By Amanda Hamilton, Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP),
All paralegal practitioners need to be aware of Holding Out. This is when you give an impression either by inference or omission or expressly, that you are anything other than a paralegal. Such an impression can be made verbally or written on a business card or on your website. It is vital that you make it clear to any prospective client that you are a paralegal rather than a solicitor or barrister and as such, there are limits to what you can do for them. These limits which are out of bounds to a paralegal, are what is known as ‘reserved activities’ as defined by The Legal Services Act 2007.
The recommendation is that any ‘confirmation of instruction letter’ sent to such a potential client, expressly states this and makes it clear in layman’s terms, what you can and cannot do for the client.
Not many people realise that ‘Holding Out’ to be a solicitor when you are not on the Roll of solicitors may constitute a criminal offence and that the Solicitors Regulation Authority could prosecute.
As a consequence, it is therefore in your best interests to be as clear and transparent as possible about being a paralegal and what you are, and are not, able to do.
Transparency and clarity with clients
From the first contact with a potential client to the last, the professionalism you project is vital. Keep all clients informed at every stage of the process and discuss possible fees with them before undertaking any work. Taking fees up front is not permitted. You should only invoice for work that has been done once completed and the fees have been discussed and agreed.
Managing a client’s expectations is also vital. This translates into regular communications which indicates a willingness on your part to be as open as possible. This may sometimes be difficult, especially if the client is expecting a speedy or certain outcome which has not come to fruition. However, it is always best to confront these difficulties head-on and endeavour to manage the client’s expectations from the start.
Membership of a professional body
To have an affiliation with a professional paralegal membership body (such as NALP) can be very reassuring for a client. Such bodies will have a code of conduct that a member must adhere to or suffer certain possible consequences. The knowledge that a paralegal has been rigorously checked before membership is granted, boosts your standing. It is also recommended that in order to offer legal services to a potential client, a paralegal should not only be a member of such an organisation but should also attain a ‘Licence to Practise’. This involves the member providing evidence of qualifications and/or experience in their specialised area of expertise. Professional indemnity insurance (PII) needs to be attained before such a licence is granted.
Continuing professional development (CPD)
It is common knowledge that The Law changes rapidly (in some areas more than others), and so it is a requirement of senior members and those with a Licence to Practise, to provide evidence of 12 hours CPD per year in order to renew their licence. This indicates to a potential client that there is a measure of commitment and passion about the work that you, as a paralegal practitioner, do.
There are many online CPD accredited courses but even reading up about new precedent cases can go towards the 12 hours CPD required.
Worried about how to gain enough experience before setting up on your own?
Getting experience in an area of law that you are interested in seems, on the face of it, to be difficult. However, the first step is to ascertain what area suits you, then look for work in that area, not only in the legal sector, but other sectors too. For example, you may be interested in ‘Consumer Law’ – why not seek out a consumer charity such as ‘Which Legal Services’ and contact them directly to seek work and experience. If you are interested in ‘Employment Law’ you could work in any large organisation that has a human resource department. Most large organisations will have an in-house legal department or members of staff that deal with their day-to-day legal matters from collecting debts to perusing commercial contracts.
Let’s say that you have found your niche. Don’t stop there, as there are plenty of opportunities to learn new skills which may assist you in performing your duties as a paralegal practitioner. For example: drafting legal documents, negotiating skills, advocacy skills to enable you to gain confidence in representing your client either in the Small Claims Court or a Tribunal. Such courses are generally not too costly and will add to your portfolio of competencies.
Working as a paralegal can be a rewarding career choice whether you choose to work in-house or run your own practise. However, it is vitally important to ensure that you understand what you can and cannot do, and that you are always transparent and communicate clearly with your clients. Getting the Ofqual recognised qualifications, joining a respected membership body like NALP, and, if appropriate, applying for a Licence to Practise are all ways to show that you are knowledgeable and professional and will provide a great service to your clients.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Hamilton is the Patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.