Paralegals: is the truth the opposite of the story?

The Solicitors’ Journal has published a story on research from Skills for Justice which indicates that the number of paralegals employed by firms is likely to increase by 18% over the next five years.  The inference that Skills for Justice would like us to draw from this research is that the number of paralegals will increase within the legal services market.  I am left in no doubt about that by their press release “Paralegals to play more important role”. On this data though, that inference is probably wrong.  Here is why.

Let me note, but put to one side, the very small sample of firms on which the research is based (49 according to the story 51 according to the press release).  Also put to one side for a moment the absence of information about how this survey was conducted and the sample drawn.  I’d guess, but this would be speculation, that respondents to a Skills for Justice survey about paralegals would have a healthier interest in paralegals than most firms.  That the firms in the survey employed on average 40 plus paralegals per firm suggest they are not typical firms (or one or to very big firms skew the average).

Here’s the important point.  Let us assume these figures are right.  The survey reportedly reveals a predicted 18% increase in paralegals over the next five years.  For this to mean that paralegals are becoming more important means predicted growth in the number of solicitors has to be slower than growth in paralegals.  No prediction in solicitor growth is offered.  Let me do my best to counter that omission.

In the last five years the number of solicitors on the Roll grew by 21%. The number of solicitors with practicing certificates grew by 17%.  If we assume figures straddle the worst of the recession and that growth in solicitors over the next five years will be similar to the last five years, then these figure for paralegal growth would be on a par with growth in solicitors.  That is, if the research is correct, the proportion of paralegals working in solicitors firms will remain static.  It is worth remembering that non-solicitors already appear to make up 40% of fee earners in solicitors firms.  So static does not mean unimportant, but the claim that growth will lead to a stronger role in firms is looking a little shaky.

It is reasonable to argue that my assumption about growth in the solicitors profession is wrong and that there will be a slowing of growth in the legal profession.  I do not think this will be a very dramatic slowing (training contract numbers have picked up on latest data for instance) but the effects of the recession on numbers in the profession may have a longer lead in than we see here.  This difference might well be cancelled out by a potential overestimate in the predicted growth of paralegals given the nature of the sample.  We just don’t know.

So, if this research is to be believed, it predicts stasis or a very modest increase in paralegals as a proportion of fee earners working in solicitors firms.  My instinct is that the estimate of paralegal growth by these firms is either wrong or atypical.  They may be not able or willing to accurately predict the growth in paralegals that will occur or other firms (or ABSs) will have stronger growth.  In other words, I suspect the message is right but the research is wrong.  But I am actually more cautious that paralegal numbers will outstrip solicitor numbers as a result of this research because a proper understanding of these numbers predicts stasis not growth.

One thought on “Paralegals: is the truth the opposite of the story?

  1. If you are going to commoditise legal services, the economics say that you have to de-skill them or use expert systems as part of the process. That seems to be the way that management gurus are directing clients and potential clients, and is the way of the procurement managers who are increasingly controlling the purchase of legal services by larger institutions. That suggests more paralegals, and practice areas for admitted staff being narrowed down.

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