What is a Paralegal?

What is a Paralegal?The term “Paralegal” is used in most jurisdictions to describe a professional who assists qualified lawyers. This is the case in the US. However, in England and Wales the profession has yet to agree on a definition, and thus much confusion has existed in this area. The term, introduced in the UK in 1987 by the National Association of Licensed Paralegals, defines a “Paralegal” as a person who is qualified through education and training to perform substantive legal work; who requires knowledge of the law; and who is not a qualified Solicitor, Barrister or Legal Executive.

To add to the confusion, several types of Paralegals are defined according to the way they work rather than according to particular practice areas or levels of expertise. The NALP has recognised Paralegals as professionals in their own right, with many working as freelancers or sole practitioners. Other bodies appear to have concluded that Paralegals are only support workers for Solicitors, which undervalues the status of and the work done by these legal professionals.

The difficulty in defining the role of Paralegals is twofold. Firstly, there is no statutory regulation, and secondly, non-Solicitor legal professionals can perform a broad range of work. Paralegals can assist counsel in court, draft documents, interview clients and issue applications in court, and they also have rights of audience before district judges in county courts and most tribunals.

Skills for Justice intend to write National Occupational Standards for Paralegals. Just how the organisation will manage this when no clear definition of a Paralegal even exists is beyond comprehension. Having waited for years for NOS, which would open the path for the creation of paralegal apprenticeships, what a shame it will be if Skills for Justice rushes into producing standards that are fit for the purposes of only a portion of this professional sector. Paralegals do work for Solicitors, but equally they work in commerce, for local authorities and as freelancers; this news appears to have escaped the powers that be at Skills for Justice, who seem to have singled out Solicitors as the only employers of Paralegals.

Since 2005, the NALP has offered licences for those Paralegals who fulfil the criteria laid down by the Association. Once a licence is attained, a Licensed Paralegal is able to assist and advise his or her own clients as a sole practitioner. From a cynical perspective, no doubt it is in the interests of Solicitors to refer to Paralegals as ‘support workers’, considering them as relatively cheap labour, so why would they want these workers to be recognised as professionals in their own right? This appears to be reminiscent of how legal executives were seen 10 years ago.

The trend among Solicitors’ firms is to employ permanent or freelance Paralegals who can deliver on a needs basis, and the NALP will continue to promote Paralegals as independent professionals to meet this demand. So what now for the definition debate? The NALP is working with like-minded colleagues to address the question: Just what is a Paralegal?