Don't let a lack of legal experience stop you from applying for jobs in law offices or corporations' legal divisions. "If an ad doesn't indicate a need for legal experience or certification, go ahead, interview and see what happens," says Jill Hale, president of NALS, the National Association of Legal Professionals. "There are many attorneys who will hire someone with no legal background if they feel you're bright and have good communication skills."
Jan Bise, a legal secretary in Washington, DC, agrees: "If you're ambitious, can keep track of paper and can keep an attorney on schedule, you can be a success in this field." Bise, who works in a firm with 200 lawyers, began more than two decades ago in a single-practitioner law firm. "That was a good way for me to start, because I had no legal training and the lawyer took the time to train me."
As with any profession, working as a legal secretary has its pros and cons.
- An opportunity to be challenged. "I find my job to be exciting, since I learn something new on the job every day," says Hale. Lawyers often have specialties, such as finance or real estate, so you can narrow your career goals by targeting a firm that matches your interests.
- Interaction with clients.
- Room for advancement if you go from a small to a large firm, or one area of law to another.
- A wide range of settings to work in. "A number of corporations have legal divisions," says Hale. "There are also many public sector jobs with courts and government agencies.
- The environment is intrinsically nerve-racking. "Maybe there are some law practices that aren't that stressful, but the majority of them involve a lot of stress due to so many deadlines," says Hale. "Everyone also wants his work done yesterday."
- "Law schools don't stress public or human relation skills," says Hale. Sometimes lawyers know the law well, but they don't know how to be good employers.
- Every minute you waste costs money. Lawyers live or die by their annual billable hours to clients. Although as a legal secretary your hours aren't generally included in their billing, the office may turn into a pressure cooker during busy times as lawyers stack up the hours to justify taking a vacation.
While both Hale and Bise initially learned on the job, they continued their educations through seminars and courses -- both eventually becoming certified through NALS as professional legal secretaries (PLS). The PLS designation is the standard certification for legal secretaries. You must have at least three years of legal experience to qualify for the exam, which covers business communications, ethics, legal terminology, legal bibliography, document formatting and accounting.
If you're just starting out as a legal secretary, NALS also offers an ALS certificate that requires either one year of legal experience or a legal training course taken from a school.
Legal Secretaries International offers a certification program for secretaries who want to specialize in one area. The organization offers a certified legal specialist (CLS) designation in civil trial, probate, real estate and business law.
While membership in an organization offers an opportunity to further your education, Edwina Klemm, cofounder of Legal Secretaries International, cites other benefits: "The most helpful thing to me when I was starting out was finding a mentor. Having someone in the field to answer your questions is invaluable." Klemm is currently drafting a paper on how to start a mentoring program.
"Mentoring is important, because there are so many things you need to know as a legal secretary, and offices don't always provide training," says Klemm. "People just assume you know how to do things."
For more information and tips to help you advance your administrative career, see all our advice for admin professionals.