An Overview of Legal Practice

A key feature of ILSPA’s Legal Secretaries Diploma course is the exposure that it gives Students to different areas of legal practice. Each unit integrates the teaching of legal concepts (sometimes referred to as black letter law) with their application in the real world. This approach has employability at its heart and this month we will give you the lowdown about what it is really like to work in some key areas of legal practice. Because there are so many areas of specialisation there is not enough time to consider them all, but we will illustrate some of the close links that exist between legal specialisms. 

Just to remind those who may have studied some time ago, ILSPA’s Diploma has a mixture of contentious and non-contentious units. The contentious areas are civil litigation and family law and practice. The non-contentious are conveyancing and wills and probate.

Starting with civil litigation, the first thing to consider is that working in this area of law involves a lot more than just knowing how the Civil Procedure Rules 1999 work. The unit has natural links to most other areas of contentious practice, including dispute resolution, personal injury and employment law. In terms of the variety of work, it would be fair to say that there is often no typical day. On any given day your boss might be in court, attending to clients, instructing counsel, preparing evidence or responding to correspondence. The subject matter of the work a fee earner does in a litigation department can also typically be very broad. For example, a general litigator might potentially deal with a slip and trip claim, a boundary dispute, a breach of contract or a breach of someone’s human rights. The working culture is only semi-predictable, and the job can often involve long hours. To assist effectively in this environment, you will need to have good organisational and communication skills as you will often have to cope with urgent matters, lots of paperwork and occasionally nervous or demanding clients.

Family law and practice is another area of contentious law that is studied on ILSPA’s Diploma, and again, high levels of organisational skills are needed. It is also very important to be sensitive and caring as clients are often under a lot of stress and may be at the end of their emotional tether. Not only do you need to be good with people and an excellent listener, but you should also be comfortable in a fast-paced, challenging environment.

So how does the work done in a non-contentious area such as conveyancing compare? A major part of a conveyancer’s job involves drafting documentation. There is much more of a team spirit among a group of property lawyers as all the parties are working towards the same outcome. Organisational skills have already been mentioned as important in a litigation context, but this is doubly the case in a conveyancing setting. You will be helping to progress many different client matters at the same time, so it is vital that you keep on top of work. It is also the case that this is an area of legal practice that has developed and continues to develop rapidly in terms of the use of technology. You will not be expected to know how a firm’s case management system works from day one, but you will need to have the ability to learn, and a willingness to embrace technology is a definite advantage.

Finally, the area of wills and probate throws up an interesting challenge in trying to define it as just a non-contentious area of practice. The reality is that the work has developed from simply drafting wills and trust documents into an area where there is a real risk that a contentious dispute can arise – say, over an inheritance. For several years the number of contested estate matters has been rising, so a good working knowledge of civil litigation is a distinct advantage. Because there is a lot of drafting involved an excellent eye for detail is vital. The nature of the work means it can involve many different areas of practice so it can be more quite technical. Finally, like a matrimonial lawyer, you may be dealing with very sensitive personal issues (e.g. a client starting to suffer from dementia or who is recently bereaved) so an ability to deal with matters sensitively will be valued.  

A firm will not expect you to know everything about an area of work from day one, but it will help you to job hunt if you have a basic understanding. It is difficult when you are starting out in your legal career to get to know what legal practice is really like but completing the portfolio on the Diploma course will help expand your understanding of what to expect. Finally, keep an open mind about what areas of practice you might be interested in. Even if you feel a practice area might not suit your natural abilities, do not let this put you off trying it out if the opportunity presents itself.