This week, the Law Society welcomed a new president to its hallowed halls, as Jonathan Smithers took up the challenge of overseeing the profession through what can only be a period of challenges, old and new.
Over at the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx), too, David Edwards has taken up the mantle. Both are experienced lawyers: Smithers as a property lawyer and managing partner in Tunbridge Wells, and Edwards having worked in local authorities for over 30 years. Perhaps the challenge for the coming year will be to unite the whole profession. If so, there is plenty of support and encouragement coming from those responsible for the Professional Paralegal Register (PPR), which has just launched for consumers.
A joint initiative between the National Association of Licensed Paralegals and the Institute of Paralegals, the PPR is seeking to protect consumers and act as a roll of reliable and trustworthy paralegals.
Since the Legal Services Act was introduced, there has been gentle progress towards opening up the legal services market. The resulting commoditisation of the sector and services now offered by myriad firms and organisations has, it may be argued, only made it more difficult for consumers to understand the level of support they need and who they should seek it from.
Those responsible for the not-for-profit PPR understand this and have set on a mission to educate the public (and profession), and break down the myths around what being a ‘paralegal’ means in the modern legal world.
‘By using the PPR,’ a statement from the organisation read, ‘[the consumer] can guarantee they’re going to get a paralegal with a high standard of advice. If not, then the register ensures the consumer can make a complaint and collect compensation where necessary.’
Having met the directors, each of whom is experienced in the paralegal field, I have no doubt there is a genuine and real desire to succeed in enhancing consumer choice and protection while also creating a professional understanding and basis for paralegals to build from, now and in the future.
Although the PPR sits outside the remit of the Legal Services Board (LSB), it has secured buy-in from the Legal Ombudsman and the LSB’s consumer arm. This will no doubt assist it as it develops its focus on consumer protection.
One of the problems is that the register is voluntary, but this may also be its greatest selling point. Although over 2,000 paralegals already appear on the register, this is a tiny percentage of the number we know to be out there (conservative estimates would say 200,000).
Another problem is the perceived transient nature of paralegals. Of course, this isn’t always the case, and as training contracts and pupillages become increasingly more difficult to secure, the role of a professional paralegal, with its own career trajectory, recognition, and representative body, is a long-awaited step in the right direction.
It will be for the Law Society and CILEx, together with the Bar, to welcome paralegals and recognise them not as potential recruits or competition, but as valued colleagues and friends.
This article first appeared in the Solicitors Journal on 14 July, 2015, and is reproduced with kind permission