Knowledge is power, and knowledge of the market for your own job is always empowering, even if you’re not thinking of moving in the foreseeable future. That knowledge can help protect you against shocks to your earning power or even your job security.
With that in mind, I asked Angela Mortimer, CEO of Angela Mortimer plc, and Kam Vara, Director of the Angela Mortimer Group’s Property, Legal and Commercial Division, what has been happening in the Legal Secretarial and PA market recently. The Angela Mortimer Group has been recruiting Legal Secretaries and PAs for four decades – in fact, the company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year – and both Angela and Kam told me that there have been profound changes within the Legal Secretarial and PA job market within the past two years. These changes have, in Angela’s words, “swept the market” in bigger UK cities, they demand your attention, whether or not you are thinking of moving jobs at the moment.
One of the biggest changes is the splitting of the traditional Legal Secretarial role into two distinct jobs: Document Production Secretary on the one hand and Legal PA on the other. This change has been driven by the new way that law firms are managing their support staff. Over the past two years, an increasing number of firms have chosen to “buy in” their document production from outside companies. Whilst some law firms still prefer the traditional model of in-house Secretaries producing their documents, others are moving towards the new model.
This would once have been called “outsourcing”, but as Angela told me, it is more accurately referred to as “insourcing”: the Secretaries employed by the outside company are trained by that company, permanently employed by it and paid by it, but they work in the law firm’s offices alongside the retained staff. The outside company manages all of the document production tasks for the law firm on a contract basis. The Secretaries act, as Angela described it, as “a kind of permanent float”, working where they are needed in the firm, and when. Flexible and shift working is an integral part of the operation, with individuals typically available to the firm between 8am and midnight.
If you consider the typing and formatting of documents to be among your key skills, and you have to work around your family commitments, then one of these outsourcing companies may well be your next employer. Both Angela and Kam told me that this trend is increasing within firms in the bigger cities. From there it could very well ripple outwards to have an impact on smaller firms in smaller towns.
The market has very specific requirements for this new breed of Legal Secretary. You need to prove to your prospective new employer that you have a high level of competence in spelling, grammar, letter writing and change tracking, and that you have a typing and audio speed of at least 60 wpm.
Agencies like the Angela Mortimer Group are increasingly “pre-screening” applicants for this type of job by testing them on the core skills, and putting them up for consideration by the employer only if they pass that test. The current pass rate is about one in five, so this can be a tough hurdle to get over. Interestingly, Angela told me that candidates aged 40 or more tend to have a higher success rate than younger applicants.
Those who make it into specific document production roles are being very well paid. The Angela Mortimer Group publishes a survey of pay rates every year, including specific rates for Legal Secretaries in London and elsewhere, called the “Blue Book” for short. The 2016 edition is still in preparation, but for example in 2015, at the top end, a Document Production Secretary (with the right skills to the right standard) might expect to earn up to £25,000 in Birmingham and (in exceptional cases) up to £38,000 in London. There are some opportunities to move up into supervisory roles which might pay more than this.
In some firms, a pay difference is arising between Document Production Secretaries and Legal PAs, reflecting the fact that document production is seen as a more rare and specialised skill which commands a higher salary. However, top-level Legal PAs are still earning high salaries of up to £45,000 a year in London.
The new legal PA, on the other hand, does not have to be a specialist in legal secretarial work, although a thorough knowledge of the legal business is clearly going to be a plus. Her changing role, Kam told me, is to be one of the faces of the firm, dealing with client calls and emails, and acting as the “ambassador” (inside and outside the firm) for the fee-earners she assists.
This new Legal PA may be an assistant to as many as five fee earners at once, organising their diaries, travel and accommodation. What you need to succeed in this role, Kam says, is the ability to be organised, to understand and prioritise conflicting demands, and above all to display the vital personal chemistry that allows you to manage your bosses’ stressful working lives without creating friction. Kam calls this elusive but very valuable skill “matching the dynamic” between PA and boss, and Angela described it to me as “emotional intelligence”. However it’s described, it’s now the single most important quality that you can bring to a Legal PA role.
Prospective employers are interested in your ability to run the practical aspects of your fee earners’ work with firmness, common sense and tact. That means you are more likely nowadays to be competing with PAs from other business sectors, who can more easily cross over into legal now because the necessary skills have become the same. However, PAs who have the relevant skills together with legal experience will usually have an advantage. The good news is, if you can demonstrate that you have the required efficiency and tact, your skills will be “treasured”, as Angela says, in the job market at the moment.
If you are a people person and the thought of doing producing documents on a daily basis does not appeal, then the job of Legal PA is much more likely to be for you. Above all, what you need to be aware of is that next time you look for a new position, you may have to first choose which of these new roles is the right one. It is worth giving some thought to that question now.
You might like to know that the average salary predictions for 2016 will be in the new “Blue Book” to be published in February. For more details you can email Kam Vara at k.Vara@katiebard.com.