There is common misconception that legal executives are not actually lawyers. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, a legal executive is a fully-trained and qualified lawyer that simply specialises in a certain area of legal practice.
Legal executives are typically employed by law firms, public sector organisations and the in-house legal teams of commercial enterprises in the private sector.
An important distinction between legal executives and solicitors or paralegals is that only Fellows of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) are allowed to refer to themselves as legal executives.
Essentially, a legal executive’s job responsibilities are the same as practising solicitors. If you pursue a career in this area, your role will involve client representation and interaction, attending court proceedings and preparing legal documentation.
You will also be applying prescribed legal principles, rules and regulations to matters such as wealth and inheritance tax. You might also be preparing wills, setting up trusts and drafting contracts. Legal executives are also tasked with certifying legal documents and affidavits under oath and issuing summons and writs.
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Salary & benefits
On average, starting salaries for new legal executives range between £16,000 and £28,000 per annum. Legal executives with under five years’ experience earn around £30,000 and £35,000, while senior legal executives can earn salaries in excess of £50,000 a year.
Annual benefits, especially in full-service law firms, include pensions, health insurance, 25-30 days of annual leave and some other lifestyle perks, such as free or subsidised gym facilities, interest-free season ticket loans and subsidised meals or catering facilities.
A legal executive’s work schedule is primarily dependent on the type of practice, location and size of the employer. Those employed by commercial law firms may spend an average of 10-12 hours in the office on a daily basis and 3-5 hours over the weekends and holidays, while those engaged in family and probate law may be required to work around 8-10 hours during weekdays, and 5-8 hours over weekends and holidays.
Given the client base of this area of law, which is mainly private clients and families, this extra weekend work is understandable.
The good news is that becoming a legal executive is not limited to law graduates and people who have done a postgraduate law conversion degree (CPE or GDL) – you can enter this profession without taking the university route at all.
You can begin on this career path from the age of 16 onwards with nothing more than a handful of decent GCSE results (i.e. grade C or above). To become a legal executive, you will have to study the CILEx course and undertake a series of examinations.
However, if you have completed a law degree or the GDL/CPE, you may not have to take many, if any, of the CILEx examinations.
Prior work experience through short-term placements, or full-time experience as a paralegal or caseworker, is also very useful, and indeed is strongly recommended.
Training & progression
The training process before taking up full-time practice is quite extensive and distinctive when compared with that of a solicitor.
First of all, you must complete levels three and six of the CILEx membership exams, known as the Professional Diploma in Law & Practice and the Professional Higher Diploma in Law & Practice respectively.
You must have also gained three years of work experience in a legal environment before completing your CILEx exams and then an extra two years of work experience must be gained after completing your last CILEx exam.
Alternatively, you could opt to engage in part-time study while you are working in a legal environment. This takes approximately three or four years.
CILEx also provides a fast-track option for candidates with an accredited law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). Candidates simply have to study two units of the Professional Higher Diploma in Law & Practice which are relevant to their law degree, and one other specific module, namely Client Care Skills, in order to become a qualified legal executive.
Career growth is entirely dependent on your performance, area of specialist expertise and your amount of experience. You could end up managing a full department or a team of junior legal executives, paralegals and solicitors.
Other options include completing the qualification process to become a full-time solicitor, applying for judicial positions or even setting up your own business. You can do all kinds of things if you choose to follow this career path. The legal world is your oyster!