Waiting for the Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory

From The Practice July/August 2018
How paralegals feel “trapped” in a transitional role

Law firms are places in which the idea of a successful career is based on upward progression, as we can see from the persistence of the tournament and up-or-out promotion models. While movement has become a key defining characteristic of most contemporary careers, young lawyers still typically aspire to move systematically between structurally defined roles until they reach the prize of partnership. However, as the importance of work-life balance becomes more accepted and technology both prompts and facilitates the adoption of new business models, even lawyers are beginning to talk about the need for greater flexibility in careers.

So what happens to the people in law firms who do not or cannot move upward, who are not expelled by the up-or-out tournament but remain “stuck”? How do they experience and make sense of their immobility in an environment where others around them are progressing? Drawing on Laura’s expertise in leadership in law firms and Stefanie’s focus on traditional and modern professional careers, we interviewed more than 70 paralegals, lawyers, management professionals, and representatives of professional bodies in the United Kingdom to examine the experiences of recent law graduates who have taken on paralegal roles. These graduates have embarked on a traditional, progression-based professional career path, with the expectation that they will occupy the role of paralegal for a limited amount of time before obtaining a training contract to become a qualified lawyer.

Background: Paralegals in the United Kingdom and the research study

The Law Society (the main professional body representing solicitors in England and Wales) defines a paralegal as “not a lawyer” but “a legal assistant who is qualified through education in legal studies, training and/or work experience in a law environment” and who “works under the ultimate direction and supervision of a solicitor; and performs substantive legal work.”

One of the surprising findings of our study is that the paralegals themselves describe their role as “liminal.”

The number of paralegals in both regulated and unregulated sectors in the United Kingdom has increased steadily due to changes in the legal sector, such as cost pressures by clients, international competition, and the introduction of cheaper market entrants who offer legal services. The increase has also been affected by the greater marketization of legal education and a notable increase in the number of law graduates. (Keep in mind that in the United Kingdom a law degree is primarily an undergraduate rather than a graduate degree, with leading law firms offering training contracts to undergraduate students while still at university.) Throughout this time, however, the number of training contracts—the traditional mechanism through which law graduates are hired by law firms and trained to become solicitors—has remained stagnant. This means that taking up a paralegal role has become a frequent option for many law graduates who want to pursue a legal career but are unable to obtain a training contract in their preferred firm. It is a way to gain experience in the practicalities of law and develop an understanding of what working in a professional law firm means, with a view to ultimately moving on to a training contract.

The 70 interviewees in our study were drawn from four international law firms and professional bodies. Two of the firms have their main offices in London and have set up separate legal service centers in U.K. towns with cheaper labor and operational costs. These nearshoring locations are where the majority of paralegals are based. The other two firms keep their paralegals in-house in their primary offices. Some paralegals are dedicated to specific legal teams and work closely with associates and partners. However, the majority are part of a flexible resource pool that lawyers draw on if needed.

The majority of our interviews were with paralegals. However, we also interviewed lawyers and management professionals within the firms to examine how they perceived the paralegals with whom they worked.

In the minds of the paralegals we interviewed, the role is supposed to be transitionary, a steppingstone on the route to becoming a trainee: “In terms of the wider market, people definitely view it as an interim step, something that somebody does until they get qualified.”

The Liminality of Paralegals

One of the surprising findings of our study is that the paralegals themselves describe their role as “liminal.” Literally meaning “on the threshold,” the concept of liminality refers to a transitional, in-between state, where holders are neither one thing (student) nor fully another (trainee lawyer). The idea of liminality originated in anthropology and the study of rites of passage. It describes the transitional point where (typically) young men have relinquished their preritual status but have not yet assumed the status they will hold after the ritual is complete. In the context of our study, however, the question is not what happens once the rites of passage are completed but what happens to the “liminar” when the rite of passage becomes a permanent condition.  Research on liminality has shown that it is often associated with ambiguity and discomfort, yet it can also provide an opportunity for reflection and identity growth.

The training contract is universally seen by interviewees as “the Holy Grail”: the first step on the ideal career route. It is what they are taught at university during their law degree program—“It’s always just been drilled in our head that this is what you do, so it’s the way you do it”—and it is associated with a view of themselves as being “ambitious,” needing “to advance,” and being “very goal driven.” Paralegals do not want to give up on their aspirations, and they hold on to the belief that they will be successful. As one interviewee says about the transition to a training contract: “You just expect that some time it will happen or it will just eventually come.”

Some see themselves as trapped and perceive their paralegal role as a potential threat to their long-term career.

Law firms indirectly encourage this belief—this is perhaps one of the more troubling findings of our study. Even though paralegals are told about the stringent recruitment criteria to transition onto a training contract, firms hold out the possibility of obtaining a training contract by giving a limited number of places to internal paralegals. Interviewees refer to these as “golden tickets.” One manager explains: “For a trainee, they’ve just got the golden ticket. It’s like the Willie Wonka golden ticket in terms of career. With paralegals, what they want is that really.”

However, interviewees themselves are acutely aware that they are not yet trainees, let alone qualified lawyers: “It’s like a ‘par-legal’—you are part legal, but you’re not quite good enough to be legal” and “I think in comparison we fall somewhere just slightly below trainees.”

As a result, everyone regards the possibility of staying too long in a paralegal role as undesirable. “Nobody becomes a long-term paralegal,” says one manager. And when we ask a lawyer who previously worked as a paralegal if she would have considered working in the role for longer, she responds emphatically: “No, absolutely not. … I always would have wanted to do something more because I’d rather be a leader than a follower on a case.” Even more emphatically, a paralegal tells us, “If you tell any paralegal, ‘How would you feel if you were, your whole career, a career paralegal?’, people puke at just hearing it.” Lawyers who have successfully managed to obtain a training contract share the sentiment: “I remember being a trainee and just thinking, ‘Thank goodness, I’m not a paralegal.’ … These paralegals can become a trainee, but a lot of them are just being sort of labeled as career paralegal, and it’s not a great position.”

Feeling stuck in liminality

All paralegals are concerned about moving out of the role. Some see themselves as trapped: “Like you’re stuck. You can’t be what you’ve always wanted to be, like there’s an invisible wall that’s very hard to climb.” These interviewees perceive their paralegal role as a potential threat to their long-term career. They are concerned about “being pigeonholed in one place forever” and describe the experience as “suffocating if you don’t have anywhere to go.” They fear never moving out of the role: “You are getting older and older, and then you end up being a paralegal for life.”

For them, not moving on from the paralegal role into a training contract would represent personal failure. It would be “ending my ambition” and feeling “like I’ve given up.” Interviewees who perceive the paralegal role as a threat to their career are also sensitive to negative perceptions of others. “The impression that people have of paralegals are people who didn’t make it, that didn’t get the training contract for whatever reason; they’ve kind of ended up stuck in a paralegal role and haven’t been able to break out.”

Firms have introduced new internal roles, but many paralegals do not perceive these to be real career opportunities compared with established routes and titles that are understood across the profession.

But others talk more positively about the role, seeing it as a career opportunity and a means of helping them understand how to achieve their long-term career goals. They recognize that they are still at the beginning of their careers, at the “bottom of the chain,” and that being a paralegal gives them an opportunity to find out more about what type of work they like: “I could find out tomorrow that I really love doing something.” Still they are worried about feeling trapped at some time in the future: “For me, this job is good for now. But I don’t think I could stay here forever because I would just be given the same stuff with minorly more responsibility within the same office. There’s no job progression in terms of moving up the corporate structure to bigger and better things.”

One lawyer also described the role positively as a means of gaining valuable experience of “sharpening attention to detail.” “A lot of people also benefit from just email etiquette, phone call etiquette around the office, how to talk sensibly about a document or describe a document or a query to someone, to work with other people. It’s definitely a good first steppingstone for everyone that comes here.”

Importantly, they have not given up on qualifying as lawyers but frequently talk about the “choices” available to them and the “decisions” they need to make, denoting a sense of agency. For example, one paralegal talks about how she wants to qualify long-term but is still considering where and when to do it: “I’m not in a rush to decide, because once you do it, that’s you for the rest of your life, so I’m OK with leaving it for a while. I’m still not fully sure. I know what I want to do, and I want to qualify at some point, but I just don’t know where. I don’t want to rush it. Some days I want to stay here, and then other weeks I would like to go to London, but it’s a completely different lifestyle up in London; the pace is much faster. I think you really need to be 100% committed. It’s probably taken me longer than other people to decide.”

Rejecting alternative career paths

Paralegals who describe themselves as feeling “trapped” in their roles often do not want to consider alternative career paths. This is a measure of the depth of their belief in the single ideal career route. This is characteristic of people who achieve the status of lawyers that the paralegals aspire to—perhaps one of the ways in which they allow themselves to be socialized into thinking like a lawyer.

Firms have introduced internal roles that are managerial, technically and knowledge focused, but many paralegals do not perceive these to be real career opportunities compared with established routes and titles that are understood across the profession. One remarked: “I don’t want to be doing a role where every single person’s asking, “What the hell is that person’s role?” … In the legal profession, managers, head of centers, head of this, head of that, and no one knows what the hell their role is, and I don’t even think they know themselves.”

For many, the time and financial resources they have invested in their legal education means that they are committed to making a career in law and becoming a lawyer: “I’ve spent so many years, and so much money going through this path, my aim is to qualify.” Another interviewee says simply: “I want to become qualified because, well, if I wanted a managerial role, I could have gone into one without the effort of studying law.”

Overcoming feelings of career immobility

Our interviewees engage in two types of practices to overcome feelings of career immobility.

First, they take action to increase their career opportunities in line with their ideal of what career progression looks like. For instance, they apply for training contracts both internally and externally—but their principal goal is to win a training contract internally. “I had times where I thought maybe I should join a different firm if they’re offering training contracts, but then you just say, ‘Well, I’ve got the experience here.’” But they also take additional training courses and assume greater responsibility in their paralegal roles to increase their chances of being offered a training contract at a later stage.

Universities need to manage students’ expectations and at the same time increase the visibility of alternative career routes in the legal profession and indeed outside it.

Second, they also work on their self-perception, talking about themselves and their careers in ways that give them a feeling of mobility, allowing them to see themselves as people with options to do something different if they want to but frequently outside of the legal profession: “I think it’s good to have an option. I don’t know if I see myself doing this forever, but I’ll do it as long as I enjoy it.” Another paralegal talks about “working in a bank, something in finance” or “business, probably in a business.” A third suggests that “there are sometimes points in the day where I think, ‘Do you know what? I’ll just sod off and go somewhere else.’”

These processes include taking career ownership by questioning the assumptions that have influenced them so far and what they have been told at university: “Is it because I really do want to be a solicitor? Or is it because I’ve always been told that anything else is not as great?”

Talking about these options does not mean that people are going to enact them. In fact, none of the individuals we interviewed had concrete plans to move out of the legal profession. However, recognizing that they are “not tied into it” and have “the ability to leave” allows them to cope with the difficulties of their current career situation.

What does this mean for law firms and lawyers?

The liminality of the paralegal role has some advantage for law firms. It is not altogether a career dead-end and always carries with it the possibility of progression at some point in the future. Firms play on this by allowing paralegals to apply for training contracts, often repeatedly. By occasionally giving out “golden tickets” to training contracts, they continue to offer hope—and thus benefit from high levels of commitment and hard work among paralegals. Meanwhile the paralegals contribute significantly to the work of the firms but in ways that they may not find inherently interesting and where the levels of remuneration offered do not necessarily fully reflect their level of skills and experience.

Instead of this rather instrumental—some would say cynical—approach, we believe that law firms could do more to create a win-win result for themselves and their paralegals. Law firms should think about providing paralegals with clear intraorganizational career pathways, including traditional and alternative career routes, and offering them career support. This could include having open career conversations that create awareness around what motivates paralegals in their careers, developing an understanding of the challenges of making a career in law, and offering them career support. Internal training contracts are an important career opportunity for paralegals but also an opportunity for law firms to widen their candidate pools. To create the most benefit, consistent and transparent recruitment criteria for internal candidates need to be in place.

Importantly, they have not given up on qualifying as lawyers but frequently talk about the “choices” available to them and the “decisions” they need to make, denoting a sense of agency.

Individual lawyers, meanwhile, can help reduce the stigma associated with the role, which is damaging not only to paralegals but also to their social relationships with lawyers. Lawyers need to become aware of their own assumptions and possible biases associated with paralegals. They can also support paralegals to challenge existing perceptions.

Further, if law firms are serious about introducing greater flexibility and new career paths, they can gain useful insights into how deeply entrenched the expectation of upward progression is among paralegals, and the perceived stigma attached by paralegals and lawyers alike to “second-class roles.”

What does this mean for paralegals and legal education providers?

Our findings show that paralegals would benefit from taking ownership of their careers and not living in hope of winning a “golden ticket.” This involves understanding the motivations and assumptions that influence how they see their careers and developing awareness as to why they might perceive themselves as immobile. They should develop the skills and relationships that will support them on a traditional career path, but they should also take seriously the alternative career paths and employment trends in the legal profession and actively consider the opportunities (and risks) they offer. Their sense of being trapped is their own construction— how they choose to respond to that is also within their power to determine.

One of the chief reasons for our interviewees’ tendency to reject alternative career paths and remain wedded to the ideal of obtaining a training contract is that they do not receive adequate career advice at university. They are not made aware of the challenges associated with making a career in law and so set out on the journey unprepared and idealistic. Universities need to manage students’ expectations and at the same time increase the visibility of alternative career routes in the legal profession and indeed outside it. There are many careers that are relevant and worthwhile for graduates with a law degree. Law graduates—whether paralegals or trainee lawyers—should be encouraged to use the time they spend working in law firms to think more critically about their career paths. After all, it can be very demotivating to spend your early career waiting around in the hope of winning the golden ticket to the chocolate factory.

More from Laura Empson

How does a professional come to be seen as a leader within a professional organization? How do leaders maintain their position once they have reached the top? How do they navigate the complex power relationships among their professional colleagues and actually get things done? Laura Empson’s most recent book,  Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas, analyses the complex power dynamics and interpersonal politics that lie at the heart of leadership in professional organizations. It is based on Professor Empson’s scholarly research into the world’s leading professional organizations across a range of sectors, including interviews with over 500 senior professionals in 16 countries. It uncovers the complex, messy and surprisingly emotional challenges of leading professional organizations, and explains why leaders so often fail.

Laura Empson is Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School, London, and Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession. Her most recent book, Leading Professionals: Power, Politics and Prima Donnas (2017), follows on from the success of her earlier book Managing the Modern Law Firm (2007), both published by Oxford University Press.

Stefanie Gustafsson is Lecturer in Organization Studies at the School of Management, University of Bath and Honorary Visiting Fellow at Cass Business School. This research is based on Gustafsson’s ESRC funded research project Working in the shadows of professionalism: An investigation into the career experiences and dynamics of paraprofessionals (ES/N017110/1).

Authors are listed in alphabetical order.