Legal secretaries form a vital part of any legal team. By performing administrative tasks and keeping the office running smoothly, they allow legal executives and solicitors to focus primarily on servicing the needs of their clients.
Legal secretaries keep legal firms running efficiently by organising the calendars of legal executives and solicitors who work in the office. They generally perform many of the administrative tasks expected of all secretaries, including answering phones, filing and typing. Legal secretaries also spend much of their time typing legal documents and contacting clients on behalf of solicitors and legal executives.
Their work may also involve accompanying solicitors to court or police stations to ensure the solicitor has an accurate record of all the meetings that he or she attends.
Most legal secretaries earn from £10,000 to £15,000 a year. Once they have become more experienced and demonstrated that they are a valuable part of the legal team, this may rise to anything up to around £23,000 a year. Some large city firms may even offer a salary exceeding £30,000.
Legal executives are primarily responsible for the smooth running of the office. In addition to general administrative duties, they may be expected to accept some limited financial responsibilities, such as monitoring the flow of petty cash.
The legal secretary is also likely to be the first employee of the firm that potential clients encounter, so a personable manner and excellent self-presentation are usually prerequisites for the job. It is likely that welcoming clients who walk into the firm, and keeping in touch with clients to provide them with updates on how their case is progressing, will take up a significant amount of a legal secretary's time.
A good standard of education will be expected. Evidence of basic language and numeracy skills (usually GCSE English and Maths grades A-C) will often be required.
There are several accepted routes to becoming a legal secretary. For some positions, evidence of excellent secretarial skills will be sufficient. This can be demonstrated through secretarial qualifications (which can usually be obtained in day or evening classes at most local colleges) or experience. One of the most important skills a legal secretary must possess is the ability to type quickly and accurately, and many employers will expect to see evidence of good typing skills.
Some firms will expect more specialised experience or qualifications. The The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs runs an evening course which leads to a Legal Secretaries Diploma. This is a recognised route into legal secretarial work, and the institute can also provide valuable advice and support to prospective legal secretaries unfamiliar with the field.
Those who have recently completed a postgraduate diploma in Law following a degree in a subject other than law may also be attracted to working as a legal secretary. It is possible to qualify as a legal executive or solicitor whilst studying part-time for additional legal qualifications. Working as a legal secretary while studying for these qualifications can be an attractive prospect for those who cannot afford to study full-time. The Law Society and Institute of Legal Executives websites provide more information about following this route.
It is important for legal secretaries to work efficiently and accurately. As errors in legal documents can cause significant problems, it is vital that documents and transcripts are completed correctly. Legal secretaries must, therefore, be skilled typists. They should also be able to proofread their own work, in addition to the work of legal professionals, in order to identify any errors.
An aptitude for secretarial work is essential. This must include an ability to juggle several tasks at once and pay attention to subtle details without losing composure.
They should also have an affable personality and an ability to get along well with other people. This is important not only in maintaining good working relationships with colleagues, but also in presenting a favourable impression to clients, who may judge a legal firm based on their interaction with the legal secretary.
As potential employers will be aware, in addition to hiring an administrator they are effectively also hiring the face of their firm, and a legal secretary must therefore ensure that their communication skills and general manner are well polished at interviews. Good qualifications and an impressive record in previous jobs are unlikely to compensate for poor people skills. If you appear to have a poor attitude or an unpleasant demeanour, you may miss out on a job you are otherwise well qualified for.
Almost all legal secretaries work permanently in an office environment, although local travel to attend court with a solicitor or hand-deliver important documents to a court, the police or another solicitor may also form a part of your job description.
In most cases, working as a legal secretary involves the typical 9-5 working pattern, and most positions will not demand more than 40 hours per week. It may also be possible to secure part-time work, particularly with larger legal firms who employ a large number of people.
Relevant office experience will obviously help your chances of securing work. Proven secretarial skills including proficiency in audio and copy typing, whether through experience or secretarial qualifications, will impress potential employers. Firms specialising in a particular area of law may favour applications from legal secretaries with experience in the area. Advertisements for positions will usually be clear about the level of experience expected.
Most legal firms employ legal secretaries. Anyone looking for a position should check their local paper for job opportunities in legal firms in their own region. Job websites are also a good source for job vacancies.
Working as a legal secretary can open doors to other careers within the legal profession, as it is often possible to study for legal qualifications while working full or part-time. Many firms are supportive of employees who wish to train on a part-time basis, and may even offer day release to allow for study. Even if this is not possible, studying in the evenings and at weekends may remain a feasible option.
However, anyone seriously considering this option should bear in mind that studying in the evenings and at weekends while working full-time can be both mentally and physically draining. This may be a particularly unattractive prospect for those with a family to look after or other commitments.
Those who are not interested in pursuing a career as a legal professional may nevertheless find promotion prospects within their own firm, as the larger legal firms frequently promote from within when hiring senior legal secretaries or PAs.
Legal secretaries may also find interesting career opportunities in courts, with the police, or in barristers' chambers. They can also move into other skilled secretarial work, such as working as a medical secretary.
Marie Hilditch, 28, has been working as a legal secretary for the last five years. She tells us how she got started.
"I became a legal secretary after completing a degree in Business Management and a postgraduate diploma in Law and have been working for an independent solicitor for the last few years.
My daily duties include administrative tasks such as typing legal documents and letters and answering the office phone. I am also responsible for providing clients, business societies and other solicitors with updates about the cases my boss is working on.
One of the best things about my job is that, as I work for an independent solicitor rather than a large legal firm, I am able to avoid much of the 'office politics' that seems to be unavoidable in larger firms. I also enjoy interacting with clients and other solicitors, and have appreciated the opportunity to work in a legal environment while studying for further legal qualifications. I have recently completed my Level 3 Legal Executive qualification and will consider studying for further qualifications in the future.
The worst aspect of my work is probably the tedious nature of some of my administrative responsibilities, particularly filing.
I would recommend this line of work to anyone seeking interesting secretarial work or anyone who harbours ambitions to become a legal executive or solicitor. Working as a legal secretary while studying for further qualifications following a postgraduate diploma in Law allows you to earn money (particularly welcome after the fees associated with the course!) while working in an environment that allows you to learn more about legal procedures. It can be really tough to come home from work and be faced with the prospect of spending your evening studying, but the hard work is all worthwhile when you pass your exams!"