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10/03/2008

The Pyramid Scheme

This post is about paralegals and barristers in legal aid work. Which means that it will mostly turn out to be about solicitors.

The latest Legal Action (March 2008) has a rather dispiriting, but unsurprising piece  on the results of a Young Legal Aid Lawyers’ survey into working practices pay and conditions. For paralegals in legal aid practices, pay turned out to be bleeding awful, with some on as little as £7500 pa. Virtually all were doing casework (over 90%), virtually all received no formal training. Many found themselves in the paralegal/trainee post hell that I encountered nearly two years ago (there being no traineeship, save as a carrot/stick).

Such is is the way of the future. If the current reforms proceed, the paralegal factory is how firms will have to go. A swathe of paralegals, with limited training (and even more limited prospects) doing advice work, with a ‘supervising’ solicitor ensuring standards (cough) and picking out the more complicated matters (cough).  Some firms have a version of this in place already, although not mine.

Naturally, I mean no offence to paralegals (I was one for quite some time) when I say that by and large they are just not up to giving detailed adequate advice, spotting essential detail or running cases. It is a matter of training and the time to properly consider what they are doing. There are, of course, many exceptions, but I am talking about a general situation rather than individual practices.

One slightly surprising side effect of this is the effect on barristers. One counsel I was chatting to recently, while grabbing a coffee in lieu of lunch during a day hearing, said that it was a) often noticeable when a brief came from a paralegal, as much of the necessary detail was missing and the overview of the merits and issues of the case absent, and b) Counsel had to spend quite a bit of time pretty much running the case from chambers, giving instruction on the work and documents needed. On the basis that Counsels’ aptitude rarely extends to running cases, I’d agree that this is a bad thing.

Why is this actually about solicitors? Because this displacement of skilled work – to cheap paralegals and via them, unpaid, onto counsel in some cases – is from the work that used to be done by legal aid solicitors. It is the position of solicitors, or more accurately firms, that is key.

Unfortunately, while in most pyramid schemes, broadening the base level results in a increase in income for the top level, that isn’t so here, where broadening the base is a survival tactic for legal aid firms. (One suspects that this base broadening effect will extend beyond paralegals to associate solicitors in due course).

As the YLAL article points out, the impact of the spread of the paralegal factory is significant: one the quality of assistance to clients (whatever anyone says about ensuring standards); on the job role of the supervising solicitors – which is likely to become akin to the PI processing plants; on the next intake of legal aid solicitors (what are the odds of actually getting a traineeship in such a situation?); and even on the work Counsel find themselves doing.

But there will be more ‘acts of advice’, probably, so that’s all perfectly satisfactory.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

3 Comments

  1. John Bolch

    You mean… there are still some firms doing legal aid work?

    Reply
  2. Mark P

    However good and committed a paralegal may be, they rarely have the knowledge or expertise of experienced solicitors. This is particularly important when litigation is required. Having worked as a paralegal I know from personal experience that even those social welfare paralegals with an excellent knowledge of the law and proven ability in advising vulnerable persons shall only be able to take a case so far. And when one regularly encounters Not For Profit providers who don’t even have a supervising solicitor or effective referral arrangements with a solicitor (many CABs deserve a special mention here) you really have to wonder…

    Having also worked for a local authority I have seen at first hand housing officers taking into account the likelihood of a particular outfit issuing a claim before they decide whether to back down. The thought process often runs something like this “Well they might have a sound legal argument but surely they can’t be right (even though I’m not sure I understand their argument, I’ve never read the authorities they’re citing, and I haven’t consulted the Legal Dept). But I think they’re trying it on. After all they seldom actually issue a claim…” This is surely unsurprising for anyone but the terminally naïve.

    However the government and LSC dress their ‘reforms’ up, all practitioners know that the chickens are now truly coming home to roost for civil legal aid. What I find more depressing are those like Adam Sampson, Chief Executive of Shelter, who in their relentless drive to protect their empire have really thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

    Mr Sampson and the Shelter board think the way to ensure ‘competitiveness’ and obtain future contracts is to sack and downgrade staff.

    http://www.niknicol.co.uk/sheltertgwu21.pdf

    I must say I found his recent blog entry about the strike at Shelter to be the most complacent and condescending tripe I’ve read in a long time.

    http://shelter-hosting.org.uk/adamsampson/?p=77

    Its painfully ironic that the biggest voice for the badly housed and homeless should be so ruthlessly pursuing the government’s agenda in undervaluing those delivering publicly funded legal advice. If Shelter weren’t the holder of the most NfP housing franchises, perhaps they would be exposing the effects of the administration of civil legal aid for the homeless and badly housed and their ability to enforce their legal rights.

    Reply
  3. Nearly Legal

    Mark,

    While some paralegals undoubtedly have the skills and experience, many won’t, I agree. When skilled litigators are not involved, or there is not even a decent referral arrangement, it is a cause for concern. I’m also sure that the perceived ‘level of threat’, if we might out it that way does play a part in Local Authority responses to challenges.

    I’ve added a new post on the Shelter dispute, which I had been avoiding up till now. Shelter are the dangerous precedent for NfPs conforming to the LSC demands and they will, inevitably, be used as a stick to beat others with, as well as absorbing the matter starts of the fallen.

    Reply

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