Half Empty or Half Full
13th Annual Survey Salary results.
March/April 2004 Issue
In questionable economic
times, when rumor has it the employment market is improving but you know
far too many people concerned with job security and benefits, there is
no shortage of confusion and frustration. In times Like these, there is
an almost prophetic expression: It’s a recession when your neighbor
loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose your own.
Throughout the economic
downturn of the past few years, opinions have varied as experts struggle
to argue the glass is half full, while simultaneously warning it might
also be half empty. For paralegals like Janise L. Kee in East Peoria,
Ill., the argument for better economic times and future job growth has
frequently been in conflict with the realities of smaller salaries and
limited employment mobility.
“A number of smaller
firms in our area have begun to hire paralegals in the past several
years, but salaries are low and they don’t rise quickly. Good jobs are
hard to come by here. The local joke has been that a paralegal has to
die for a good position to open up,” said Kee, who worked at three
different law firms before branching out on her own as a contract
In the March/April 2003 issue, LAT found through its annual Salary
Survey responses that paralegals were still smiling regarding their
salaries and employment situations at the end of 2002. By the end of
last year, the smiles had skulked away only to be replaced by the
cautious optimism of another year of economic uncertainty.
LAT found the average
rate of salary growth for paralegals had slowed to 3.1 percent. In both
1998 and 1999, legal assistant salaries grew at an average rate of 3.3
percent; 2000 saw that rate increase to 4.8 percent; in 2001, it was an
astonishing 9.4 percent, while in 2002 the rate of growth was clocked at
an average of 4.5 percent.
Although the average
national salary appears to continue increasing, the rate at which that
growth occurs has slowed noticeably. At an average annual salary of
$44,808 in 2003, legal assistants throughout the United States saw the
water rise in their perspective glasses. However, the evaporation that
occurred due to economic decline left many wondering if there was enough
to quench their thirst. And despite year-to-year continued growth in
LAT’s annual national salary findings, paralegals like Lauren Cole said
averages don’t always apply to individuals.
“I think the national
average [salary] is deceptive for the Seattle area. We have seen
somewhat of a downturn in our area where some of our larger law firms
have laid off paralegals. They also have frozen salaries in some cases.
There are other firms however, that although they are not growing per
se, they are replacing positions and people there are continuing to get
annual raises,” said Cole, a 15-year paralegal veteran and senior
paralegal in the Seattle office of Cozen O’Connor.
The average annual raise
reported by LAT’s Salary Survey respondents has steadily declined every
year since 2000, as well. In 2000, legal assistants reported the highest
average annual raise LAT ever published ($2,656). In 2003, that number
continued a three-year slide, resulting in an average national annual
raise of $2,396.
At a glance, it might seem the paralegal profession — like so many other
fields — is feeling the effects of a slow-growth economy. However, aside
from a few sobering statistics, there are still many reasons for current
and future paralegals to feel their profession is an ideal choice.
Despite a slower rate of
salary increases compared to years prior, paralegal salaries are
continuing to grow, even in uncertain times. Employers continue to
expand employee benefit packages with a diverse set of offerings ranging
from discounted day care and dry cleaning services to spa treatments and
LAT’s own survey results
continually identified individual reported salaries above the $100,000
mark for three of the past four years despite an economic slump
nationally. The U.S. Department of Labor maintains the paralegal
profession remains one of the top 10 fastest growing professions in the
country through 2008. Additionally, independent research organizations,
such as the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, continue to acknowledge
the paralegal profession as a top-tier field of growth and expansion.
Specifically, the nonprofit Hudson Institute has continually projected a
59 percent rate of growth (or approximately 65,000 new paralegal jobs)
for the legal assistant field between 1994 and 2005.
Also, in 2003, 31.1
percent of LAT’s survey respondents — the highest percentage in five
years — reported they saw the number of available paralegal positions
increase on average, with 57 percent (the lowest LAT finding in four
years) saying the job market appeared stable, with neither losses nor
gains in available paralegal positions.
In 2003, the average
national salary by employer had increased across the board according to
LAT’s survey respondents. Law firm paralegals saw a nearly $800 annual
increase compared to 2002 figures. Corporate legal assistants gained a
nearly $300 advantage compared to their earnings in 2002, while
government paralegals made the biggest stride: $7,757 more in average
salary gains in 2003 than the year prior. Consistently, larger numbers
of paralegals who have responded to the survey feel they are being paid
Perception and Percentages
In Sarasota, Fla., the perception of the paralegal marketplace appears
similar to that of Seattle. Mary Lou DiMaggio, a paralegal of five years
who works for Melody D. Genson, Attorney at Law, and serves as secretary
of the Southwest Paralegal Association, said the job market in her area
appears flat. “Most of the people I know who want to work in the field
are working in the field,” said DiMaggio. “I see people moving sideways
in terms of jobs. Not necessarily up, but not necessarily down either.”
Like DiMaggio, many
paralegals are not necessarily reporting the loss of paralegal positions
as much as they have taken note of the decrease in the availability of
legal assistant positions.
“Salary growth has
definitely slowed down or possibly stopped in response to the economy.
While I think job growth is holding steady, I also think people are
thinking more carefully before changing jobs,” said Ellen Lockwood, CLAS,
RP, an intellectual property paralegal with Clear Channel Worldwide in
San Antonio, Texas.
Contrary to Lockwood’s
experience in San Antonio, on average, LAT found 25.4 percent of its
national survey respondents had in fact looked for a new position within
the paralegal field in 2003. Of those who reported finding a new
position in their 2003 search, the approximate timeframe reported for
finding such positions was between one and three months.
Then there are the
paralegals who didn’t choose to look for new work. Respondents to the
2001 LAT Salary Survey reported a nominal amount (0.4 percent) of
downsizing or layoffs involved in the paralegal field. In 2002, that
figure increased to 1 percent.
In 2003, 2.4 percent of
survey respondents indicated they had recently been laid off or
otherwise downsized in their paralegal roles.
increases in layoffs, the percentage of respondents who said they plan
to look for other jobs in the paralegal field in the coming year
decreased during the course of the past three years, hitting a low of
19.4 percent of LAT respondents for 2003.
“On average, I have been
hearing more about [paralegal] layoffs than growth in 2003. Fortunately,
I have not heard of any layoffs taking place or planned in 2004,” said
Cole, regarding developments in the Seattle paralegal market.
However, Cole did note
since some law firms are scaling back on paralegal positions, one
benefit has been an increase in contract paralegal use, as well as some
legal assistant positions opening in the corporate compliance area in
response to more stringent corporate compliance issues.
Despite paralegal gains in the legal marketplace, Kee said one of the
obstacles to job growth she sees in rural Illinois is many firms and
their attorneys don’t understand how to best use paralegals as a
resource. “They don’t all exactly know what to do with a paralegal
because they have not been trained. And if they don’t know how to use us
to their firm’s benefit, how in the world would they know how best to
pay us?” Kee said.
It’s not just the
attorneys who are confused about the role of paralegals. Those in the
profession still grapple with the definition and distinction between the
terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant.”
“For many years in Texas,
the terms ‘paralegal’ and ‘legal assistant’ were synonymous. However,
the term ‘legal assistant’ has become increasingly less clear, while
many see the ‘paralegal’ title as being more clear and authoritative,”
said Lockwood, who also serves on the Professional Ethics Committee for
the Joint Task Force of the Legal Assistant’s Division of the Texas
Those both inside and
outside the profession have moved toward the terms that make the most
sense to them. As a result, some firms use their own definition of
paralegal and legal assistant, and for some, the jobs differ both
professionally and financially. Respondents to LAT’s Salary Survey
overwhelmingly selected the term “paralegal” (80.3 percent) as denoting
a higher level of professionalism, while only 4.4 percent selected
“legal assistant” in the same category.
Education and Achievement
Education played a role in the level of average compensation paralegals
earned in 2003. Legal assistants with master’s degrees as their highest
level of education earned nearly $8,500 more annually than the lowest
national average salary reported based on education levels, which
consisted of paralegals with associate’s degrees earning an average of
The two largest groups of
paralegals who reported their highest education levels were those with
bachelor’s degrees (36.6 percent of respondents) followed by associate’s
degrees (28.8 percent of respondents). Only 3.4 percent of respondents
reported high school as their highest level of education achieved.
Nearly 23 percent of
respondents reported holding the Certified Legal Assistant designation,
while 4.7 percent held the Certified Legal Assistant Specialty
designation, and 4.4 percent earned the Registered Paralegal moniker.
In 2003, LAT compiled a composite of the average paralegal according to
its Salary Survey respondents throughout the United States. Accordingly,
the average paralegal for 2003 was a 43-year-old female who earned
$21.65 per hour for part-time or contractual-based work, or $44,808 plus
benefits for full-time work.
composite paralegal was not required to bill for her time. In 2003, she
worked 103 hours of overtime and was compensated for such overtime most
often with overtime pay, but also frequently with time off. She was
considered a paralegal in her employer’s job classification, and worked
in the legal assistant field for nearly 12 years, working for her
current employer approximately eight years as of 2003.
Most often, if the
average paralegal’s employer was hiring for another legal assistant
position, her employer sought someone with an ABA-approved paralegal
program certificate or someone with approximately four years of
paralegal experience — giving near equal credence to both.
Overwhelmingly, LAT’s composite paralegal participated in her local
paralegal association as well.
So what did 2003 mean for you? In the face of a continued economic
downturn, paralegals managed respectable average gains in both salary
figures and annual compensation increases. While growth remained minimal
in many industries, legal assistants maintained modest growth and
demonstrated that, even in difficult economic times, they can provide an
inherent value to their employers on a variety of fronts.
A 26-year legal veteran
working for a solo attorney in Hancock, N.Y., Maureen P. Hunt made plain
the argument for the advancement and utilization of paralegals in tough
times. As Hunt put it, “Let’s face it. Attorneys are known for being
frugal with a dollar. When we are trained properly, we can take on
substantive tasks, demonstrating a cost savings to legal consumers and
increasing business for our supervising attorneys. The problem is the
legal profession seldom promotes this concept. If more people were
aware, paralegals would fair better in the job market.”
LAT conducted its 2003 Salary Survey by mailing a questionnaire to a
random sampling of 2,221 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 5.8 percent. Final data was compiled
from the 13.2 percent of respondents who completely filled out the
survey and returned it by the Dec. 5, 2003 deadline.