The establishment of a professional paralegal standards framework: CILEX to propose new chartered paralegal qualification
Chris Bones discusses the proposed chartered paralegal qualification and the changes to CILEX that will establish paralegals as a key professional group within the professional body
According to recent estimates 100,000 people work in legal services in England and Wales in some form of paralegal role. Yet of these, only 10 per cent are regulated and hold a formal legal qualification, the majority through their membership of CILEX (the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives).
The rise of the paralegal in legal services reflects the changing nature of the sector. We have seen increased automation and growth of the legal ‘back office,’ as well as a shift in the roles of fully qualified lawyers, from individual delivery of legal services to a situation where lawyers increasingly act as supervisors of the delivery of services. At the same time, we have seen the opening up of competition from a range of different types of firms and practitioner, and the emergence of CILEX as a fully formed alternative legal profession. All have, in their different ways, driven innovation in law firms and in-house legal teams.
As the legal services sector has grown, so have the number of qualified legal professionals. There are over 30,000 more practicing solicitors than there were 12 years ago and, since the Legal Services Act came into force, a further 8000 chartered legal executives with a range of levels of authorisation.
The rise of the paralegal
The most spectacular growth area of employment, however, has been for paralegals. As a result, over the last 30 years our sector has, perhaps accidentally, created a whole group of legal practitioners, many of whom work in regulated environments and are often in positions of considerable trust and held in high esteem.
This is not a homogenous group. Far from it. Paralegals can practice with little or no formal professional education or training but some have advanced or higher educational level qualifications in the law, are qualified to a standard set by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) or hold a CILEX paralegal certificate – a higher standard than the apprenticeship. Others might be part-qualified lawyers holding either a SQE1 or a trainee CILEX lawyer certificate.
A client – external or internal –currently has no way of discerning the professional standing of the paralegal who provides them with their services, other than a broad assurance that somewhere there may be a level of supervision from a fully qualified and authorised practitioner, although that is only for about 20 per cent of all legal services delivered.
Not every paralegal wants to be a fully qualified lawyer – indeed from our experience of our members and those of the newly acquired Institute of Paralegals – possibly a large majority of paralegals have no such end goal. They do, however, want the kind of professional recognition that comes from association with a formal career structure and achievement of professional status that is currently open to paramedics or accounting technicians, for example.
Standards and structure
It is a cause for concern that a sector subject to regulation in the public and consumer interest, based on rigorous professional standards, has failed to establish an industry-wide framework of behavioural and competency standards for paralegals. The lack of either standards or a structure that ensures they are achieved and maintained for such a large proportion of the legal services workforce, is a problem for two reasons:
- First and foremost, the importance of ensuring that clients get what they pay for and are protected from the risks of poor execution and advice. The more professionally developed and managed the team, the less risk of a reputationally damaging mistake.
- Secondly, and in my view increasingly important, is the need to retain, engage and motivate a large (and in some firms the largest) group of professional talent.
The cynical view in our sector is that the rise in paralegals reflects many firms and in-house teams’ desire to control costs and exploit automation – and more recently the introduction of machine learning technologies – to de-skill and systemise the delivery of much of their legal work. The reluctance to support CILEX members in acquiring practice rights in some firms because of the implication for rates of pay reinforces many of my colleagues in this perhaps uncharitable perspective.
A more charitable view – and one to which I subscribe, is that the rise of the paralegal across the sector reflects not just the exploitation of technology and modern working practices, but also the significant shift in client expectations – right across the sector from corporate legal services through to those covered by regulation. Clients want services that are delivered with an understanding of project management, effective communications, an ability to leverage technology and responsiveness to client demands.
CILEX here stands out as a beacon in routes to qualifying as a paralegal or a lawyer as all of these skills now feature in our core qualifications – a key difference from the SQE. However, it is certainly the case that one doesn’t need fully qualified lawyers to deliver every aspect of the client experience. This begs two very important questions:
- What level of legal qualification and understanding of the law should be required to deliver an effective client service? And how might this differ by service area?
- What kind of professional accreditation and external recognition offering would enable firms and in-house teams to retain, motivate and develop their paralegal workforce?
A new professional pathway
In January this year, when CILEX announced the acquisition of the Institute of Paralegals and the Professional Paralegal Register, we did not do this just to strengthen our position as the home for specialist legal professionals. The acquisition of the 1,000-strong membership and the voluntary regulatory register offered the opportunity to provide the sector with the answer to these key questions on standards and professional standing.
Our answer has been developed in partnership with a range of firms and in-house organisations from across our industry. We want to create a professional paralegal standards framework and a career ladder that offers the opportunity to become a chartered paralegal linked to a professional register. It will be underpinned by independent regulation aimed at reassuring consumers and meeting the public interest need to reduce the risk of poor execution or advice, whether in the reserved or unreserved areas of law.
This summer, we are launching a formal consultation on proposals to create a new professional career pathway for paralegals, with chartered paralegal status available to those who can demonstrate they have the experience and competencies to meet our rigorous standards.
This new career pathway will also bring clarity to a market that has told us time and again that it is difficult to recruit and retain skilled paralegals because there isn’t a validated and regulated career path that recognises the unique and specialist value that skilled paralegals bring to their employers. It is also the case that our sector has had a significant surplus of aspiring lawyers, many of whom end up fulfilling valuable roles as paralegals, but without the professional status they merit.
The proposed chartered paralegal pathway will provide full professional standing and regulatory assurance through an enhanced professional paralegal register, creating a distinct career path for current and aspiring paralegals. Firms who adopt this standard and offer this route to their paralegal employees will not only be enhancing their own employment offer, they will also be establishing an industry-wide standard against which they can advertise opportunities and recruit with confidence.
CILEX will also recognise and celebrate the broad church that comprises the paralegal workforce. Regardless of whether your employees have gone down the degree route or have worked their way up from the post room, they will be able to gain recognition as a chartered paralegal by validating their experience and competencies against the CILEX framework, which has been developed in partnership with employers.
Redefining the profession
I believe that this is a sector leading move. It fills the gap that currently exists for industry-wide standards and accreditation below ‘lawyer’ and offers real value to employers and employees alike.
Over the past five years we have designed and developed a range of significant changes that are helping to redefine the legal profession. From launching the new CILEX professional qualification, delivering fully authorised specialist lawyers, through to persuading government to amend legislation to update outdated rules governing the certification of copies of Powers of Attorney and opening up higher level judicial appointments to CILEX lawyers.
The latest announcement confirming the same funding and academic levels for the new CILEX lawyer apprenticeships with that of the solicitor apprenticeship route has further cemented the parity of status and equal merit of these distinct but equivalent routes to qualification as a lawyer and authorised person under the Legal Services Act 2007.
This latest innovation relating to paralegals has been driven by employers themselves sharing their workforce challenges with CILEX. Our mission has long been to transform the legal profession and I believe CILEX is best placed to oversee the development of this new career path for paralegals, providing rigorous educational standards but ensuring the roles are open to all regardless of background.
The delivery of legal services is undergoing a radical change. Professional bodies, regulators and educators need to respond to this at a pace that supports firms and in-house teams to keep up with those changes and exploit them for growth. In tabling this new standards framework and career path alongside other changes on which we are also consulting this year, we believe we are acting for the good of the industry and in the long-term interests of a healthy and competitive legal services sector that can continue to be a competitive advantage for the UK as a whole.
Chris Bones is chair of CILEX