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.