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The only independent legal news resource covering the paralegal profession.

 
 

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LAT March/April 2008 

Enjoy the Ride
LAT ‘s 16th Annual Salary Survey results show compensation climbed at
a gentle pace in 2007.

By John J. McGurk

Hello World!
American paralegals
working abroad.

By Chere B. Estrin

Landlord and Tenant Law
Paralegals can be involved in every aspect of this growing
real estate specialty.

By Jeffrey A. Helewitz, Esq.

In Good Form
Pattern Interrogatories
for Invasion of Privacy
By Kevin R. Culhane

Table of Contents

 

Still $miling After 2002?

In a year rife with economic decline, paralegals still managed some respectable gains.

By Rod Hughes

March/April 2003 Issue

 

Dennis Nakata likes his job. As a legal assistant working on public law issues for the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based law firm of Rutan & Tucker, Nakata said he enjoys his work and feels he is appropriately compensated. And he isn’t alone.

Legal Assistant Today’s 2002 Salary Survey shows nearly 66 percent of respondents said they feel they are paid fairly for the work they perform. In 2002, LAT found the average salary for legal assistants was approximately $43,461, leaving employee satisfaction reasonably assured. Despite modest gains in earnings, however, it seems the balloon that took paralegal salary increases into the stratosphere in 2001 has lost buoyancy along with the U.S. economy.

Deflated Growth

In 2001, LAT found the average legal assistant salary increased 9.4 percent over 2000’s average. For 2002, the rate of increase slowed to 4.5 percent when compared to the year prior. While it’s still an increase, it’s also the smallest year-over-year percentage increase since LAT’s 1999 survey.

“I think, even in the legal market, those dot-coms had a large role to play. When those businesses faded, corporate law, intellectual property and civil law areas, to name only a few, faded a little as well and employers acted in kind with regard to salaries,” Nakata explained.

Having served as the survey chairman for the Orange County Paralegal Association’s annual salary survey in 2000 and 2001, Nakata said he saw Southern California legal assistant salaries continue to grow despite the dot-com bust, but said he also didn’t notice anything “jumping out” at him in terms of compensation growth rates.

Accordingly, Mary Ellen Perkins, immediate past president of the Legal Assistant Management Association, told LAT in 2002 that she was surprised by LAT’s impressive findings for average salary growth in 2001. In contrast to Perkins’ view — along with others interviewed by LAT that year — The Affiliates, a legal staffing firm, published its 2002 Salary Guide, which found paralegals with midlevel experience (four- to-six years) in 2001 were compensated within an average range of $37,875 to $48,500. That same year, The Affiliates guide provided an average salary range for senior paralegals (seven or more years experience) of $43,750 to $56,250. Both ranges provided by The Affiliates supported LAT’s 2001 average salary findings.

Even with slow growth in salary increases, 2002 offered a number of noteworthy findings. In LAT’s region-by-region analysis of the United States, every segment of the country reported welcomed increases in average regional salaries.

Kristen Fullerton, immediate past president of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and a paralegal at Dechert LLP in Philadelphia, an international law firm, reported many of the recruiters she and her association spoke with said 2002 was a slow growth year for paralegal positions. “What I hear from recruiters I have spoken with is that 2002 was very slow; very quiet. But recruiters are telling me they are starting to see an improvement,” Fullerton said. Most law firms in the Philadelphia area seem to have held steady regarding staffing, and Fullerton said she knew of only one major firm in Philadelphia that was forced to let people go last year due to the sagging economy. She was quick to emphasize that 2002 was still a relatively good year in terms of salary increases despite what many have termed as a slow-growth economy.

“I think [LAT’s national average] is in line with local figures we had gotten from NFPA’s survey back in 2001. The average salary in Philadelphia then was about $43,000. The $2,600 average raise [LAT] found on the national level is probably close to what we are seeing for midlevel paralegals here,” Fullerton said. “It’s hard to say for certain because there are so many variables involved.”

In terms of her own region, however, Fullerton noted that LAT’s Northeast region rate-of-growth findings are higher than what many of the legal assistants she knows are experiencing. “We’re certainly not seeing 12 percent salary increases in Philadelphia as far as I know,” Fullerton added.

Minnesota Paralegal Association President Debra Nelson said she found LAT’s $39,634 average salary for Midwestern paralegals to be fairly accurate. “I think it’s pretty close to being on par with what we’re experiencing in this part of the country. In Minnesota specifically, we have midlevel paralegals making between $39,000 and $40,000. However, I also know a paralegal making $80,000 per year. What is important when looking at surveys is that they are all about averages. Everything is subjective,” Nelson explained.

For the fourth year in a row, states in the West boasted the highest average salary in LAT’s survey results. Interestingly though, it was the Northeast region of the country that experienced the highest percentage of growth when compared to 2001, while the West tied with the South for last place in percentage-based increases.

Floating More Figures

In August 2002, the National Association of Legal Assistants released the results of its National Utilization and Compensation Survey. According to NALA’s findings, the average paralegal salary in 2002 was approximately $43,002. NALA’s survey went on to find that the average bonus in 2002 was $2,909 and that those holding the Certified Legal Assistant credential made an average of $604 more annually than those without the CLA designation. In one dramatic finding, the NALA survey showed paralegals with a Certified Legal Assistant Specialist designation earned an average of $4,403 more than those who didn’t hold a CLAS credential.

When breaking out average salaries by type of legal assistant education, NALA found those with the highest salary held master’s degrees ($57,000), followed by post baccalaureate certificates ($46,084), undergraduate certificates ($45,204), associate’s degrees ($40,114) and finally bachelor’s degrees ($39,163).

LAT’s survey found that broken down by general education, on average paralegals earned $41,931 without a degree, $41,547 with an associate’s degree, $45,082 with a bachelor’s degree and $44,561 with a master’s degree. Also, the number of people reporting to hold undergraduate degrees increased noticeably compared to 2001, while the number of paralegals reporting to hold master’s degrees declined nearly 3 percent. When considering legal assistant examinations, paralegals holding a CLAS designation (6.3 percent of LAT respondents) earned an average salary of $45,966. LAT also found legal assistants who hold the CLA designation (20 percent of respondents) earned an average of $44,151 while those with the National Federation of Paralegal Assocations’ Registered Paralegal designation (4.4 percent of respondents) earned approximately $41,189.

Buoyant Despite the Market

For paralegals working in a law firm setting, LAT found 2002’s highest average paying legal areas were securities ($69,786), tax ($56,329), administrative ($54,000), environmental ($49,875) and corporation and enterprise ($48,041).

In NALA’s survey, the hot areas for 2002 were intellectual property ($45,051), mergers and acquisitions ($44,956), corporate ($44,413), banking and finance ($43,208) and securities and antitrust ($42,840).

Additionally, the highest individual full-time salary reported to LAT in 2002 was $155,000 — nearly $70,000 more than the magazine’s 2001 findings and the highest reported individual salary in the history of LAT’s gathering of such information. It must also be noted that 2002 presented LAT with the lowest individual full-time salary reported since 1999 ($12,000).

Further, averages for both annual raises and bonuses fell when compared to 2001 findings by nearly $100 and $430 respectively.

Puffed with Pride, Not Profit

But what about those respondents (nearly 66 percent) who, like Nakata, reported they are paid fairly and satisfied with their compensation? While there are more paralegals declaring satisfaction with their wages, these legal professionals are indicative of what many experienced in 2002 — they experienced an increase, but only slightly. In all the years LAT has asked “Are you paid fairly?” there has never been a year in which the percentage of people who responded in the affirmative has increased by less than one percent, until 2002 (those satisfied with their salaries increased only 0.7 percent compared to 2001 findings).

So like many paralegals, Nakata said he is still pleased with his work and his compensation, but some years were better than others.

“I would say 2000 was my best year in terms of salary increases,” said Nakata, who joined Rutan & Tucker as an entry-level legal assistant in 1998. He noted, however, that while the tech sector was still driving much of the economy in 2000, other factors led to his satisfactory compensation increase that same year.

“I was also entering my second-to-third year as a paralegal at the time. At that point in your career, you generally move out of that beginning paralegal phase. With increasing experience, you take on more responsibilities. When my employer found I could do my job well and could be more helpful by handling more complex tasks, my billing rate went up. And when that happens, you generally see an increase in your salary,” Nakata explained. Nakata said that a strong economy and a growing skill set are what allowed him to benefit from the economic boom in 2000. And while the economy has fizzled a bit, he still has an array of paralegal skills to meet the challenges and opportunities his work will offer him in 2003 and beyond.

One tactic that many used to advance their salaries in 2000 isn’t as advisable as it was when the economy was still booming. In 2001, when the economy began to cool, only 22.2 percent of respondents to LAT’s survey reported they would seek other paralegal work in 2002. Based on this year’s findings, that number is down slightly, with 21.5 percent saying they will look for other work in the legal assistant field. Reasons for leaving remain the same, although a noticeable drop was seen in the number of paralegals who reported being underpaid as the main motivation to find a new job (50.9 percent in 2001 versus only 38.8 percent in 2002).

High Expectations, Lower Pay

One factor that might have caused paralegals to rethink a job change last year was the declining availability of legal assistant positions and lower salary for more junior positions.

“Given the economy, that has everything to do with [the slowed rate of salary growth]. We have a lot of entry-level people entering the market and a number of senior paralegals retiring or getting ready to retire,” Minnesota’s Nelson noted.

She explained that MPA saw its student membership double in 2002. Her take on the slowed growth was simply more entry-level legal assistants than before are entering the legal marketplace in the midwestern region of the country, and are therefore starting at the lower end of the legal assistant salary latter than would more experienced paralegals.

“It also depends on where you are as well as what type of work you are doing,” Nelson explained. Having recently made the move from the state attorney’s office to a corporate environment, Nelson said she experienced a significant increase in salary.

While experienced paralegals were in the majority of respondents to LAT’s survey, 28.1 percent of respondents reported having seven or fewer years of legal assistant experience. Combined, that 28.1 percent demographic boasted an average salary of $37,805 in 2002.

How Is the Air Up There?

Average salaries broken down by employer in 2002 were $49,467 in the corporate environment, $42,582 for work at a law office and $37,681 for government paralegal work. Only the average salary for government work in 2002 declined compared to that same area in 2001 ($40,413).

For paralegals in the job market, there were a few noteworthy shifts in 2002 regarding just how they found their current jobs. In 2001, networking was the main successful conduit to employment for 33 percent of respondents. In 2002, people using this means to a better job shot up to 42 percent of respondents, while agency placement dropped from 15.8 percent in 2001 to 12.8 percent in 2002.

Whether it’s the economy or overall job satisfaction, slightly fewer paralegals reported a desire to find a new job in the paralegal market in 2002 compared to 2001. Paralegals who want to stay with their current employers noted benefits such as flexible schedules (41.3 percent), work from home opportunities (16.8 percent) and gym memberships (10.5 percent) as factors in their overall employment decisions.

Those who are considering a switch said they rank a lack of recognition for contributions and a lack of challenge in their work as the preeminent reasons for seeking a departure.

Testing the Wind Velocity

Each year, paralegals struggle to gather information that will assist them in making their case to employers for higher wages. The battle is never easy, and surveys often conflict.

A frequent reaction to some survey findings is either frustration that you are not making as much as others or joy because you are ahead of the curve. What must be kept in mind is a survey offers averages. There are salaries factored into that final average figure that are both higher and lower than the published average.

To determine where you should be in terms of compensation, you need to look at different surveys, analyze and compare averages, and talk to your peers about ranges rather than specifics.

“To keep up-to-date on what your market offers in terms of salary, I highly suggest that you join your local paralegal association,” Nakata noted. He explained that through associations, you will meet a variety of paralegals — from students and entry-level paralegals to 30-year veterans and nearly everything in between. After all, who knows better what salaries are available then the people earning them?

Methodology

LAT conducted its 2002 Salary Survey by mailing a four-page questionnaire to a computer-generated, random sampling of 2,500 of the magazine’s current subscribers. The resulting data is illustrated in the included charts, and includes a margin of error of plus or minus 5.1 percent. Final data was compiled from the 15.3 percent of respondents who supplied verifiable names and addresses on the surveys by the Dec. 6, 2002 deadline.

 

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