“I’ve never heard of legal executives – what do they do?”
Chartered legal executives are often dubbed ‘the third arm of the law’. They are qualified lawyers, and to quote from the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) website: “The work of a Chartered Legal Executive is almost indistinguishable from the work of a solicitor.” The difference between the two professions is that legal executives can only do the work of a solicitor when supervised by a solicitor.
In practice, that means most legal executives work in areas of law which have a high number of low-value cases that are not the most complex, such as personal injury and residential conveyancing.
That is why legal executives are often viewed as the poor relations of solicitors. It is a slightly unfair perception, as legal executives can progress to quite complex work and recent changes in the rules governing the legal profession have raised their status considerably. A legal executive can now represent a client in court, become a law firm partner and even become a judge.
Legal executives also handle matters including formation of companies, High Court or county court disputes, drafting wills, company and commercial law, and local government and public administration.
“How do I become one?”
Although you can train as a legal executive without going to university, it is by no means an easy way of breaking into law. You still need to complete a number of courses as well as a minimum period of work experience under the supervision of a qualified lawyer. It is possible to combine the two stages, though, meaning that you can earn while you learn.
You can start training as soon as you finish your GCSEs (you need a minimum of four GCSEs at grade C or above, including English, or the O-level equivalent). CILEx offers a foundation qualification, which is the equivalent to studying A-level law. The CILEx Level 3 Professional Diploma in Law and Practice is set and assessed at honours degree level, allowing you to be a qualified paralegal and a fee-earner.
Both courses can be studied part-time, but each should take a maximum of two years to complete. There are a number of exams, which are structured as multiple-choice or closed-book tests. The courses can be taken in a number of locations around the country, not just in London.
Once you complete the academic stage of your training you need to undertake a period of qualifying employment to become a fellow of CILEx. You can only call yourself a legal executive if you are a fellow of the institute. Qualifying employment includes carrying out work of a legal nature under the supervision of a solicitor, senior legal executive, barrister or licensed conveyancer. Employment can be in a law firm or barristers’ chambers, or the in-house legal department of a private or public company or central or local government.
If you hold a qualifying law degree awarded within the past seven years, you can undertake the CILEx Graduate Fast-Track Diploma, which is a cost-effective alternative to the Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). The total cost is £2,338 and takes nine months of part-time study to complete.
Some employers want to deliver their own tailored qualifications, as do Gordons and Irwin Mitchell. Both firms use CILEx as part of their legal apprenticeship schemes. Read more about apprentices here.
“What are my prospects as a legal executive?”
Starting salaries for legal executives are usually up to £14,000 a year, while those who are fully qualified can expect to earn about £35,000 on average. Salaries of up to £92,000 in London have been reported in the latest salary surveys. A salary in the mid-thirty thousands may seem low compared with what solicitors earn, but with total legal executive study costs amounting to no more than £6,200, they will certainly notice the benefits.
CILEx members are able to qualify as Legal Executive Advocates, which enables them to exercise greater rights of audience. This title can be awarded by CILEx after a legal executive has successfully completed the prescribed rights of audience qualification, which includes an advocacy skills course and evidence test. Recent developments following the Legal Services Act 2007 have enabled legal executive lawyers to become partners or managers in multidisciplinary partnerships. They are also eligible to apply for prescribed judicial posts and become chairs of tribunals.
Almost 100 firms now have legal executive partner managers and CILEx celebrated its first appointed judge in 2011.
Legal executives can also cross-qualify as a solicitor without doing the Legal Practice Course. But if your ultimate goal is to be a solicitor, qualifying as a legal executive first is a long and roundabout way to do it.
Facts and figures
A 2009 survey of 832 legal executives found that:
- 12% were school leavers
- 33% were legal secretaries beforehand
- 82% did not have parents who went to university
- 31% did conveyancing work
- 13.7% came from a minority ethnic background
- 75% were women
Rights of audience – the right of a lawyer to represent a client in court. Barristers tend to have the most extensive rights, although recent changes mean some solicitors and legal executives are being allowed greater rights than previously