Before setting out to deliver paralegal services direct to businesses and consumers, there are several issues to consider. These include qualifications and experience, demand for the services you would offer, and how you would grow your business.
Clients want to be sure that the person handling their (frequently delicate) legal issues is competent to do so. Being able to show your qualifications and work experience to date will help give clients that comfort.
It is not necessary to have a recognised qualification, but it does help. Even if you already have a number of years work experience—perhaps in-house at a large company, in the public sector, or within a solicitor’s practice—gaining an Ofqual-recognised paralegal qualification will help to cement that experience and prove that you are competent to perform the work you are being asked to do.
There are various levels of qualifications and which one you choose will depend on how much experience you have. These qualifications start with an entry level qualification which is the Level 3 Award in Paralegal Practice (two units of study) to the Level 3 Certificate (four units of study) and finally the Level 3 Diploma (six units of study). There is also the Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies (10 units of study) and the Level 7 Diploma in Paralegal Practice for those who already have gained a Law Degree (six units of study).
Even if you do have a recognised qualification, it’s always best to keep your knowledge up to date – which you have to do if you have a NALP Licence to Practise – by completing CPD courses each year.
Being a member of a professional body, such as the National Association for Licensed Paralegals (NALP) is another way to give you extra kudos and credibility, and your clients confidence. It also offers both you, and them, protection.
Gaining a Licence to Practise from NALP, for example, shows that a level of due diligence has been performed to ascertain an individual’s experience and qualifications which have been thoroughly checked and scrutinised. In addition, the eligibility to gain a Licence to Practise requires the applicant to have PII (Professional Indemnity Insurance) and this gives any potential client confidence that you have the back-up should there be an issue.
Should there be a grievance, NALP can act as an independent arbiter ensuring you are not the victim of vexatious complaints, while also helping to ensure that the reputation of the paralegal sector is properly protected.
Being a NALP member also offers you the opportunity to get support and advice from highly experienced individuals within the organisation about your practice and career.
Before thinking about setting up on your own, you have to be sure that there is sufficient demand out there for your particular type of work – you need a sustainable business. This means that you must know your market. It is important to have experienced the area in which you wish to work and to understand the services clients may want from you. You need to be satisfied that you have answers to these questions:
- Who are your potential clients?
- Where will you find them?
- What services will they want?
- Can you fulfil that need?
- How much competition is there?
- How will you set yourself apart?
Ensuring you understand the market and the demand is key to building a profitable business.
A learner signs up for a Paralegal Studies qualification. It takes her two years to complete, after which she joins a criminal law firm. She works there for five years during which time she spots that there is a demand for legally qualified individuals to care for vulnerable clients during the criminal law process. She leaves the firm and sets up her own business assisting such clients. She qualifies as a police station representative, and after a period of time, she applies to the Bar Standards Board for Licensed Access in order to be able instruct barristers directly on behalf of her clients. She succeeds in her application. She now runs a very successful practice where she can provide continuity and a presence for her clients from the moment they are arrested right the way through to court proceedings if it gets that far.
Setting up the business
Once you have your professional membership and your Licence to Practise you may be tempted to incorporate your business straight away. My advice is to wait. The best way to test whether a business works is to commence as a sole trader. If it is successful enough after the first few years, then you could consider converting it to a limited company. However, it’s always best to get some independent financial advice from an accountant first in respect of the pros and cons of each type of business.
For example, an issue to consider if you were to incorporate your business is the cost, as it involves the requirement to have accounts drafted each year by a chartered accountant. On the other hand, one of the advantages is that you will have limited liability if something goes wrong, so make sure you get the proper advice before starting up.
Marketing and PR
Your business will need clients – how will they find you? The answer is consistent and ongoing marketing. This can range from Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) – to ensure your website is found easily on any search engine – to PR activities involving the publication of articles written by you in relevant magazines and websites. You need to establish yourself as a credible professional and to flex your expertise.
You can handle all of your marketing yourself, you can outsource it, or you can find a middle ground. If you love social media, do it yourself. If you hate social media, find someone to do it for you, otherwise it either won’t be done properly or not done at all. Apply the same thinking to every aspect of marketing. Yes, you can save money by doing it yourself, but if you’re really not interested your time will be better spent doing other things, like being a paralegal.