Sustainable Paralegal Businesses Need Planning

In the US, paralegals are not authorised to practise law; their role is limited to assisting attorneys with research and document drafting. But in the UK, working as an independent paralegal practitioner is permitted, with many such businesses operating. These businesses must carefully adhere to certain restrictions and boundaries to avoid misunderstandings and potential complaints.

Here are some tips for creating a sustainable and successful business model as a paralegal practitioner.

Holding out

Paralegals operating their own businesses and offering advice and assistance to consumers must ensure that they do not give the impression, either expressly or by implication, that they are solicitors or barristers. Even with a careful choice of terminology, there is a risk of being misunderstood. For example, referring to yourself as a ‘lawyer’ is not technically incorrect if you are a qualified paralegal, but the inference to a consumer will probably be that you are a solicitor because they may not be aware that paralegals are lawyers. So, the only way around this is to expressly describe yourself as a paralegal or ‘paralegal lawyer’ and this must be stated in all marketing and social media posts.

Reserved legal activities

The legal work not authorised for paralegals includes, among others: the right of audience, conduct of litigation, reserved instrument activities (related to land transfer), and probate activities. These can only be performed by a solicitor, chartered legal executive, or under their supervision.

What does this mean in reality?

The right of audience means that a paralegal cannot automatically have the right to represent a client in court unless it is in a tribunal (other than appeals tribunal) or in a small claims court. If a case that the paralegal is dealing with ends up in ‘open’ court (i.e., open to the public) before a Circuit Judge or a High Court Judge, then the paralegal must instruct a barrister to represent their client. It is possible for paralegals to gain a ‘Licence to Instruct’ barristers directly (through the Bar Standards Board) if they have an identifiable area of expertise or appropriate experience.

There are occasions when a paralegal has been granted a right of audience, but only if requested in advance, and this is subject to the discretion of the judge and the competency of the paralegal.

The conduct of litigation

A paralegal cannot sign letters or court documents on behalf of their client as it will infer that they are conducting litigation. However, what they can do is draft such letters and documents, but they must be signed by the client themselves. This also means that they are not allowed to be agents in order to be served with court documents or receive letters from the other party or their representatives.

This arrangement may cause difficulties for clients, who will bear the burden of receiving all documentation and correspondence. This can be overwhelming, but is an unavoidable aspect of the role.

There are occasions where a paralegal has applied to the judge in a specific case to be allowed to receive service of such letters and documents because the client is in a delicate or nervous state (medical evidence should support this), and this has, at the discretion of the judge, been permitted.

Reserved instrument activities

paralegals are not permitted to undertake conveyancing transactions on behalf of clients unless they have a licence to do so from the Council of Licensed Conveyancers.

Probate activities

Paralegals cannot apply for a grant of probate on behalf of a client executor or sign any probate forms. This is reserved only for solicitors or chartered legal executives. However, paralegals can assist a client in doing it for themselves as long as all documents are signed by the client.

The above gives an indication of how important it is for a paralegal practitioner to be aware of the limitations of what they are permitted to do. It is also necessary for there to be full transparency with potential clients about such limitations, which, even though they seem overly restrictive, in practice, there still remains a great deal that the paralegal can do for their clients.

Fees and money

Paralegals are not allowed to take money in advance or hold client money on account. Everything that a paralegal does should be agreed upon with the client beforehand, and the fees should also be agreed upon before any work is undertaken. Once completed, the paralegal can invoice the client as agreed. There should be no surprises. If a fee is required in advance for something, then the client will have to pay for it themselves.

Final thoughts

To ensure that paralegals have a sustainable business practice, not only should they adhere to all of the above, but they should also relay all of this in a client care letter together with any complaints policy and have all the information publicly available online. Hopefully, being fully compliant with the above will effectively negate any possible complaint. However, it is always a good idea to belong to a paralegal membership body, such as NALP, which provides extra confidence for you and for any client. It also means that, as a paralegal practitioner, you have someone to turn to for advice and have a secondary level of complaint should a client be unhappy with your services. Although, if you are fully compliant and transparent, this should never happen.”

Amanda Hamilton is the patron of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP).