Paralegals & the Bar

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With many able students unable to get pupillages, the Bar is getting wise to the advantages of legal assistants (with important caveats). Gerard McDermott QC explains why he employs law graduates


The Bar has always been very adaptable and used a business model aimed at keeping overheads low.

We also offer a service that is very personal, offering advice and advocacy which is our own work product. Most of the Bar operates from within chambers with clerks and perhaps some administrative assistance but very little personal support, either in terms of managing their practice or workload. Over the last ten years or so I have operated somewhat differently, perhaps not radically so, but certainly in a way that I think makes me more efficient and offers a better service to solicitors.

Most of my work is managed in a wholly conventional way through chambers in London and Manchester. However, I have set up an office in Stalybridge, a town in East Manchester, from where my wife, an expert witness, also operates. Previously, we both worked from home but wanted dedicated working space.

I had always maintained close links with Manchester University and took research assistants from time to time. At around the time that we took on the Stalybridge premises, they asked if I would see a very able student who had not yet got pupillage. I agreed to do so and offered her a job to work full time as a legal assistant. Neither of us knew quite how it would work, but work it did and since then I have always used legal assistants to help me run my practice. I engage at least one assistant full time and often two. I became aware of how many able students were failing to get pupillages – very often only as a matter of luck. I also became aware of how few opportunities there were for those in that situation.

I am often asked what my assistants do for me and how I manage them. The first thing to say is that they are full-time employees, paid an appropriate salary and work in an office next to mine which is fully resourced and managed. They complement my clerks but for many solicitors they are the first point of contact and they manage my diary and workload. I have a caseload of quite a large number of catastrophic injury and clinical negligence cases. Typically when I receive a new case they will prepare a summary of the materials so that I can see what the case involves before I start working on it. They are also allocated cases so that solicitors will know who to approach with any queries about an individual case and they will also keep cases up to date with supplementary materials and the like. One particular function, which is useful for both me and those who instruct me, is that one assistant will attend most conferences and will prepare an attendance note – one that is done in my style and which is invaluable when I return to the papers for the next conference or piece of written work. Likewise they will attend most trials and hearings, keeping a note of the evidence and generally helping with preparation.

They also work with me preparing research notes, cross referencing evidence for cross examinations, preparing authorities bundles and, on occasions, drafts from which I can prepare pleadings and advices.

In many respects much of what they undertake is what a pupil might do. But it is not pupillage and it extends into practice management including diary, travel and expenses management, and carrying out many tasks that individual barristers undertake themselves. They also do quite a lot of marketing for me and write articles, blogs and run one of my Twitter accounts. I am fortunate to have a practice which enables me to support these assistants but I have no doubt that they make me more efficient. They also keep me up to date and help manage the workload in the BSB entity that I have established.

What would my advice be to anyone considering doing this?

Advertise openly and take time on the selection process – these are sought after positions and many able people are out there.
Make sure the position is properly resourced with office space, equipment, computer and telephone.
Pay an appropriate salary and make sure all expenses and overtime are paid.
Have a clear idea of what the job description will involve.
If possible have them work in an adjacent room – so that they feel part of your practice and can help you develop it.
Take time to teach them about the work you are doing – if done properly this will be invaluable to them as they go through pupillage selection and move into practice.

Of course this won’t work for everyone but I encourage those in a position to do so to try it. This way of working will make you more efficient and better organised. But it is also valuable to the assistants themselves. I am sure that each of those who worked for me would have secured pupillage in the end, but I have a proud record in that all of the eight permanent full-time assistants I have had over the years have moved onto pupillage followed by tenancy, or a training contract followed by full-time employment as a solicitor. I hope they gained something from working with me – I know I gained a huge amount from working with them.

Contributor Gerard McDermott QC, Outer Temple Chambers

Obligations & considerations

Barristers and chambers interested in employing research assistants should have particular regard to rules C89-90 of the BSB Handbook, which include requirements to ensure that ‘all non-authorised persons working in your chambers’ are competent and aware of relevant provisions of the Handbook. Alternatively, rC86 provides for situations in which support services ‘critical to the delivery of legal services’ are outsourced to third parties (so not employees, pupils or devils). Bar Council guidance on your obligations when considering an outsourcing arrangement can be found on the Bar Council Ethics Hub here

Ellie Cumbo, Bar Council

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Gerard McDermott QC

Gerard is Chairman of the Bar & Young Bar Conference 2016. His main areas of practice are personal injury and employment law, although he maintains a diverse practice across the common law and commercial fields. He is based in London and Manchester, with associated offices in Abu Dhabi and New York.