If you have been a legal secretary for some time, and you are wondering where to take your career next, setting up your own paralegal practice may be a journey worth making. As with most journeys, planning helps things go smoothly, and before you start delivering paralegal services direct to businesses and consumers, there are several issues to consider. These include (vitally) whether you have sufficient qualifications and/or experience, the demand for your new business, and awareness of the dos and don’ts.
Although you may feel you have the knowledge to perform certain legal tasks and offer advice and assistance, it is important you are able to provide evidence to back this up. Clients want reassurance that the person handling their (often delicate) legal issue is in fact competent to do so.
Although it is not necessary to have a recognised qualification, it will certainly help. Gaining an Ofqual recognised paralegal qualification will help to cement your existing experience and prove your competence to perform the work you are being asked to do.
There are various levels of qualifications available to study. Which one you choose will depend on how much experience you have. These qualifications start with an entry level qualification, which is the Level 3 Award in Paralegal Practice (2 units of study) to the Level 3 Certificate (4 units of study) and finally the Level 3 Diploma (6 units of study). There is also the Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies (10 units of study) and the Level 7 Diploma in Paralegal Practice for those who already have gained a Law Degree (6 units of study).
Even if you have a recognised qualification, it’s always best to keep your knowledge up to date (which you have to do if you have a National Association for Licensed Paralegals (NALP) Licence to Practise) by completing annual CPD courses.
Being a member of a professional body, such as the National Association for Licensed Paralegals (NALP) is another way to give you extra kudos and credibility. It also offers both you, and your clients, protection.
Gaining a Licence to Practise from NALP, for example, shows that a level of due diligence has been performed to ascertain an individual’s experience and/or qualifications which have been thoroughly checked and scrutinised. In addition, the eligibility to gain a Licence to Practise requires the applicant to have PII (Professional Indemnity Insurance) and this gives any potential client confidence that you have the back-up should there be an issue.
Should there be a grievance, NALP can act as an independent arbiter ensuring you are not the victim of vexatious complaints, while also helping to protect the reputation of the paralegal sector.
Being a NALP member also offers you the opportunity to get support and advice from highly experienced individuals within the organisation about your practice and career.
Before thinking about setting up on your own, you have to be sure that there is sufficient demand out there for your particular type of work. Failure to do so means that you will not succeed in having a sustainable business. This means that you must know your market. It is important to have experienced the area in which you wish to work and to understand the services clients may want from you: Who are your potential clients? Where will you find them? What services will they want? Can you fulfil that need? How much competition is there? How will you set yourself apart?
Ensuring you understand the market and the demand is key to building a profitable business.
Setting up the business
With your professional membership and your Licence to Practise, should you incorporate your business straight away? I would say, no. The best way to test whether a business works is to commence as a sole trader. If it is successful enough after the first few years, then you could consider converting it to a limited company. However, it’s always best to get some independent financial advice from an accountant first in respect of the pros and cons of each type of business.
For example, an issue to consider if you were to incorporate your business is the cost, as it involves the requirement to have accounts drafted each year by a chartered accountant. On the other hand, one of the advantages is that you will have limited liability if something goes wrong, so make sure you get the proper advice before starting up.
Marketing and PR
To ensure your business is sustainable there should be consistent, and ongoing marketing. For example, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to ensure your website is found easily on any search engine, and PR activity including, for instance, writing articles for publication in relevant magazines and websites, which will really help to get your name and expertise known.
What type of marketing you choose may well be determined by the kind of business you have (and want to have in the future) and what you like doing. Some people love posting on social media, others like creating webinars or newsletters, some prefer writing articles. Networking is also a good option to get your name and business known; remember that while this can be very effective, it is a slow burner.
You also need to decide whether to outsource to an expert, which initially, is probably the best option as you can control the costs and it frees you up to do the work you will have grown to love – being a paralegal.
Author: Amanda Hamilton, Patron of NALP
Amanda Hamilton is the Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional. Amanda is also the Patron of the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs (ILSPA), and taught its Legal Secretary courses for over 15 years.