tier practice with two offices in Southampton, one in Lymington and another in Richmond-upon-Thames, says his firm started taking on LPC-qualified paralegals about two years ago because of a glut of applications for training contracts. He estimates that in his office there are currently two trainees recruited from paralegal roles for every one direct from the LPC.
“When we started it we had both our current year’s and next year’s intake fully booked so we would take them on as paralegals to see how they would fare and if they impressed, after one or two years, if possible, we’d offer them a training contract,” Thompson explains.
Which begs the question whether the current legal education and training system has already been usurped by a more market-driven process. If being a paralegal increases the chance of gaining a training contract, it also begins to alter the traditional definition and status of a paralegal. In the past they were not formally legally qualified and worked their way up through the ranks to perform unreserved activities. But if a significant tranche of part-qualified paralegals are entering the profession using this route, this surely raises important questions for the review.
“I’d like to think that, after the education review, paralegals will be regulated like licensed conveyancers or patent attorneys,” suggests Vaughan. With the arrival of new business structures perhaps this is the best time to address regulation of non-lawyer roles. It is highly foreseeable that a lot of the more mechanical work currently done by solicitors in smaller firms will be taken on by paralegals in a bid to compete with newcomers like the Co-op. As Guth puts it, there will be a “blurring” of the line between traditional paralegal work and that of solicitors.
Today’s paralegals, tomorrow’s lawyers
The job for the review then is to work out how this blurring of lines will be dealt with by the regulators of education and training. Professor Julian Webb is leading the research consortium responsible for the review and believes that the breadth of its task is unique in that it aims to research all aspects of legal education and training, for all disciplines. “Past reviews tended to be exclusively about solicitors and barristers. We’ve got more formally recognised, separately licensed professional groups now, and the review aims to reflect that,” he points out. So where do paralegals fit in to the new regulatory framework?
Webb believes that, “for all sorts of reasons, paralegals are going to be an increasingly important part of the story and that is because most people accept that, in some parts of the sector in the future, the rate of growth for paralegal opportunities is likely to exceed growth of traditional legal professionals”. He hastens to add that it is important to know who these paralegals
are, with as yet no clear definition of paralegal status and many groups coming under the title.
“A relatively significant group are LPC or BPTC graduates who haven’t got training contracts or pupillages,” he says, on the surface of it corroborating the views of Vaughan and Guth, although he goes on to hypothesise: are they really paralegals? Indirectly, they are regulated if they are working in a regulated entity, but does that provide sufficient quality assurance, and sufficient career development for this group? Do they need to be recognised as a specific category of professionals in their own right, and regulated accordingly?
Endless possibilities are a recurring theme with LETR. Because the remit is so wide-ranging and because the review stage is only a precursor to the wrangling that will be undertaken by each of the commissioning regulators after December, we will be dealing with ifs and buts for a long time before any tangible change is made. Webb is currently immersed in the latest stage of the review, drawing up of a number of scenarios that map a range of potential regulatory frameworks. A welcome line of thinking on all sides is to deregulate to an extent. This may involve reducing the numbers of bodies responsible for regulation, most certainly allowing more flexibility and moving more decisively to the outcomes-focused approach framed by the Legal Service Act.
The first opportunity for anyone not on the review’s steering committee to consider possible scenarios will be the LETR Symposium in Manchester on 10-11 July, where a range of thought leaders and commentators are expected to bring the debate closer to a conclusion. Professor Julia Black, from the department of law and centre for the analysis of risk and regulation at the London School of Economics, is a plenary speaker at the event and takes a pragmatic view: “Yes, the market is changing, the professions are going to have to change with it and there probably will be a bigger role for paralegals. Will that mean a lesser role for solicitors per se? Not sure,” she says bluntly before adding: “Is that necessarily a bad thing?”