Careers Advice

Contents

1. Introduction
2. What is a paralegal?
3. Now is a very good time to become a paralegal
4. Who employs paralegals?
5. Become a professional paralegal and have a career not a job
6. Joining the Institute of Paralegals
7. The legal executive scheme
8. Legal recruiters
9. What skills do you need to become a paralegal?
10. UK National Competency Standards
11. What qualifications do you need to become a paralegal?
12. Do barristers employ paralegals?
13. Where do you live?
14. Are you a legal secretary looking to become a paralegal?
15. Some advice on applying for paralegal jobs
16. Conclusion

1. Introduction

This page gives you practical advice on getting a job as a paralegal in Hong Kong.

2. What is a paralegal?

A paralegal is someone who does legal work even though they have not qualified as a solicitor or barrister.

By “legal work” we mean advising and assisting with the law in the same way that a solicitor advises and assists clients.

Doing clerical or administrative work in a legal environment does not count as legal work.  Nor does most of the day-to-day work done by a police officer enforcing the law (although if the officer was doing work such as helping undertake prosecutions or advising on the application of law then that type of work would probably count).

Many paralegals have different job titles: caseworker, contracts manager, legal assistant, compliance officer, housing assistant, company secretary, volunteer adviser, counsellor, trade mark clerk etc.  Many senior legal secretaries also do paralegal work despite still being called legal secretaries.

You are potentially a paralegal if you do paid or unpaid legal work for your employer or for clients or someone else.  Your job title is irrelevant.  What counts is that you do legal work sufficiently often to legitimately be considered as a (non-lawyer) legal practitioner.

Only one in three paralegals works for a solicitors’ firm.  The rest work for the HK government, the not-for-profit sector, companies, charities, industry etc.

If in doubt about whether the work you do counts as legal work then ask the Institute at office@theiop.org

3. Now is a very good time to become a paralegal

The number of paralegals being employed is growing dramatically. Also paralegals are finally being given recognition. The Law Society of Hong Kong now formally recognises the status of paralegals as legal practitioners through its legal executives scheme.

The IOP has also introduced a career path for paralegals called the Route to Qualification.

It is important to note that paralegals are not lawyers and in most cases should not be considered as equivalent to lawyers (some senior paralegals are as expert as lawyers in their particular practice area).  However paralegals can and should be recognised as professional legal practitioners.

4. Who employs paralegals?

Everyone!  As society has become wealthier and more complex,  individuals and organisations have come to interact with the law on an almost daily basis: contracts, rules against speeding, health and safety compliance regulations, laws against littering, data protection regulations, employment legislation, financial services legislation, debt recovery litigation, anti-discrimination laws, consumer protection laws etc, etc.

It was a much simpler world in our grandparents’ time – they rarely needed to interact with the law.  Accompanying this explosion in the law has been a revolution in who advises and assists individuals and organisations to deal with it.  Put simply, it is often cheaper to hire and train non-lawyer legal practitioners as employees who specialise in one particular area of law than it is to hire solicitors.  These specialists are called paralegals and there are more of them all the time. They are also increasingly doing more complex legal work.

5. Become a professional paralegal and have a career not a job

If you join the IOP then you are automatically enrolled on the professional paralegal career path, called the Route to Qualification. It has four steps, each reflected by a different Institute membership grade:

Affiliate Member

This is the first of the four stages on the Route to Qualification career path for professional paralegals.

Affiliates do not yet do legal work, but they want to become paralegals.  This grade is open to everyone.  Affiliate members are law students (full or part time).

Being an Affiliate member of the IOP shows prospective employers and the government that you are serious about becoming a professional paralegal.

Affiliate membership costs HK$349 per year (first year free for all HK law students and ex-HKU/HKU SPACE law students).

Associate Paralegal (A.Inst.Pa)

This is the second of the four stages on the Route to Qualification career path.

It is effectively the apprenticeship/trainee stage.  It is only open to people who are already doing legal work or who have successfully completed certain legal courses.

Being an Associate Paralegal shows prospective employers, clients, other legal professionals and the government that you are a professional paralegal.  You are entitled to refer to yourself as an Associate Paralegal in correspondence and on documentation, name cards  etc. and use the letters A.Inst.Pa after your name (i.e. Associate member of the Institute).

Associate Paralegal membership costs HK$749 per year (this figure discounted for all law students and ex-HKU/HKU SPACE law students).

Associate Paralegal membership is open to:

a) people already doing legal work who do not yet have enough experience to reach Qualified Paralegal status;  and

b) people who have successfully completed the following Hong Kong University (HKU) law courses (whether or not they have yet practised):

 

Qualified Paralegal

This is the third of the four stages in the Route to Qualification career path.

It is open to people already doing legal work who can show that they have sufficient legal work experience.

Being a Qualified Paralegal shows prospective employers, clients, other legal professionals and the government that you are an experienced professional paralegal. Qualified Paralegal status denotes experience not proven competency. You are entitled to refer to yourself as a Qualified Paralegal in correspondence and on documentation, name cards  etc. and use the letters Q.Inst.Pa  after your name (i.e.  a Qualified Member of the Institute).

Qualified Paralegal membership costs HK$1,099 per year (this figure discounted for all law students and ex-HKU/HKU SPACE law students).

Fellow of the IOP

This is the fourth and final stage in the Route to Qualification career path.

It is open to people who already meet the criteria for Qualified Paralegal status (whether they actually are Qualified Paralegal’s or not) and who have successfully completed the mandatory course.

Being a Fellow of the IOP shows prospective employers, clients, other legal professionals and the government that you are an experienced professional paralegal who has taken a course/examination to prove your competency.

You will be entitled to refer to yourself as a Fellow of the IOP in correspondence and on documentation, name cards  etc. and use the letters F.Inst.Pa after your name (i.e.  a Fellow of the Institute)

Fellow of the IOP membership costs HK$1,299 per year (this figure discounted for all law students and ex-HKU/HKU SPACE law students).

6. Joining the Institute of Paralegals

For more information/application forms click here

7. The Legal Executive scheme

The Law Society of Hong Kong runs a voluntary scheme designed for paralegals working in solicitors’ firms.  Under the scheme, anyone who successfully completes an approved legal executive course (e.g. those run by the School of Continuing and Professional Education at the University of Hong Kong – HKU SPACE) can call themselves a legal executive. They will enjoy slightly enhanced rights of audience at court.  However the scheme is entirely voluntary and aimed at paralegals working in solicitors’ firms.  The Law Society of Hong Kong has no jurisdiction over paralegals working outside of solicitors’ practices.

For more information on the HKU SPACE law courses please visit HKU

For more information on the legal executive scheme contact the Law Society of Hong Kong

The IOP’s Route to Qualification runs parallel to the legal executive scheme.  You can follow the Route to Qualification career path for professional paralegals whether or not you are also applying to be recognised as a legal executive.  The legal executive scheme is not a  career path.  It is a single entry-level qualification.

You can also follow the Route to Qualification if you are already following another career path – e.g. to become a solicitor or barrister.  We have no problem with such “dual passports”.

8. Legal Recruiters

Only a few legal recruiters in Hong Kong handle paralegal and legal secretarial replacements. Most only place solicitors.

Lots of people apply direct to employers for entry-level paralegal positions, so employers are not willing to pay legal recruiters to fill such posts. As a result, most legal recruiters in Hong Kong will not take you on unless you have an minimum of six-months' good practice experience.

One notable exception is CQrecruit. To find out more click here

9. What skills do you need to become a paralegal?

Successful legal practitioners such as paralegals:

9.1. Are clever – this does not mean you need qualifications. Lots of not-very-clever people have those. It means you need to be able to understand sometimes complex situations; understand, analyse and make sense of many different facts and to work out the possible implications rising from those facts.

9.2. Are honest – this means more than not stealing or not cheating or lying.  It also means looking after your client’s interests generally.  It means being willing to disclose when you’ve made an error so it can be corrected.  It means admitting when you do not understand something so that when employers or clients put their faith in you and rely on you, you do not let them down simply because your pride would not let you admit that you do not know everything in the world!

9.3. Are methodical - this means that you can work out what needs to be done, and do it step-by-step, not missing anything out.  A lot of problems that clients face arise because they are not methodical and so fail to do essential things – which leads to legal problems.  They will rely on you to methodically look at every potentially relevant issue and to resolve every potential problem.  Legal practitioners have to know what needs to be done and then do every step with care.  If you have a slap-dash, big-picture, don’t-sweat-the-details, take a chance and hope it will be all right in the end, corner-cutting approach then the chances are that you will be a terrible legal professional!

9.4. Have good spoken and written language skills – legal work involves lots of communicating.  You might communicate by phone, or in meetings or by e-mail or letter or even by the terms contract you have drafted.  It is essential therefore that you have good spoken and language skills.  Whether you need Cantonese, Putonghua or English (or any combination of them) will depend upon the particular job you do.

9.5. Are meticulous – as a legal practitioner you will operate in a world where the meaning of just one word can change a great contract into a terrible contract.  It is a world where what is not said can be as important as what is said.  In such a world you have to be meticulous – always paying close attention to the detail.

9.6. Are professional – everyone claims to be a professional nowadays.  However a true professional assumes obligations above and beyond the strict interpretation of the law.  Put simply you are expected to act to a higher standard of behaviour, conduct, probity, competency, client care and general ethics than the average businessman or woman.  You are expected to have up-to-date legal knowledge and so professionals are expected to undertake regular continuing professional development (CPD) so their skills and knowledge are not just kept up-to-date but are actually increasing.

9.7. Are good with people -  very often what you are trying to do as a legal professional is convince people.  During litigation you try and convince the other side and the judge that your interpretation of the facts and law is correct; in business matters you try to persuade the other side that your client’s offer should be accepted or his/her preferred contract terms should be adopted.  If you do welfare law then you are often trying to persuade the Urban Council or Housing Department to treat your client better etc.  This is much easier to achieve if you are good with people.  Being good with people does not mean being able to flatter those you think important, whilst treating poorly those people  you think irrelevant. That is the opposite of good people skills – if only because in the law it is not always clear at the outset of a case who is important and who is not!  One important area where many legal practitioners fail is the way in which they communicate with clients.  Most clients have not had legal training and therefore do not understand the legal jargon used by many legal practitioners in their letters etc.  A good legal practitioner will tailor his/her  style of communication so that it is easily understood by the client.

9.8. Can network – as with any business, it does not matter how good your service is if you have no clients.  Good legal practitioners – even junior ones – will be thinking about how to promote himself/herself and his/her employer to potential new clients.

9.9. Understand your client’s world – your clients do not want to receive law lectures.  They (usually) do not want to have court cases and Ordinances cited to them.  They have come to you because they have an opportunity they wish to exploit, a problem they wish resolved or a matter they wish explained.  In other words, they want practical, usable, advice tailored to their personal situation.  It is very difficult to do this for, say, a construction company if you know nothing about the construction world.  Good legal practitioners therefore make sure they understand the sector that their clients work in so that they can give proper tailored advice, couched in the correct terms and addressing all the relevant issues.

10. Competency Standards

The Institute has produced a range of Competency Standards for paralegals, legal secretaries and legal assistants (people who do clerical work in a solicitors’ firm).  You will find them very useful for identifying the skills and knowledge that employers expect you to have at different stages of your career. See Competency Standards

Many aspiring paralegals mark-up a copy of the relevant standards with the skills and knowledge they already possess.  They send a marked up copy to prospective employers along with their job application.  This allows the prospective employers to see the skills they have in detail.  Paralegals already in practice often show the standards to their employer and use them as a basis for career development/training.

If you are looking to switch careers to become a paralegal then use the standards to help you identify what skills (e.g.  negotiating) and knowledge (e.g.  of how business is conducted in your sector, scientific knowledge or accounting or finance knowledge) that you have which will be of interest to paralegal employers.  Try and identify prospective paralegal employers (solicitors’ firms, government departments, banks, companies etc.) that will value your skills.  For example, if you have a good science background then you may be very valuable to a solicitors’ firm or patent agents who handle work for science organisations, pharmaceutical and computer companies, etc.

11. What qualifications do you need to become a paralegal?

Technically the answer is “none”.

The paralegal profession is not a regulated one.  You become a paralegal by getting a job as a paralegal.  Many paralegals do not have any legal qualifications – they learnt their legal skills whilst doing the job.

The Law Society of Hong Kong’s legal executive scheme is purely voluntary.

Competition for paralegal vacancies can be fierce. Generally speaking what employers value above anything else is relevant prior experience.  If you don’t have that then the next best thing is relevant legal training.

Please note however that many employers do not value academic legal qualifications highly because academic legal qualifications such as a law degree or Masters degree in law are usually academic – i.e.  theoretical - in nature.

The problem is that the paralegal world is all about doing things: incorporating a company; interviewing a witness, analysing and drafting a contract etc.  Therefore the more practical your course, the more relevant it will be to employers.  The more academic it is then the less relevant it will be to your employers.

Please note that because paralegals tend to specialise in one area of law (personal injury, family law, crime, etc.) any course you do will ideally cover the area that you work in/wish to work in.  If you do conveyancing then an employer will not be very impressed if you study a course in family law!

To see the two practically-orientated distance-learning courses which the Institute thinks are probably the best on offer in England at the moment see here for an introductory level distance-learning course leading to a UK government recognised BTEC qualification and here for the more advanced course leading to a UK university qualifcation.

12. Do barristers employ paralegals?

No.  Barristers use barristers’ clerks.  Barristers’ clerks do not give legal advice.  They support barristers by liaising with solicitors and the court and helping the barristers with accounting and administrative support.

13. Where do you live?

The law of a place is known as its jurisdiction.  Most countries have just one type of law – German law, Singaporean law, the law of New Zealand, etc.  Some countries have more than one jurisdiction for historical reasons.  The United Kingdom has three jurisdictions: Scottish law, the law of England & Wales and the law of Northern Ireland.  In the United States of America each state is a distinct jurisdiction (New York state, California etc.).  The People’s Republic of China has two jurisdictions: the mainland and Hong Kong.

The relevance of this is that paralegals do things – they are heavily involved in what is called practice and procedure.  Practice and procedure (what form to use, what the deadline is for a particular thing, which types of action are filed in which court and under what circumstances, the documents that need to be supplied to incorporate a company, the types of questions that witnesses need to be asked etc.) are exactly the type of thing that vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Therefore if you have legal experience and legal training in another jurisdiction (e.g. the PRC or Singapore) it is not automatically the case that it will be relevant or applicable in Hong Kong – in fact it usually isn’t.  However the core skills of a legal practitioner tend to be universal: the ability to negotiate, to communicate with clients clearly and accurately, the ability to understand and analyse factual situations and determine what is important and what is not etc.  So if you wish to be a paralegal in Hong Kong but have experience or legal training in another jurisdiction it may or may not be relevant.  The good news is that (unlike for solicitors and barristers) there is nothing stopping you working as a paralegal in Hong Kong provided you meet the requirements of an employer.  Again we would suggest that you look at the relevant set of IOP National Competency Standards and work out what skills and knowledge you have to offer Hong Kong employers.

14. Are you a legal secretary looking to become a paralegal?

Many paralegals began their legal work as legal secretaries.

Being involved in one particular type of law (e.g. personal injury) or legal process (e.g. conveyancing) over a long period of time means that many senior secretaries built up an expertise in the legal process and/or the usual problems clients have and the standard ways of resolving them.  This allows them to move from doing secretarial work to doing legal work.

That said, many senior legal secretaries do a mix of paralegal work and secretarial work. The IOP will recognise the paralegal element of a secretary’s work if he/she wishes to apply to become a member.

15. Some advice on applying for paralegal jobs

15.1. Get as much practice experience as you can.  Voluntary work does count!

15.2. If you have not yet practiced as a paralegal, and so are looking for entry-level work, then use the IOP competency standards to work out what skills and knowledge you already have that employers will value - and highlight them in your applications.

15.3. Paralegals specialise.  Do your homework.  Know which area of law you wish to specialise in.  Writing to a solicitors’ firm and saying “Do you have any vacancies for a paralegal, I don’t care what I do” is not impressive. What is impressive is someone writing to a firm and saying “I very much want to be a paralegal specialising in personal injury work.  I believe that I already have many of the core skills needed for such a role.  I am writing to your firm because it has a good reputation as a firm specialising in personal injury cases.”

15.4. Look at the Law Society of Hong Kong’s law list which is available to view free of charge through their website. This will allow you to identify firms which practice the type of law you are interested in specialising in.

15.5. Make sure you present a professional image.  In particular, if you e-mail a prospective employer make sure that your e-mail address does not give a bad impression.  We receive e-mails with addresses such as lazyboy@..., hurtbutsurviving@..., moneygrabber@... etc.  These are not professional addresses and the fact that someone would use them when applying for a professional position shows that they have, potentially, poor judgment or lack of insight.  Frequently employers have many too suitable applicants for a job and so need to find reasons to reject applications – an inappropriate e-mail address is a good reason to reject a candidate.  It’s not fair, but the job selection process rarely is!

15.6. Competition is most fierce for paralegal jobs in solicitors’ firms.  However as mentioned above there are a great many paralegal jobs in other areas which offer very solid legal practice experience – regardless of the job title.  If you do such a job then after about a year’s experience you should find it much easier to transfer to a job as a paralegal in a solicitors’ firm if you still wish to do so.

15.7. Although it is very time consuming, try and tailor your job applications as much as possible.  Employers can easily spot the difference between a job application created in response to their vacancy and a generic application which is sent out unchanged in response to every advertisement.  Generic applications are rarely impressive.

15.8. Do not over-sell yourself and always tell the truth.  When employers receive many applications they get very good at spotting those applications which make inflated claims.  A typical example is a law graduate who did two weeks internship in a large solicitors’ firm in Central.  He claimed to have become deeply involved in a major piece of litigation during that time and therefore acquired good litigation skills.  This was nonsense.  Two week interns do not become deeply involved in major pieces of litigation and the skills you can learn in two weeks do not constitute good litigation skills!  This applicant just came across as looking dishonest.

16.9. Find out what is happening in the paralegal world.  The best and easiest way to do this is to subscribe to the Institute’s free monthly e-newsletter, The Paralegal Practitioner.  Just send an to office@theiop.org with your name and relevant e-mail address, typing “subscribe” in the subject line/box.

16. Conclusion

There has never been a better time to be a paralegal in Hong Kong.  Added to this, for the first time ever, you can now join a professional career path – the Route to Qualification.  Maximise your chances of success and join the profession and have a career not an occupation.  Be seen as a professional paralegal.  Enjoy the benefits of Institute membership:  join the Institute now as an Affiliate, Associate Paralegal, Qualified Paralegal or Fellow of the IOP member.

To apply for membership:

please download the relevant application form and guidance notes:

Application form for people resident in Hong Kong (Microsoft Word document) and guidance notes (PDF document)

Alternately email us and ask us to send you a form by email or post or fax.

If you cannot open PDF documents you can download a free accessibility programme called Adobe Reader which allows you to view, copy and print (but not edit) PDF documents: see http://get.adobe.com/uk/reader/?promoid=DAFYK

If you cannot open Word documents you can download a free accessibility programme called Word Viewer which allows you to view, copy and print (but not edit) Word documents: see http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyID=3657ce88-7cfa-457a-9aec-f4f827f20cac&displaylang=en

If you want either document in another format please contact:

office@theiop.org

Tel: +44 (0)20 7099 9122

Fax +44 (0)20 7904 3750


 

Member Login