Send in the paras?

Posted by Alan Kershaw, chairman, ILEX Professional Standards

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To say that the paralegal enquiry launched by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) is timely is a massive understatement. It is a highly significant piece of work – its aims ambitious, its scope comprehensive, its outcomes potentially far-reaching.

The enquiry comes at a time of transformational change in the ways in which legal services are organised and delivered. The developments which we are only just beginning to see range not just over business structures but over ways of working, attitudes to customer service, entrepreneurial challenge, career progression and – gasp – professional roles and titles.

CILEx and IPS do not yet have a handle on this. Nor does the Law Society, or the other regulators. Nor does the mighty Legal Services Board. Nor do the judiciary, or even the Lord Chancellor himself. But, as sure as anything, we have to get to grips with it.

As the great Bob Dylan put it in one of the anthems of my teenage years: “You’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, For the times they are a-changin’.”

Christmases are not going to be white again. The sooner the legal professions come to terms with that, the better it will be, not just for them but for their clients and for society as a whole.

‘Professional roles and titles’, I just said. One of the many things I am looking for in the paralegal enquiry is a decent run at understanding who paralegals are, what they do, what they might do in the future, what their employers expect of them. And what, crucially, consumers are prepared to accept from them – more, I suspect, than the traditional legal mind would like to admit.

I am not interested in creating a new professional title, to go alongside chartered legal executive, barrister, patent attorney and the rest. Professional titles bore me and, painfully, they mean far less to the general public than professionals like to think. What I am interested in is clarity about the roles professionals perform, the competence of each professional to do the work they claim to be able to do, and the ability of regulators to assure the public that the regulated community is fit to do that work today.

Work we are doing at IPS has focused on ensuring that clarity for chartered legal executives and the other professionals we will accredit to practise independently in their chosen specialties. With CILEx we are now working on defining what we expect of other grades of CILEx membership.

And our new scheme for continuing professional development, built around the competencies we have defined, will provide assurance that, as far as we can, we have satisfied ourselves that everyone we regulate continues to be fit for the job.

So what of paralegals – whoever they are? It is always worth repeating that IPS already regulates over 12,000 of them: these are our enrolled students, already on their professional journey, the overwhelming majority of them progressing towards their legal qualifications while they do useful work within legal enterprises.

There are said to be many thousands more, apparently doing similarly responsible work but outside the scope of regulation as individuals. Who are they? Definitions I have heard have been nebulous, or partial, uninformative or comically inaccurate.

The enquiry will explore this in depth. I would like to see from it strong, hard information about the numbers and types of paralegals, who they are and what they do. What their aspirations are; what proportion of them see paralegal work as a step towards qualification as a lawyer and – dare I say it? – regulated status?

What proportion, by contrast, are content to make a whole career out of being a paralegal? That is an entirely reasonable position and there may be many such people, but right now we just don’t know. Are they a homogenous group, mirroring the traditional lawyers’ specialties, or is their work different in kind? Again, it’s not their job titles that are important but the work they do and their competence in it.

Crucially, do the paralegals who are outside CILEx’s and IPS’s purview need to be regulated as individuals? I am uncertain about this and expect the enquiry to identify key principles, providing some pointers to help make sense of the future in a rapidly changing market.

One thing I am sure of, though: customers will always, and increasingly, want to know what they are getting. It is the job of the regulator to ensure they have that information, and that is why I think this enquiry is so important.

Change in the market is something all professional sectors have had to come to terms with over the past couple of decades. No one is singling out the law. Across professional services there is an ongoing shake-out of roles which is blowing holes in traditional patterns and ways of working. Nurses now do things once done only by surgeons. Pharmacy technicians do things once reserved to pharmacists. Accounting technicians and bookkeepers do some things that were once the preserve of chartered accountants. And paralegals…

These are natural developments which, properly regulated, demonstrably benefit consumers. The law is not immune to these developments, though it’s apparent that many would like it to be.

“You’d better start swimming…” It’s an Olympic-sized pool but at least CILEx is prepared to get its shoulders under the water.

    Readers Comments

  • Thanks for your perceptive piece, Alan. As Bob Dylan also wrote: “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain”. Undoubtedly liberalisation of the legal market is a beautiful thing, but certainly there will be the pain of adjustment amongst the legal professions as regulation increasingly shifts away from individuals and their professional titles to entities and their structures and systems. Understanding what it is you are selling as a legal business and using that information to make the best use of the talents of your staff, qualified or unqualified, is going to be key to keeping afloat. I am sure that the results of CILEX’s inquiry will be valuable to all those running legal businesses in
    getting to grips with these issues.

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