Qualifications and Opportunities for Legal Secretaries
Legal Secretaries are the backbone of any law firm and have been since time immemorial. Everyone knows that, right?
However, gone are the traditional legal secretarial roles of answering phones, typing letters and documents on typewriters (remember them?) taken from dictation machines and, on occasion, taking shorthand when your boss calls you in to dictate a letter.
With most processes going online, secretaries are now taking on more of a responsibility for many e-conveyancing and litigation processes on behalf of their firm’s clients.
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In effect, legal secretaries come under the umbrella of ‘paralegals’ in respect of the roles they’re now expected to perform. But do they have knowledge of what they are doing and why they are doing it? What is the reasoning behind pressing a button to send a search electronically to a local authority in a conveyancing transaction? It’s easy learning how to fill in a form day in day out putting all the relevant information required, but to have knowledge of what the form is and why you are doing it is another matter.
A paralegal is someone who is trained and educated to perform legal tasks but who is not a qualified solicitor, barrister or chartered legal executive. So many legal secretaries would come under this umbrella.
Several years ago, I was asked to develop a training course for paralegals in the area of conveyancing. I delivered the programme in Lancashire to around twenty individuals. Whilst I was explaining what the role of a paralegal was in such a transaction, I was aware of three women sitting on my left, arms folded, shaking their heads at everything I was saying. I had just got as far as stating that a solicitor/paralegal dealing with such a transaction should send a letter to their client confirming instructions and laying out the processes and costs.
At one point, my patience wearing thin, I asked these women why they appeared to be so vexed. The response was that ‘you’re from down South – we do things differently up here!’ I retorted that wherever you were located in the country, this was good practice. I was confronted with further shakes of the head.
It turned out that this particular woman had thirteen years’ experience as a legal secretary dealing with conveyancing and had never in that time sent a letter of confirmation of instruction. The reason? Apparently, she worked in the only firm in a small village and everyone knew each other so well that it wasn’t thought to be necessary! So she believed that this was the only correct practice. It also transpired that she had no idea about the legalities of what she had been doing for those thirteen years and was shocked to find this out.
Having more responsibility for some of the processes in a law firm falling squarely on the shoulders of legal secretaries may create an overwhelming sense of ‘I need to know more’. Getting a taste of such legal responsibility may encourage legal secretaries to upskill. NALP offers qualifications at Level 3 and 4 that would be suitable for legal secretaries to further their careers. The courses offer knowledge of academic law and practice.
NALP also offers a special membership category for legal secretaries so that they are able to identify the fact that they are not just legal secretaries.
The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs (ILSPA) offers a comprehensive course, not in typing or document filling (although there is an element of the latter within the course assignments) but in academic law. It also explains fully about the forms and the reasoning behind them. Any graduate of ILSPAs Diploma course is immediately eligible to enrol for the NALP Level 4 Diploma in Paralegal Studies. NALP’s course extends the knowledge of law and practice to the next level for those secretaries who wish to take their career a step further in order to qualify as a paralegal.
For those that haven’t completed the ILSPA course, but who are currently working as a legal secretary and who want more knowledge of the Law and practice, there are the NALP Level 3 qualifications in nine different subject areas.
The benefit of enrolling for a Level 3 Award is that you can ‘dip your toes in the water’ by starting off with an Award which is two units of study. Progression onwards will take the you to a Certificate which adds two more units of study and then a full Diploma with two further units of study. Progression through these qualifications only requires you to pay the difference between the costs of each qualification. It’s a great way to start your studies especially if you haven’t done so for many years.
The beauty for any legal secretary about moving forwards in this fashion, is that it will definitely benefit your employer and give confidence to clients. Employers, take note!
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