Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Paralegals touted as solution to Law Society's fears over open legal services

The Law Society of Scotland taking control over Paralegals is viewed by some as ensuring the survivability of the Society's control over the legal profession and the public's access to justice .. but will the public fall for that once more ?

The Scotsman reports :

Same jobs, same name, but very different routes

By Jennifer Veitch

NICOLA Brown has worked hard to gain her paralegal diploma and to secure a job that she loves, so when she comes across other paralegals that don't have a recognised qualification she admits it does rankle.

That is why Brown, who works for Morton Fraser in Edinburgh, supports a new scheme to regulate paralegals. She believes that registering paralegals with the Law Society, and ensuring that they meet minimum academic standards, will provide much-needed"differentiation" between those who are qualified and those who aren't.

"That is one of the pitfalls of the paralegal profession – we do have a mixed bag," says Brown. "It does get a little bit annoying when someone says 'I am a paralegal' when I have earned the right to my job title."

Yet one of the challenges facing the Law Society and the Scottish Paralegal Association (SPA) as they move towards regulation of the role later this year is that many don't have Brown's qualifications. And some paralegals argue that work experience counts for much more.

Samantha Kennedy, a paralegal with Edinburgh firm Purdie & Co, was highly commended in the Paralegal of the Year award category at the Scottish Legal Awards this year, and yet doesn't have a paralegal qualification.

She is concerned that she may have to study for a formal qualification, when she already has a BA in Law and is now studying the Law Society exams to become a solicitor. In her experience, colleagues with paralegal qualifications have not always been prepared for the pressures of the role.

"I don't know if the current paralegal course sets people up for the practicalities of the job," she says. "If people have to do that, I don't think it would be a strong enough course. I went for a job interview last year and the other people I was up against had this paralegal qualification.

"But the firm said they were looking for something different because quite a few weren't up to doing the job. I think there should be a standard, definitely, but the course would need to change."

The wider problem is that there is no precise definition of a paralegal, and no-one even knows exactly how many are working in Scotland. The Law Society estimates that there are around 10,000 – around one for every solicitor – with some 4,000 working in private practice.

Currently there are no required qualifications to be a paralegal – some paralegals are graduates like Kennedy, while others may only have on-the-job experience.

A paralegal diploma is offered by Strathclyde University in conjunction with Central Law Training, and by Glasgow Caledonian University and Reward Training.

The SPA currently recommends that formal training should include a number of areas such as ethics, legal research, analysis of legal materials, drafting legal documents, administrative procedures, substantive areas of law, technology and communication skills – but the Law Society is currently working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority to devise new qualifications.

While regulation may drive up standards, it may also put paralegals under pressure. Neil Stevenson, the Law Society's head of strategic change, concedes that some may need to take on further study when the new system of regulation is introduced.

But he adds that the scheme, likely to be introduced later this year, will initially be voluntary, to allow paralegals and their employers time to adjust.

"People will be able to choose whether they come forward," he says. "No-one will be under threat in terms of their job or role in the short to medium term.

"If it is to be a meaningful scheme there will be some people who won't meet the standard."

Unlike the system of paralegal regulation in England and Wales, which has produced two tiers – those who are licensed and those who are not – Stevenson says that the goal is to ensure that all those calling themselves paralegals in Scotland are registered.

He adds that the benefits for paralegals will include professional recognition, career opportunities and ongoing training, while firms and clients will benefit from clarity about the paralegal's role and skills.

"Clients and solicitors will have the reassurance that paralegals have met certain academic and work standards and are bound by a professional code of conduct," he says. "This approach shows the society and SPA working in partnership to identify an innovative solution that brings benefits to everyone involved."

Christine Lambie, president of the SPA, supports the plans and argues that it will provide certainty and reassurance about the level of skills paralegals should have.

"Paralegals have contributed for years to the provision of legal services in Scotland and we are delighted that their contribution and professionalism will now be recognised," she says.

The Law Society is also looking at whether registered paralegals might be able to qualify for exemption from some stages of legal education and training, which are currently under review.

If paralegals can gain more credit for their skills and experience, then more might consider going a step further and qualifying as solicitors.

Nicola Brown says she would be interested in studying law if she was entitled to exemption from some of the Law Society exams: "I certainly would, because currently, if I wanted to go and become a solicitor, to study part-time would take six years. That's a huge commitment for anybody."

Michelle Rankin of Harper Macleod, who won the Paralegal of the Year accolade at the Scottish Legal Awards this year, is in the fourth year of a part-time LLB at Strathclyde University, and is exactly the type of candidate who might benefit if the new scheme gave credit for her skills and experience.

But while Rankin supports a registration scheme, she is not convinced that paralegals should get special consideration if they want to become solicitors.

"I have learned a lot from studying, and I think the traineeship would be beneficial because you are rotating between departments," she says.

While she plans to qualify as a solicitor, Rankin hopes that driving up standards will help people to see the value of the role that skilled and experienced paralegals already play.

"A paralegal isn't recognised sometimes. In a practical sense, they are very much involved in the profession and are a key asset to any legal office."

Ultimately, more high-flying paralegals may follow Rankin's example and decide that their best long-term career move is to become a lawyer.

That was the experience of Lee Robertson, a solicitor with Pinsent Masons in Edinburgh, who has just qualified after more than a decade as a paralegal with some of Scotland's leading firms, including Dundas & Wilson.

Robertson, who studied for the paralegal diploma before doing her LLB, has mixed feelings about the regulation – she believes firms look beyond mere qualifications.

"There are pros and cons," she says. "My experience has always been that they have looked at the individual."

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