A legal researcher is an individual who undertakes in-depth research into any aspects of the law in support of a company or individual.
The job term ‘legal researcher’ covers a number of different roles at different levels, all with the express aim of furthering the knowledge of a certain area of the law.
On one side you have what are called ‘paralegals’, a term that means different things depending on jurisdiction: in the UK a paralegal is paraprofessional who assists qualified lawyers with all aspects of legal work, primarily preparation. This, of course, entails a lot of research.
On the other side, a legal researcher can do other types of research, such as looking into the actual legal market and law firms, to produce rankings and other information such as law firm directories. Examples of these include the IFLR 1000, Chambers and the Legal 500.
The job, either way, is extremely important. Paralegals, for example, research current cases in order to find relevant case precedents. In this way, the research you do as a paralegal could be the difference between a person being found guilty or not guilty, or a company wrongly losing millions. It is a vital role.
The other type of legal research is more journalistic in tone. In this work, a legal researcher must try and establish the truth about law firms and the market to keep the right people informed so that they can take important decisions. This is done through interviews and the monitoring of a number of different sources. It also serves to expose corruption, amongst other things, by looking into a market or a number of law firms.
Legal research is predominantly office-based, can be carried out by males or females and will generally fit to regular office hours. However, as deadlines become tight or a case looms, a legal researcher will be expected to put in extra hours to ensure work is completed satisfactorily. There may also be times when you will be expected to go out of the office to conduct interviews or meet people for other purposes, and this could also necessitate international travel.
A researcher will also have to be trained on certain specialist research tools, and how best to use them. There are various research systems that hold legal resources, such as LexisLibrary and LexLaw, as well as other databases that you will have to maintain and use. There are also repositories, both online and in archive form, that store legal opinions, and you will be expected to be able to use these efficiently. Finally, you will have to be able to source material from the internet and be in a position to assess its veracity.
Legal researchers in general have a pay scale similar to that of a journalist. Graduate researchers can earn around £17,000 per annum to begin with, climbing towards £30-40,000 when they reach editorial and managing editorial level.
Salaries for paralegals are extremely variable, even allowing for the normal considerations such as location and experience. Working in a large firm can see better remuneration but less time to yourself. In the UK, a paralegal can expect to earn anything from £12,000 per annum to £18,000 to start with, with salaries for more experienced practitioners rising to around the £30,000 mark.
- Keep up to date with legal news
- Read legal opinions by judges to make sure you are up to speed with changes in legislation or case law
- As a paralegal, use these opinions and research to provide relevant and timely information to the qualified practitioner responsible for the case
- Prepare research schedules so work runs smoothly and deadlines are clear
- Use the internet and/or libraries to source material
- Analyse material to ascertain its trustworthiness
- Write reports, notes and maintain databases on all the research carried out
- Plan meetings and interviews
- Foster productive relationships with contacts for future use
A certain level of academic ability is required to be a legal researcher or paralegal.
For a paralegal, there are various ways to enter the profession, called “The Route to Qualification”. There are four different pathways, depending on what level of legal education you already possess, from having read a few books on the law to having completed the LPC (Legal Practice Course). By a combination of taking courses and gaining experience you work towards qualification. There is further information on this process on The Institute of Paralegals website (UK)
Even if you do not possess a legal qualification it is possible to gain employment as a researcher. Companies now tend to look for those with journalistic training, as thse candidates are already predisposed to ask the probing questions that need to be asked to get a good view of a market. Having said that, if you can show an aptitude for the law and writing and can show relevant experience, you would definitely have a chance of gaining employment as a legal researcher.
Whether you wish to become a paralegal or basic legal researcher, there are some core aptitudes needed:
- The ability to take large amounts of information and sift it for what is important
- Excellent writing skills
- A robust, methodical and energetic approach
- An excellent attention span and high levels of concentration
- An aptitude for and/or interest in the law
- An eye for detail and for making connections
- Strong IT skills, including databases
- Clear communication skills, including interviewing skills
- A strong command of English and editing ability
- The ability to foster and promote productive professional relationships with people around the globe
As mentioned previously, a legal researcher can expect to spend the majority of their time indoors, whether it is in the office or in the library or archive. Occasionally there are opportunities to travel, both nationally and internationally, but predominantly you can expect to work in an office environment.
Any sort of legal experience will always be helpful if you are looking into paralegal roles. As competition for vacancies increases, the entry requirements inevitably go up, and if there is any way you can show a commitment to the law then you will be at an advantage.
Also, as touched on before, journalistic and/or editorial skills will be valued, as will any other research projects you might have carried out, a dissertation for a university degree for example.
As you might expect, major employers of paralegals are law firms, which use them as support staff for their qualified attorneys. There are all sorts of different law firms, from high street to corporate, and they all have their own recruitment procedures. Other institutions that have a legal department, such as charities and banks, might also have vacancies for paralegals. Some can even work for companies that offer bespoke, freelance research too.
The more journalistic legal researchers are often employed by large media companies, which produce specialist publications or news magazines and websites for business users.
A paralegal career can progress in various ways, even acting as a jumping off point for becoming a fully trained solicitor or barrister.
Media legal researchers look to move into an editorial or managerial role, where the responsibility is heavier and the pay better. There may also be the chance to break into the publishing side too.
Paul, 25, works as a legal journalist and researcher for a large media group in the City of London.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been working as a researcher here for the past 6 months or so.
What kind of things did you do before this job?
I did a history and philosophy degree and then trained as a journalist. I worked as a journalist on a local paper, then edited a website, worked as a freelance copywriter and then moved to London for this job.
Did you always want to do this kind of job?
I would say yes. I always wanted to do something journalistic, and I always had a deep interest in the law and all things legal. I find the whole system fascinating. It also gives me the chance to write and get out and talk to people.
Did you ever consider doing anything else?
At times yes, and sometimes I still do. I tend to umm and ahh about whether to actually train up and be a lawyer, as I have been urged to do a few times, but for now I’m more than happy in this role.
Was there anything that inspired you to go into journalism and research?
Not as such, although my uncle is an editor on a newspaper so I did get a look at that type of work early in life. As I said, I did fancy for a long while converting to law after my degree, but the fees put me off. I enjoy writing, I like talking to people, am curious about things and like finding answers and I am interested in the law; this researcher role I have now is perfect in all those regards.
What is the research process like?
At first it is extremely daunting. In my case we are assigned 12 different jurisdictions, and you spend the first week or so reading anything you can on all these countries, some of which you had only a passing knowledge of before. Then you start the interviews and are terrified that these lawyers are going to ask you complex legal questions and put you right on the spot.
After this though you find you pick up, almost by osmosis, all the things you need to know, and the more you read and interview the more immersed you are, and the job becomes fabulously enjoyable as you discover new things all the time and discuss them with knowledgeable people.
There is also the perennial worry about having enough material, and then you come to write reports and findings and realise you have a mountain of data to go through!
What do you do in a typical day as a legal researcher?
Well I like to get in a little early as I can get any emails that have come in out of the way first. Then I check my Outlook calendar and see what interviews I’ve got scheduled and do some specific preparation for them, then have a skim across the big news sites to catch up on what’s been going on.
I’ve usually got a list of things, such as journal articles or legal opinions, to check on/read so then I’ll work my way through those in between calls and meetings, and then write up my interview notes after the calls. I always do it straight after the interview whilst it is fresh. I don’t like leaving it.
I also write up news stories on an ad hoc basis as they come in, and work on my final write-ups for each country as and when I can to make sure I stay ahead of the deadlines. Busy!
What do you like about the job?
I love the autonomy we are given. You are not just completely abandoned of course, but the editors here give you your countries and let you get on with it. I appreciate the trust and would hate to work with someone constantly on my shoulder. The editors are always there of course if you need help with something.
I also like getting stuck in to a contentious topic in interviews, trying to draw information out of people and make a story. I am very keen on the law (as I might have mentioned before!) so I enjoy reading judges' opinions and other legal documents too. I understand that is outrageously geeky but there you go!
The opportunities for travel here are also brilliant; I have already been to Copenhagen and Luxembourg this year to conduct interviews.
Finally, I thoroughly enjoy the writing, as it is something I have always liked doing.
Is there anything you dislike about the job?
Sometimes the admin side of the job can distract you a little, updating databases and the like. Also, at times in the smaller jurisdictions it’s hard to drum up enthusiasm when it’s clear nothing is going on, and it makes the job a little harder.
It’s also an annoyance when you have an interviewee who is clearly PR-prepped and just spouting the party line despite your efforts. These are not huge things though, just little peeves of mine.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Get your eyes tested, as there is a lot of reading! In all seriousness you have to commit, and you have to make sure you are self-motivated. Also, make sure you have or develop a good phone manner, as sometimes that can be the difference in someone opening up or clamming up on you.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role, if any?
Well, I’d love to continue on up the ladder and become an editor, overseeing the production and editorial product of research for certain areas. I am quite interested in energy and oil and the Middle East, so getting involved in that could be interesting too. I very much like the company I’m with at the moment though, so I’m not looking to move anywhere.
What other tips can you give to help people considering this career?
In terms of getting in, do your research! It sounds ridiculous but if you go to an interview to be a researcher and show you couldn’t find out details about the company yourself then it is only fair you are shown the door posthaste.
The other thing is to have a thick skin, something I think that is essential for a journalistic-type researcher. Not everyone is going to be happy with things you say, write or ask, but it is your job to say, write or ask them regardless (if they have a sound basis, of course). If anything, that’s the fun of it!