How has the paralegal sector fared during the pandemic?
Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), and she recently shared this article with Business Leader, breaking down the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry.
Many non-legal sector businesses are utilising the services of independent paralegal practitioners, instead of solicitors, because of the cost factor involved. It makes business sense. And consumers are beginning to understand that approaching paralegals for assistance makes financial sense. Since most legal work can be performed by paralegals—the exception being reserved legal activities—there is huge scope to assist businesses and consumers in a variety of ways, without having to pay huge fees for that service.
Does this mean that paralegals have thrived during the pandemic? The answer is, yes and no.
Within the legal profession it has long been regarded that paralegals are the support staff to solicitors, since many are graduates who are seeking to become solicitors at the end of day. Arguably, they accept the role of paralegal within the firm to gain experience and with the hope that eventually they will be offered that very important training contract. Unfortunately, evidence indicates that in many cases these employees are the expendable ones and have borne the brunt of any necessary redundancies.
The above is a general observation, and of course there are exceptions within the legal sector. Firms that have valued their paralegal staff in the past have maintained that level of recognition and continued to value their services. Since paralegals are charged out at a lower fee to clients, it makes sense to help clients who are financially stretched to offer legal assistance at this level.
In other sectors, however, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Organisations in the private or public sectors with in-house legal departments employing paralegals have been able either to keep them on furlough or continue to utilise their services to help them through the difficult process of financial survival through the pandemic.
NALP is the longest running professional membership body for paralegals in England, so we have gained an insight into the lives of our members and how they have been affected by the pandemic and lockdown generally. It appears that those who have been hardest hit by redundancies are the ones who have gained paralegal positions within a solicitors’ firm. Others who work in-house have tended to be furloughed, and the paralegals who have become independent paralegal practitioners are the members that have thrived during these unprecedented times. Consequently, the assumption that can be reached from this is that it is due to the cost of instructing solicitors or barristers at a time when so much hardship has caused financial stress for many consumers.
The plain fact is that since legal aid was virtually eradicated in 2013, consumers have struggled to access justice. Paralegals who have proven qualifications and have provided evidence of their competency can apply for a Licence to Practise once they have gained PII. Once attained, they can offer legal services directly to consumers.
Such independent paralegal practitioners are now filling the gap left by the eradication of legal aid. They provide access to justice at a reasonable cost.
Of course, this does not detract from the fact that many solicitors and barrister offer pro-bono work, which is highly commendable. However, the extent of such pro-bono work is stretching the profession, causing immeasurable delays in the courts (as there are so many more litigants in person) and is surely unsustainable for the profession in the long run.
Enter the role of the licensed paralegal practitioner who may only charge 10% of the fees that a solicitor may charge.
Thus, although the paralegal sector has suffered losses during the pandemic, in much the same way as many other sectors, the fact that they have been offering consumers and businesses an affordable alternative when it comes to legal issues has stood them in good stead during these troubled times. I also believe it will serve them well as we emerge, slowly but surely, from the pandemic.