In a league of their own

Duncan Calow, a solicitor at Denton Hall, says: "Working with lawyers requires special skills – like a high boredom threshold and a toner cartridge fixation."

Most law firms admit that a knowledge of the law is not essential but because most legal secretaries specialise they will eventually acquire a basic grasp of their particular field. Many law firms agree that this is particularly the case in property departments.

In larger firms the secretary's work remains largely administrative with main responsibilities including word processing, diary management, processing mail, billing, filing, handling telephone calls and building up a knowledge of clients and matters in progress.

Alistair Dawson, head of personnel at City firm Clifford Chance, says: "All our secretaries are required for administration only. It is the level of the administration that distinguishes a junior from a senior.

"For example at the highest level a secretary will be expected to work out overtime rotas, sickness and holiday leave."

Calow advises: "Familiarity with legal jargon is important; can you spell 'caveat emptor' and 'Anton Piller'? A previous secretary had a law degree, do you have any qualifications or experience which would help – tenancy at 8 New Square perhaps?"

In the smaller firms secretaries are more likely to be required to answer clients' basic questions on legal matters.

Anne Gaffney, accounts manager at Peters & Peters, an eight-partner West End firm, says: "Our secretaries are expected to answer queries on simple legal matters and carry the job while the practitioner is absent."

Most of the larger City law firms have up to five different levels of secretaries. A handful take on college leavers with some secretarial experience. They are known as trainees and are paid between £10,000 and £13,000. Clifford Chance does have a policy of taking on trainees but national firm Eversheds will only take on experienced legal secretaries.

The second level will have at least two years' experience in a law firm and are paid between £14,000 and £17,500. By the third level they will have reached the rank of an official legal secretary and be paid between £17,000 and £19,000.

From then on secretaries in their mid-20s and upwards with between three and five years' relevant legal and secretarial experience can be made PAs to salaried partners being paid between £19,000 and £25,000. The final rung on the ladder is then to be made an equity or senior partner's PA.

For most secretaries being made a PA is a final career move. Some, however, are given the opportunity to train as legal executives and a few become solicitors. Many large firms operate a sponsorship policy, allowing their employees to take time off to study for legal executive qualifications through Ilex or law degrees.

Most firms, even small high street practices, offer some kind of in-house technology training and the larger firms have introduced sophisticated personal training schemes such as time management and how to work with your boss effectively.

Calow says: "Denton Hall has given the kind of computing power to every secretary that 20 years ago NASA would have used a fraction of to send men to the moon. Secretaries must be comfortable with this new technology and not risk 90 degrees burns every time they set a video."

Although the salaries do not vary much between large and small firms, benefits do. At Peters & Peters staff receive two annual bonuses and Bupa membership, while at Nabarro Nathanson the benefits package includes pension schemes, profit-related pay, Bupa, season ticket loans, a firm's doctor and well women clinic, aerobics lessons and an in-house hairdresser.

Profit-related pay schemes are the most recent addition to the standard benefits package. According to a recent benefits survey by a leading legal recruitment agency over 30 per cent of London law firms now offer their secretaries profit related pay bonuses. The survey also points out that since the recession the standard overtime pay schemes have diminished. Only 50 per cent of firms now pay for overtime while others stress that overtime is reflected in the yearly bonus.

Kernan admits that because of the nature of the work legal secretaries are not liable to receive as many benefits as secretaries working in banking or insurance for example. However, the pay incentives are significantly higher – a legal secretary earning £18,000 would be on just £15,000 in an accountants firm.

But the rewards of being a legal secretary are not purely financial. Sandra Sparks, of Richards Butler and runner up in The Lawyer Legal Secretary of the Year Award, lists other important benefits. "Ideally, the lawyer would remember your birthday, look like a young Robert Redford, take you to lunch and pay, not expect you to work late, allow you to file your nails, soothe your frayed nerves and always ensure you get that well deserved bonus at the end of the year," she says.