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"I Want To Be Surveyed!"


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Half Empty or Half Full

LATs 13th Annual Survey Salary results.
By Rod Hughes
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 paralegal.

Cautious Optimism
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.

Rational Exuberance
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 paid lunches.

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 fairly.

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.

Despite noteworthy 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.

Labeling Paralegals
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 State Bar.

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 $42,149.

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.

Average Joan
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.

Interestingly, LAT’s 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.

Deciphered Meaning
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


Rod Hughes is a public relations representative for two East Coast offices of a top 25 international law firm. Most recently he was the proprietor of Hughes Media, specializing in freelance editorial, writing and public relations services. Hughes has served as editor and publisher of LAT and its sister publication, Law Office Computing, as well as editor of three international litigation newsletters published by Mealey Publications Inc., a subsidiary of LexisNexis. He can be reached at [email protected]

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