Career Path: how to become a legal secretary
American actress Sarah Rafferty has almost single-handedly transformed the modern day perception of a legal secretary in her role on TV’s Suits as Donna Paulsen, long term Partner Secretary (and subsequently wife) to Harvey Specter at fictional Big Law firm, Zane Specter Litt, in New York (the law firm’s name undergoes numerous name changes throughout the series!).
Donna is sassy, she’s strong and strong willed, she makes it her business to know everyone’s business, she stands up to unprofessional people and shows empathy to those in need, and of course she meets deadlines every single time. Obviously, the life of a fictional character has no limits, but there are certain attributes and skills of Donna that many professionals who work in law firms can identify in their legal secretary colleagues.
In this article, we explore the key components of being a successful and effective legal secretary in one of Asia’s key financial hubs, Hong Kong.
Naturally, it is easy to confuse the terms and roles of ‘legal secretary’ and ‘secretary’, as they obviously share the same word in their job titles. However, apart from handling similar generic secretarial and administrative duties, there are sufficient skills, attributes and knowledge that distinguish legal secretaries as a separate profession from general secretaries in their own right.
1. Understanding the operations of a law office
First and foremost, legal secretaries must possess a good level of knowledge and understanding of the workings and administration of ‘a legal practice’ (in the context of either a law firm or in-house legal team) and in particular for law firm businesses, knowing how to conduct administrative tasks in accordance with standard operating and administrative procedures common in all law firms, as well as specific procedures required for their own law firm. Such common procedures are typically required by Law Society and other regulations (particularly with regards to client files and handling client monies) and can be quite distinct from businesses outside the legal industry.
As a result of these regulatory and other legal requirements of running a law firm business, law firms have particularly stringent processes and procedures for, for example, creating new clients, new files, client and file handling, as well as document recording and storage.
Legal secretaries are expected to handle and manage the administration of such procedures, leaving lawyers free to proceed with handling the client matter. They are, in effect the ‘oil’ that enables the engine (lawyer/law firm) to run smoothly.
New clients are typically recorded in a central filing system (and in larger firms, documenting such clients is undertaken by the accounting team), conflict checks undertaken, and strict ‘Know Your Client’ (commonly known as “KYC”) procedures must be followed before a law firm is permitted to bring such client on board and to act for them. Whilst most of the processes may be well be undertaken centrally by an accounts team or dedicated client onboarding team, legal secretaries are often the first contact point to getting these procedures underway, and in turn the legal secretary will then be able to set up new matters (files) for that client so that their partner or associate in question can start to record their time against such matter.
In smaller firms (or smaller offices of international law firms), such onboarding procedures may well be wholly undertaken by the legal secretary. Where KYC and conflict checks are undertaken by a centralised department, the legal secretary may well have to liaise with such department that is located elsewhere (often in the UK or the US).
2. Expertise in MS Word and Outlook
Legal secretaries are expected to be almost elite level in the use of Microsoft Office applications, particularly Microsoft Word, the most common software for lawyers across the world. Letters, large scale agreements and other legal documents need to be word processed, amended and formatted strictly in accordance with the firm’s house style, and knowing how to save files, format and number paragraphs, how to insert a landscape page in the middle of a document consisting entirely of portrait pages, knowing where to use defined terms, ‘stetting’ marked alterations on a document, and knowing how files are prepared and where to find documents like the back of one’s hands, are inherent parts of a legal secretary’s daily duties.
Further, having a good understanding and knowledge of legal language is crucial, as lawyers may give shorthand or ‘quickfire’ instructions and legal secretaries are expected to act upon it without much further clarification. At the same time, legal secretaries have to know when instructions are not clear and have the confidence to ask the partner or lawyer in question to clarify instructions or requests.
The mark of a highly respect legal secretary is one who is not afraid to ask questions immediately and getting the task done properly. Where lawyers and legal secretaries experience a decline in their working relationship is where the lawyers haven’t necessarily set out clear instructions and the legal secretary not asking the question and subsequently making mistakes. Then, the endless cycle of the blame game is played.
3. Quasi paralegal duties
Of course, managing a partner’s calendar, scheduling meetings, and other common secretarial duties are expected to be carried out by legal secretaries, but their responsibilities may well extend to proofreading legal documents, preparing due diligence or discovery bundles, and preparing basic court or registry forms for solicitors, barristers and legal executives. In some law firms or teams, the distinctions between a legal secretary and paralegal is increasingly becoming blurred as there can be an overlap of their roles, in many respects.
For career advancement, increasing their legal knowledge can be beneficial for legal secretaries, as opportunities for promotion or transitioning to becoming a paralegal, legal executive, office manager, secretarial manager or into human resources are distinctly within reach for those who proactively pursue such paths.
4. The ‘friendly’ Debt Collector
In smaller law firms where there is an absence of separate legal support departments (e.g. HR, accounting and finance, business development, IT), staff commonly wear multiple ‘hats’ (and thus adopt a multi-functional approach). As one example, the legal secretary often acts as the liaison point with clients or clients’ accounting teams to ensure that invoices are remitted fully and on a timely basis. The legal secretary would be the ‘friendly face’ of the firm when following up on missed payments. Looking at it in a positive light, as legal secretaries will know their partners so well, they can help develop client relationships for their partners (for example striking up a good working relationship with the client’s PA), by helping to facilitate the bill remittance as smoothly as possible and in a polite and courteous manner, whilst helping the partner avoid awkward conversations on missed payments.
5. Attention to detail and legal knowledge
In addition to strong word processing skills, being detail-minded is also key to becoming a successful and highly effective legal secretary. Lawyers, for example, may rely on their legal secretaries to proofread legal documents and ensure the formatting of documents is both complete and accurate.
Often, legal secretaries possess an almost computer-like memory when it comes to knowing the exact location of files, letters, documents as well as dates (such as court deadlines or meetings). Therefore, a high attention to small details is one of the primary skills to be possessed by professional legal secretaries.
To become a legal secretary in Hong Kong, you are not required to have any specific professional qualification, but more often than not (and particularly at international law firms) the modern legal secretary will be educated to degree level and will have started relatively early in their careers working as a secretary in a law firm, eventually working their up to a senior level.
That’s not to say that the career of a legal secretary doesn’t start at high school graduate (Form 5) or Form 7, ie those who are graduates of the Hong Kong Advanced Level Education, or the ‘HKALE’ (equivalent to A-Levels or Baccalaureate). Indeed, law firms do create entry-level secretarial or administrative jobs. You would then need to demonstrate your ambition to pursue a career as a legal secretary and that you possess skills that compensate for the lack of specific law firm experience.
Some common examples include:
- having particularly strong Chinese and English language capabilities (as well as the capability of translating both languages);
- fast accurate word processing skills;
- good professional level written English; or
- a sound knowledge of using Word and Outlook
You would certainly stand out from the sea of legal secretarial applicants if you have obtained some legal related academic or vocational certification, such as a diploma or degree in law, or a certification in Chinese/English translation. Having the extra qualification will help you to differentiate yourself from others and increase your competitiveness in the jobs market. In the absence of any formal academic legal-related qualification, years of experience in a law firm office will help you develop an understanding of many legal principles and terminology that lawyers commonly use.
7. The evolution of the modern legal secretary
As highlighted above, the increasing demands on a legal secretary have contributed to their evolution and increased prominence in a law firm. The title of legal secretary is no longer confined to simply opening and closing files, processing letters and documents.
In fact, the demands of the modern-day legal secretary is someone who is multi-skilled, a major team player, pro-active, a great listener and communicator, and with the organisational skills of a high end wedding planner.
Chris Tang is the co-Managing Director at Star Anise.
Aloris Lam is a Recruitment Consultant at Star Anise specialising in the recruitment of support staff, including legal secretaries, PAs/EAs and administrative professionals.