14/11/2016 by Katherine Memery
Most aspiring solicitors plan on following the traditional route to qualification, by studying the LPC before completing a two-year training contract. Ideally, law students apply for and acquire a training contract two years in advance, during their penultimate year at university, with non-law students doing so in their final year.
For most, this is the preferred method of achieving solicitor-status. Generally, no experience is required and if they secure a position, graduates have a more certain career path, and can sometimes receive help with funding the LPC and/GDL from their prospective employer.
However, the economic downturn coupled with the growing number of law graduates means that these days, competition for training contracts is fierce; the number of graduates entering the market for training contracts is nearly three times greater than the number of positions. In addition, the involved application process, which requires extensive research and preparation, can be difficult to manage alongside a law degree, and this can encourage students to explore other options.
What are the alternatives?
Fortunately, there are alternative ways of qualifying: earned training contracts, ‘equivalent means’, the CILEx route and legal apprenticeships. In the future, it’s possible that those who embark on the traditional training contract route are likely to be in the minority as these other options become more popular.
It’s becoming more and more common for those who aren’t lucky enough to graduate with a training contract lined up, to enter the profession as a paralegal. Many law students begin work as a trainee without any full-time professional experience of working in a law firm; those who have already worked in the sector have valuable work experience, putting them at an advantage.
Working as a paralegal before starting a training contract allows graduates to see how a firm works and put into practice some of the skills they’ve acquired during their degree or LPC, such as legal research and drafting. It will also demonstrate to employers a commitment to the legal profession.
What’s more, working as a paralegal can sometimes lead to a training contract with the same firm. Some smaller-medium sized practices look internally and identify and recruit trainees from their paralegal pool. For both firms and graduates, this can be an attractive approach: firms will be able to see paralegals prove their worth on the job and paralegals can gain knowledge of the firm which will stand them in good stead for their future as a trainee.
Sometimes, paralegal experience can be recognised as what’s called ‘time to count’. In these cases, the time spent as a paralegal goes towards the time spent as a trainee, effectively reducing the length of a training contract (by a maximum of 6 months).
When applying for paralegal roles, it’s important to note that not all positions are the same, with tasks and responsibilities varying significantly. While some paralegals are treated like fee-earners with their own caseloads, for others, the role can involve little more than photocopying and other administrative tasks.
While paralegal experience is certainly beneficial, those with the ultimate aim of obtaining a training contract should remain realistic about their chances. Many firms view paralegals as a more cost-effective alternative to taking on fully-qualified solicitors and don’t necessarily take them on with the intention of offering them a training contract in the short to medium term, if at all.
Critically, there are far more paralegal roles out there than training contracts/NQ positions, so there’s no guarantee that paralegals will successfully make the leap.
In 2014, the Solicitors Regulation Authority introduced the ‘equivalent means’ rule, which allows those who have completed the LPC and worked as a paralegal to qualify without completing a training contract. In order to make what has been nicknamed ‘the paralegal shortcut’, applicants must be able to demonstrate that their skills, knowledge and legal experience are equivalent to what they would have gained had they been a trainee. While this route to qualification is a welcome alternative for those struggling to secure that elusive training contract, the application process is tough and costs £600. It may also be tricky for some paralegals to accrue the variety of experience needed to meet the SRA’s requirements, especially if they work in a specialist law firm.
While it takes slightly longer to complete, from a financial point of view, enrolling with the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) is a considerably cheaper option compared to the LPC/ training contract route. For law graduates, the CILEx Fast Track costs around £4,000 (compared with the LPC which can cost as much as £15,000) and involves undertaking 3 years of ‘qualifying employment’. This enables graduates to get a significant amount of hands-on experience under their belt before they qualify and to earn while they learn.
At the end of the CILEx process, you qualify as a legal executive lawyer, rather than a solicitor. While a less traditional route to practising law, the responsibilities of both roles are largely the same, and chartered legal executive lawyers can enjoy a worthwhile and rewarding career.
CILEx is looked upon more favourably than it used to be, but barriers still exist and there is a general perception that a solicitor is better qualified than a legal executive.
Legal apprenticeships were introduced to provide a ‘vocational’ route into the legal sector. After A Level study, students can embark on a six- or seven-year programme, involving working full-time alongside study and can qualify as a lawyer without the need for a 2-year training contract. Apprentices usually qualify as paralegals or legal executives/fee-earners, but there are plans to introduce an apprenticeship scheme that will lead to qualification as a solicitor.
Apprenticeships are often beneficial for law firms as they are a way of recruiting the best talent sooner, increasing staff retention and commitment and developing the skills of existing employees.
Still set on going down the traditional route?
As you can see, there are more options than ever for those looking to qualify as a lawyer, however, many law graduates are still determined to take the conventional training contract path.
If you’re hoping to land a training contract and looking for paralegal experience in the meantime, it’s important that you have an open conversation with both your recruitment consultant and prospective employer about your goals and priorities.
Many candidates have only one thing in mind, and some may turn down paralegal roles when they realise that they do not guarantee training contract success. While a particular position might not lead to an offer of a trainee role at that particular firm, in the long-run, widening your legal experience while you apply to other firms may well help you to achieve that coveted training contract.
On the hunt for a paralegal job?
At Realm, we recruit for paralegal jobs in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds. Check out our latest vacancies by visiting our jobs page. Alternatively, give us a call for a confidential discussion about your circumstances.