An Interview with ILSPA Graduate and Solicitor Apprentice - Melinda Toth

The opportunities available to Legal Secretaries are ever-increasing. We spoke to Melinda Toth who secured a Solicitor Apprenticeship with her firm while working as a Legal Secretary in their Pensions, Incentives and Corporate Tax team.

Regular readers of ILSPA’s Legal Secretary Journal may remember Melinda from a previous article where she talked about her first role as a Legal Secretary after completing the Legal Secretaries Diploma Course with us in 2018. It is wonderful to hear how her career has progressed and see how far she has come since we were last in touch.   

Can you remind us about how you originally entered the legal profession?

Of course. As I wanted to enter the legal profession outside the standard university route, I completed ILSPA’s Legal Secretarial Diploma course in 2018, whilst working in a different sector.

After finishing the course, I submitted my CV to a few law firms, and landed my first legal secretary job!

Your career has progressed since gaining the diploma and securing your first Legal Secretary position. Can you tell us what you have been doing since we last spoke with you? 

I worked as a legal secretary for 2.5 years in a litigation department of a mid-size law firm, where I could have gone down the CILEX route, however it was not the right firm for me. So, I wanted to move to a firm where I saw myself having a long-term career, before taking the next step.

TLT LLP has always been at the top of my list (I also applied after I finished my course, but didn’t manage to get an interview), and with some secretarial experience behind me, I finally managed to get in!

I worked as a legal secretary in the ‘Pensions, Incentives and Corporate Tax’ team for about a year before I was told about the apprenticeship route being implemented at the firm, and as I qualified for it, the fee earners in my team encouraged me to apply. I don’t think I could have done it without their support, I’m so lucky to have been part of such an amazing team.

Can you explain more about being a Solicitor Apprentice?

In short, a Solicitor Apprenticeship is a paid role which combines on-the-job training with study. It is a work-based pathway, I have one day per week allocated to studying. The apprenticeship embeds a law degree and also incorporates the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) assessments, which form the End-Point-Assessment for the Solicitor Apprenticeship. 

The fact that the apprenticeship is fully funded by my employer means I can complete a degree without building up student loan debt, making this a great career option. I believe it’s also the best way to prepare someone for qualifying as a solicitor, as having 6 years of work experience behind you will give you confidence when it comes to completing independent legal work and dealing with clients.

As mentioned earlier, I have an allocated study day each week, where I attend an online workshop and work on developing my legal knowledge and practical skills – each term we study a knowledge unit (such as Law of Tort), and a skills unit (such as Legal Research) which we have exams and coursework on. During my studies I also build a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate certain competencies that the course requires us to meet, so that by the time I finish the apprenticeship I can show that I am meeting the competencies required of a solicitor against the Solicitor Standard set by the SRA.

I believe most law firms have differing criteria, but TLT requires BBB at A levels (or equivalent), and you also need a GCSE (or equivalent) in English and Maths.

I initially had to fill out an application form, which was reviewed before those who made it to the assessment centre stage were selected. The assessment centre consisted of a strength-based interview, an in-tray exercise, and a group exercise. It was definitely the hardest interview I’ve had so far in my career, but there were workshops available with the Future Talent team prior to the assessment centre, where they explained what to expect. My line manager was also extremely kind and dedicated some of his time to help me prepare with a mock strength-based interview.

I’m part of a cohort of 6 apprentices - we move around every 6 months (it may be 12 months sometimes), so it’s like an extended version of a training contract!  I think we’re extremely lucky as we will get to work with several different teams and experience varied practice areas.  During the final two years we will rotate like a traditional trainee, and at this stage we will be able to provide ‘seats preferences’, which will allow us to make the best choice when it comes to which team we want to qualify into.

I am currently in my first year of the apprenticeship, in my second seat - which is in mortgage enforcement. This mainly consists of preparing court paperwork, and dealing with large banking and lender clients. 

Do you feel that your previous experience as a Legal Secretary is an advantage now that you are a Solicitor Apprentice?

Absolutely. I won’t sugar-coat it, the apprenticeship is hard work. You need to be extremely organised and dedicated to keep on top of day-to-day work and the university work, especially when exams and coursework deadlines come around – but as most legal secretaries will know from experience, your main job as a secretary is organising your fee earners’ time, and those skills come in handy when trying to balance your workload and apprenticeship commitments.

I also understand that a 6 year commitment may be daunting for some, so it helps to have been in the legal profession for a few years before starting the apprenticeship, just to ensure this career path is definitely for you.

Not to mention years down the line, once I’ve qualified, I will take the skills gained as a legal secretary - such as interpersonal skills and good customer service - and use these to make me a well-rounded lawyer.

My past experience will also ensure that I will always have a good understanding of how to work best with any legal assistants or secretaries in a way that makes working together more efficient, and I look forward to mentoring junior members in the future.

What advice would you give to other Legal Secretaries who hope to progress and maybe qualify as Solicitors in the future?

I would say find a law firm where you are happy and feel you can commit to a long-term career. You will need a lot of support throughout the journey to qualification, so it’s important you find the right place for you.

Believe in yourself, as you’ve most likely developed many skills in your career as a legal secretary that you don’t even notice or recognise as interchangeable skills, but they will be very valuable to you on route to qualifying. 

If you don’t succeed on your first try, don’t give up – don’t forget that this is an extremely competitive environment, maybe even more so than training contracts. Dedication and hard work will show in an assessment centre, and if they see you’re someone who suits the apprenticeship, you will receive an offer eventually – just keep going!

If you are interested in studying ILSPA’s Legal Secretaries Diploma course, like Melinda, please take a look at our course page. Students receive one year’s free Membership of the Institute, which includes guidance to secure employment and our CV help service. To find out more about our Membership Benefits and how we can help you with your career, take a look at our Membership page.