in Careers Advice, Legal Profession

How to have a career as a Legal Secretary

How to have a Successful Career as a Legal Secretary

Most people do not grow up thinking, “When I start work I want to be a legal secretary”. It is more common to think, “When I grow up I want to be a lawyer”. But these days legal secretaries in some law firms actually earn the same or even more than some of the qualified solicitors and legal executives in the practice. There are countless qualifications you can complete, together with professional organisations for legal secretaries, indicating that it is now become a profession in itself.

Not to be confused with company secretaries, who are usually qualified solicitors or barristers as well as secretaries dealing with the administration of businesses, legal secretaries come in a wide range of shapes and sizes.

On the high street, legal secretaries can be multi-tasking and expected to essentially run the business for the partners. In our time in legal recruitment we have come across legal secretaries expected to do all the typing, clean the office, bill the files, deal with conveyancing from start to finish, give out quotes, turn up to business meetings to sell the business, interview clients and generally just about everything that you would expect a qualified member of staff to cover as well as various other workers. At the senior end of the profession, there are secretaries working in the commercial law firms who earn considerable amounts of money doing one specific task for the whole of their career. This very often will be typing, paginating, bundling and general office admin.

Salaries vary widely. On the high street it is common to see most legal secretaries earning between £18,000 and £29,000 per annum. In the commercial law practices in central London, legal secretaries can earn up to £60,000, which in reality is a small drop in the ocean compared with what their employers are earning.

Unlike most professions becoming a legal secretary does not require any qualification or period of training, despite the sales bumpf from academic institutions and training bodies. Most senior legal secretaries have no qualifications whatsoever, apart from perhaps an O-Level or GCSE in maths and English, and possibly a typing qualification from their days at school.

The key to commencing a career as a legal secretary is to get experience. This is the main requirement when applying for a job with a solicitors’ firm as a legal secretary. As recruiters of secretaries for permanent vacancies we do not look at CVs and check out qualifications. We look at CVs and check out actual experience working in solicitors’ firms. No other secretarial experience is relevant to most law firms and employers. They are solely interested in experience as a legal secretary.

So if you are thinking of becoming a legal secretary, the only way really to get your career going is to get experience, whether paid or unpaid. You can then use this experience to move on to other things. One of the easiest ways to commence a career is to get general office admin experience or secretary experience in a non-law firm and then sign on for temping work with one of the high street agencies. You can then use this experience as a secretary to try and get into a legal department somewhere, whether in a law firm or local authority, or similar organisation. It will not take long to do and you will get paid for your work whilst you are waiting for your break into the legal profession.

Once you have started your legal career as a secretary, it is perfectly possible to progress through the ranks and qualify as a lawyer. A lot of people do and it is the traditional path of a legal executive. For many years legal executives were former secretaries in law firms who had decided it was time to get qualified and become a lawyer. Traditionally they have been paid less than qualified solicitors who go down a different route involving non-work related degree courses on the academic side. The boundaries are now blurring quite dramatically between the two. Some people make the decision to remain as legal secretaries for the remainder of their career or simply progress on to becoming an office manager, but it is very rare to see a legal secretary who stays with the same firm for considerable amounts of time these days – it is more common to see people moving about every 3 to 5 years in order to get a pay rise, more flexible hours or simply a change of scenery.

So a career as a legal secretary is not one really to think about if you have academic qualifications of a higher level than A Levels because there are other things you can go and do with this that in the longer term will pay better money and give you more rewarding working conditions. However, if you are looking to break into the legal profession with poor academic grades or very few academic grades then starting out as a legal secretary is probably one of the best things you can consider doing. It will guarantee you a reasonable income whilst you work, give you options to train and progress into other areas and get you into the legal profession. You may even enjoy it and stay in a job for a very long time indeed.

For permanent legal secretary jobs please register as a candidate with Ten Percent Legal Recruitment, Specialists in permanent secretary recruitment via www.tp-secretaries.co.uk.

Jonathan Fagan

Jonathan Fagan LLM FIRP is Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment. He has been recruiting solicitors and legal support staff for law firms and in house legal departments for over 17 years and handles roles from junior fee earners through to partners and law firm sales/purchases. A non-practising solicitor on the Roll since 2000, he is also the author of a number of legal career books, which are available at www.legalcareercoaching.co.uk. You can contact Jonathan at cv@ten-percent.co.uk