It used to be that when people talked about working in the law they really meant getting a job in a solicitors' firm, and the only legal jobs which led to a genuine careers were that of solicitor or barrister (i.e becoming a lawyer).
Everything has changed, and that change is set to continue over the next few years:
There are now eight groups of recognised, regulated lawyer: solicitors, barristers, notaries, patent agents, trade mark agents, licensed conveyancers, legal executives and law costs draftsmen.
Within solicitors' firms there are now an increasing number of career options (paralegal, HR director, training manager etc.).
Beyond solicitors' firms there are now numerous legal jobs: in charities; local authorities; central government departments and agencies; the court system and in industry and commerce.
Within solicitors' firms there are already circa 60,000 paralegals (about 44% of all fee-earners!): more than assistant, associate and consultant solicitors combined. If the current trend continues (but bearing in mind that most trends hit a natural ceiling at some point) then within the next 7 - 10 years there would be more paralegals working in solicitors' firms than there are solicitors!
In addition there are some 250,000 people outside of the legal profession who have jobs which entail a significant legal element: caseworkers; housing advisers; contracts managers; HR professionals; compliance and regulatory staff; company secretaries etc. Compare this to the circa 185,000 lawyers in the said eight groups of regulated lawyers.
There are also circa 6,000 paralegal law firms These have developed over the past 10 years. In comparison, it has taken 400 years for there to be the current 10,100 solicitors firms.
Of course numbers do not tell the whole story: solicitors and barristers still lead the profession and do the most complex, high value, cutting-edge, challenging and often glamorous work. This is not likely to change. What has changed is that now for the first time ever it is genuinely possible to say that a worthwhile and fulfilling career in the law is achievable even if you do not become a lawyer.
The United Kingdom has three separate jurisdictions (another way of saying distinct and independent legal systems): England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own regulatory system and representative bodies.
The government has been deregulating legal services in the UK. Today members of the public or businesses etc., can get legal advice from:
Solicitors working in law firms
Barristers working in barristers' chambers
Paralegals and legal executives working in solicitors' firms
All of the above (but mostly paralegals) working as volunteer advisers in organisations such as Citizens Advice and Shelter
Paralegal law firms associated with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner
Paralegal law firms associated with the Ministry of Justice
Commercial legal helplines offered by telephone and online
Given all of this, today it makes more sense to refer to the legal sector rather than just the traditional legal profession (solicitors, barristers and notaries).
Overall,the future is looking very bright for paralegals. Almost every major development and trend at present looks likely to increase their numbers, status, responsibility and authority - and in turn improve salaries and career opportunities.
Some of the developments and trends are:
Many clients consider solicitors to be too expensive and so press solicitors' firms (a.k.a law firms) to reduce, or at least not increase, their charges. At the same time, many solicitors' firms find that their profit margins can be increased significantly by using paralegals instead of solicitors. As a result, the number of paralegals being used by solicitors' firms of all sizes continues to increase.
The Act, amongst other things, allows non-lawyers to own solicitors' firms called Alternative Business Structures.
Early indications are that many non-lawyers will look to offer legal services (especially lower cost, high volume types of work) and will be using primarily paralegals to deliver it.
Many people on lower incomes are entitled to get all or most of their legal work (on certain types of matter) done by solicitors' firms paid for by the government's Legal Services Commission.
Recent reforms to legal aid, primarily motivated by a desire to cut cost, are strongly pushing solicitors' firms doing legal aid work to use many more paralegals - and for more senior and responsible work.
The practise of law can basically be broken down into five main areas. There is a growing need for more legal practitioners (both lawyers and paralegals) in all five areas:
1. Wealth creation and maintenance. In essence most commercial, probate, tax, trust etc. lawyers work to create, maintain, transfer, divide and protect wealth. Despite the recession, society is getting wealthier.
2. The criminal justice system. Legal practitioners are involved in every facet of it: they detect, prosecute, defend, judge, appeal, administer and punish. New crimes are being committed and all the old ones continue to be committed.
3. Social welfare law. This covers non-financial, non-criminal matters such as divorce, and immigration appeals, employment disputes, libel cases, child custody battles, etc.
4. Risk management and compliance. There are ever greater obligations imposed upon us from health and safety requirements through to rules governing the disposal of our rubbish and the words we can or cannot use to describe people or things. Although many of these obligations are very beneficial to society, cumulatively they lead to the need much more frequently to seek legal advice.
5. Political, constitutional and administrative matters. The machinery of government at all levels, and the machinery of the legal system itself is often attacked or needing clarification or change: in what circumstances can the government legally go to war? Can the Queen abdicate in favour of Charles? Legally speaking is Scotland able to demand independence and, if so, on what terms? Can your council use anti-terror legislation to fine people for putting out their rubbish too early? Can a Turkish company ask an English court to enforce a Turkish court order without knowing anything about the matter? What can the government do if it strongly dislikes a European Union Directive which it is meant to enforce? All these types of question are increasingly common.
Paralegal involvement varies dramatically in the above five sectors. Paralegal involvement is quite rare in matter type 5, but very common in matter types 2 and 3.