The role of a legal secretary (also known as a legal administrator) and that of a legal assistant are often met with questions. Unsurprisingly, there is some overlap between them, including that one does not need to be a qualified lawyer to fill any of these roles. 

Such roles are usually available within law firms, in-house teams and chambers, but the police, courts and other organisations such as charities may also offer legal secretarial and legal assistant roles.

This article aims to clarify what makes each role unique – suffice to say that legal secretaries and administrators, as well as assistants and paralegals, all play pivotal roles in legal practice.

What is a Legal Secretary?

Legal secretaries tend to focus on administrative tasks, with a special focus on supporting fee-earners in legal practice. Legal office administration can include:

  • Preparing and producing legal documents e.g. court forms, wills, witness statements, contracts and agreements
  • Working with confidential information in written or audio form; transcribing and dictation
  • Correspondence and diary management on behalf of fee-earners
  • Greeting and interacting with clients
  • Document and file management, including scanning, copying and printing

As well as having general communication, interpersonal, organisational, teamwork and problem-solving skills, legal secretaries will need to boast a good typing speed (anywhere between 50 and 80 words per minute) and should have some industry knowledge, including a grasp on basic legal terminology. 

Qualifications for a Legal Secretary

In preparation for the role, many choose to study towards a Level 3 Diploma for Legal Secretaries. To qualify, five GCSEs A*-C (or equivalent) may be required.

However, a Level 3 Diploma is not essential for all legal secretarial roles. Some organisations will not require any prior experience beforehand, however college courses in audio transcription, telephone skills and word processing may be a useful starting point in demonstrating your interest in legal secretarial work.

Salary of a Legal Secretary

According to the National Careers Service, the starting salary for a legal secretary is around £20,000 and can reach around £45,000 depending on experience.

Career Progression for a Legal Secretary

Whilst legal secretarial work is not a direct route to a career as a legal assistant/paralegal, chartered legal executive, solicitor, or the bar, it may stand you in good stead for such roles. However, some of these require you to undertake further qualifications.

If you wish to continue working in a legal secretarial capacity, career progression could mean moving into a senior legal secretarial role. It could also mean joining a larger organisation/firm as a Personal Assistant or office manager – the same skills would be required under a slightly different name, but may involve work in higher volumes across bigger teams and a greater emphasis on management.

What is a Legal Assistant?

Depending on the type of organisation, clerical duties usually completed by a legal secretary may be included in the job description of a legal assistant. However, legal assistants will also be expected to complete legal work to a very high standard, and sometimes the quality of work, level of responsibility (and expectations attached) will be similar to that of a trainee solicitor. In some cases, their work may be considered fee-earning and will be charged to the client.

Legal assistants in their first role may carry out research and drafting, but this will be under the supervision of a more senior legal professional. As legal assistants become increasingly experienced and build expertise in certain areas, they may be entrusted with more detailed drafting, research and negotiation tasks and more client-facing opportunities.

Qualifications for a Legal Assistant

Whilst educational requirements are not prescriptive across all roles, organisations looking to hire legal assistants expect applicants to be educated to degree level in a related subject, meaning that strong A-Levels and at least five GCSEs (A*-C) are a prerequisite, save for exceptional circumstances.

Applicants who have completed the LPC are preferred, however, most job descriptions do not explicitly state that those without the LPC will not be considered. In most cases, prior experience working in legal practice is expected and this can compensate for not having completed the LPC. Prospective legal assistants must bear in mind that a higher level of legal knowledge is expected of them compared to legal secretaries.

However, many firms also have paralegal apprenticeships available to students who have completed full-time education with similar academic outcomes at GCSE and A-Level. Whilst an interest in the law should be evidence, firms do not require prospective apprentices to show the same level of industry knowledge and dedication through work experience. In addition, many of these roles allow apprentices to combine employment with part-time studies towards a degree.

Salary of a Legal Assistant

Whilst legal assistant salaries do not match those of qualified lawyers, these positions can still be lucrative. Salaries start at around £20,000 and can reach a high of around £55,000 (global elite law firms tend to pay such salaries to the most experienced legal assistants).

Career Progression for a Legal Assistant

When it comes to applying for a trainee role as an internal applicant, working as a legal assistant at that organisation could put you ahead of other candidates. It is common to see such a career move, provided you have built strong relationships with your colleagues, are satisfied that the organisation is a good cultural fit for you and have spent a fair amount of time working there. Candidates will usually spend a year working as a legal assistant before applying as a trainee, but this can vary between organisations.

However, you should not automatically expect to be at an advantage and will likely be required to follow the same application process as external candidates.

If you cannot see a future in the company, legal assistant roles can still provide a great stepping stone to a legal training position in other firms. The skills you learn are transferable and are valued by employers; supporting lawyers in such a role demonstrates an aptitude for, and interest in, a legal career.  

By Fareeha Noorani