Working wisdom: advice from legal secretaries and PAs
Beginning a new career can feel daunting. Sometimes it is hard to establish the best steps to take to move in the professional direction you want to go. When this happens the best thing to do is to reach out to those already working in the occupation to see what advice they can give you.
As the professional body for legal secretaries and legal PAs, The institute of legal secretaries and PAs has the privilege of working with people throughout the different stages of their legal secretarial career; from those still training, or looking for their first role, right through to expert legal secretaries and PAs with years of experience behind them. ILSPA spoke to some of these experienced professionals and asked them what wisdom they would like to share with those entering the profession.
How did you come to work in the legal profession?
I joined a local legal firm when I was 17. Not really knowing what I wanted to do I found myself in the office junior role (not many of these roles still apply today). It was though, the best start to my career, as it gave me a complete insight into all departments within a legal firm and I quickly learnt who everyone was and what they did whilst I was running around the office daily.
Victoria Gwilt, PA to Director of Legal, Risk and Compliance at Seddon
I had a strong academic background which, after graduation, landed me a job at Singhania & Co… I was lucky enough to showcase my skills and knowledge as well as my understanding of law. The Singhania team were helpful in my training while I was learning and discovering how a law firm really works.
Madhavi Karale, Admin Assistant at Singhania & Co, Mumbai
I had given up my nail business and was looking to go back to an office job as I had some office skills as well as just completing my Pitman Secretarial Diploma, so I sent my CV to a job agency and was given the opportunity to interview for the role of the office junior at Voisin Law and that was start of my office career at Voisin Law.
Rebecca Bouhsine, Legal Secretary at Voisin Law
What is your favourite thing about your role?
The best things are being a support to lawyers, being involved and being part of a team.
Debbie Caruana, Legal Professional Assistant at Vinson & Elkins
I enjoy working with my lawyer colleagues... It’s a mixture of different types of work which you handle, it’s an everyday challenge. For example, my litigation colleagues teach me how to talk or argue with an opponent; my other colleague who handles IP knows how to register trademarks or how to deal with copyright infringement. Law is a vast subject which can never be learned in a day or month; it will never get old.
I love the challenge of a PA role - you take bullets and also end up firing them from time to time. The quick pace ensures you are never bored and are kept on your toes managing hectic diaries daily.
I really enjoy working directly with clients to help and guide them through the legal system and to give support and understanding where required. I also enjoy drafting work and performing research for upcoming projects/events.
Karen Chirnside, Legal PA at Roche Legal
In your experience what skills are highly valued in a Legal Secretary/PA?
Drafting skills are valued in a law firm as important documents are drafted like briefs, affidavits of evidence, memoranda etc. Other than drafting, a legal secretary should possess good communication skills wherein she or he has to tackle the situation with the client professionally in the absence of the lawyer. He or she should have at least some basic knowledge of the law of that particular state or country, which will make their work more interesting.
Being able to prioritise/delegate work is a must, also having the confidence to say no at times. There is no point saying yes to everything when there clearly aren't enough hours in the day to complete it. Sometimes you have to offload parts of your work—this doesn't mean you are shying away from your duties.
Being accurate, efficient and being able to anticipate any problems that are likely to arise.
Debbie Caruana, Legal Professional Assistant at Vinson & Elkins
Since becoming a secretary I believe the skills that are highly valued are being able to multi-task and prioritise, especially when your colleagues are on holiday and you need to cover the workload, you may have to stop one task to be able to do another. I also believe that being able to not let the pressure of stressed fee earners or advocates get to you especially when being used as a virtual punch bag. You just need to remember that it is not you and tomorrow is a new day.
A legal secretary is the interface between the client and the solicitor, and as such, must be able to show the client that they are fully engaged with the client’s requirements. In my current field of private client, this means acting with care and compassion as well as giving the client your full attention, maintaining a meaningful dialogue and acting in a timely manner.
If there was one piece of advice you would give someone who has just entered the profession what would it be?
Engage with all people from around your workplace—good relationships are key.....also a thick skin is beneficial.
One piece of advice: make a note of everything!
Being a secretary isn’t just about typing it is very much a diverse job and because of that it may seem overwhelming to begin with but you should never be afraid to ask questions as that is the only way you’re going to learn. Better to ask than get it wrong! I also believe that showing your initiative where you can is also a great start and is definitely recognised.
Be SMART—sincere, methodical, accurate, resourceful and timely—but also don’t forget to give yourself some time too.
Networking and talking to others within your sector is a great way to learn new skills and advance your knowledge. You can read advice about legal secretary networking in DEDICATED—The Legal Secretary Journal.
If you are interested in becoming a Legal Secretary or PA then the Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs is there to advise and support you in every step of your new career. Members receive career advice, CV help, and guidance to secure employment as well as a range of other Membership benefits. Please take a look at the website for further details.
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