Opportunities for Bilingual Secretaries

I once worked as a secretary for a large law firm which had offices in many countries, and on six of the seven continents. There were quite a few secretaries in the London office who were working their way around the world – just for this one firm! It was a great way to finance their adventures and must have been a massive boost to their CVs when they got home. They illustrated the point that one of the best aspects of secretarial skills is that they are “transferable” – valid in any industry and anywhere in the world.

Some of these secretaries were working in London to improve their English so that they could go back home and work as bilingual secretaries there. One of the things that mystified them – whether they were French, German, Russian or Japanese – was why British secretaries didn’t seem to do the same. They pointed out that the demand for bilingual secretaries seemed to be very high in London and that good salaries were offered, so British secretaries weren’t being put off by a lack of opportunity. 

If you have good speaking and writing skills in a second language, or even if you’re just very determined to acquire them, secretarial work presents wonderful opportunities for developing your skills – and possibly also for travelling while you do so. 

More and more law firms have offices, and even head offices, overseas; there are very often opportunities to transfer to those offices for short or medium-term contracts. If you express an interest to HR, and can demonstrate that you have good speaking and writing skills in the “target” language that you’re interested in, you may well be offered an opportunity. One of the big advantages of going through your firm’s HR department rather than going it alone is that your firm will usually help with visas and other technical issues.

If your boss is offered a posting abroad, you may sometimes be offered the chance to go with them. Sometimes you won’t be able to do this due to family or other reasons, but clearly it’s a fantastic chance if you are able to take it. Not only will it add lustre to your CV, and give you lots of practice with a second language, but it also provides valuable experience of and insight into another culture. 

Obviously, if you studied the relevant language at school and got good grades at A level or GCSE, that will help, but remember that you can start learning a language at any time even if you weren’t that interested in your schooldays. When you started to learn isn’t important. What’s much more important is that you can demonstrate that you can hold at least a basic conversation in the target language, and that’s something you can master with practice. Stay motivated through those online or evening classes by thinking of the chances to work in sunnier (or at least more exotic) climes! 

If you already have a reasonably good grasp of your target language, it might be worth thinking about more specific training: for example, if your Arabic is reasonably good, you might want to think about business or law Arabic so that you have the right vocabulary to take you forward. There are plenty of courses in business or law vocabulary out there, many of them online, so that you can fit them around your schedule.

If your current employer is unlikely to be able to offer you the opportunity to work abroad as a secretary, you can consider applying to larger firms where the chances are greater. Most international law firms now have offices in the major UK cities; there are more of them in London, obviously, but there are also plenty in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, for example. You can also register directly with some of the specialist agencies which deal with recruiting for secretarial jobs abroad. 

One other thing to bear in mind is that Brexit may mean that it won’t be so easy in future years to work inside the EU – so if you have an ambition to spend some time working in Spain, France or Germany, for example, this is probably a good time to start putting your plans into action, while you can still do so without restrictions. It might not be so easy to work on mainland Europe in five years’ time, though it should still be possible. 

But there are still plenty of opportunities to use your second language in a law firm even if you stay here in good old Blighty, particularly if you are willing or able to work in London. Even if you stay at home, you’ll understand more about other cultures, meet lots of interesting people – and keep those language skills from getting rusty.