The Ties That Bind
What keeps some paralegals with their current
employers and what drives others away.
By Stacey Hunt, CLA, CLS May/June 2000 Issue
is that not-quite-definable spark of happiness you sometimes experience? That basic
contentment in the pit of your stomach that sees you through less than perfect workdays?
The thing that keeps you at your desk, day in and day out, resisting the temptation to
search for other, greener pastures?
Paralegals, legal administrators and placement
specialists were interviewed to find out just what it is that makes paralegals happy,
loyal employees. Some of the results may be surprising. The stories that follow may
inspire you to approach your current employer about improving your work environment before
you head out the door — or they may make you grateful for the job that you have.
Quality Of Life
Although each person is an individual with unique
needs, some recognizable trends emerged in the late 1990s that are spilling over into the
new century. One of those trends, identified by attorney Jackie M. Johnson and echoed by
other legal professionals, is quality of life. As an account executive for The Affiliates,
a staffing firm in San Diego, Johnson sees quality of life as a definite priority for
“People here in San Diego want time to enjoy the
outdoors,” she explained. “One of the first things the paralegals I am placing
ask for is no out-of-control overtime.”
Other requests Johnson receives from candidates are a
desire for substantive work, an incentive or reward system offered by the employer, a
reasonable salary and paid continuing education. Where are paralegals finding such
“I have been seeing the lowest turnover rates in
either the really small firms or in large firms where the paralegals are paid very
well,” Johnson said. Paralegals are also content when they have a really good
relationship with their employers, Johnson added. “A lot of my recruits want to
report directly to an attorney rather than a paralegal supervisor. They feel the
[paralegal] supervisor is not in touch with the actual work they are doing.”
One unusual switch Johnson said she has noticed is an
exodus of paralegals from the corporate environment. “Experienced paralegals are
asking to go back into the law firm environment out of sheer boredom,” she explained.
“All the juiciest cases are farmed out to outside counsel, and they want to be a part
Heidi Gottberg, placement specialist at Paralegal
Personnel Inc. in Chicago, concurred. “Before, paralegals wanted to leave law firms
to work for corporations. The recent trend is the reverse.” Gottberg said paralegals
tell her that the work in firms is more challenging and varied. Gottberg noted a bigger
turnover in the large firms, but admits that she has had candidates who have stayed at
megafirms for many years. “It really depends on the personality type of the
paralegal,” she said. “In larger law firms, you have a tier level with project
assistants working underneath you. In a smaller environment, the paralegals are more able
to take a case from start to finish, but the tradeoff is you often find yourself doing
more secretarial work.”
For Gottberg’s recruits, salary is the first
consideration, followed by a team environment, being treated as a professional and wanting
to be challenged.
Keeping Paralegals Happy
One new direction taken by firms in today’s tight
job market is the development of paralegal retention programs.
“Some administrators have realized that
specialized paralegals are getting recruited out of their firms,” Gottberg said.
“They are starting to beef up the benefits and ask the paralegals what they
want.” Johnson agreed. “The more successful firms rely on their paralegals and
treat them well,” she observed.
Patricia A. Cercone, a Chicago branch manager for
StaffWise Legal, made a similar observation in her article, “HR Professionals Shape
Firm Attitudes.” (Midwest Legal Staffing Guide, 1999-2000).
“Firms who adopt employee-friendly programs save
in turnover costs, recruiting costs, training and low productivity. It’s when law
firms work to treat their employees not as costs, but as assets that increase in value
over time, that they gain the respect of their current employees and prospected
talent,” Cercone wrote.
What can firms and corporate legal departments do to
attract and keep top drawer paralegals? The key is the creation of an irresistible
corporate culture, according to Max Messmer, chairman and CEO of The Affiliates. In his
article, “The Many Faces of Motivation” (Legal Management, September/October
1997), Messmer stated that “a successful and effective corporate culture takes into
consideration the needs of the whole person. It [the corporate workplace] provides a
supportive structure within which employees can create a balance between excelling at
their jobs and managing their personal lives.”
Although compensation is important, Messmer noted that
“also growing in importance are a variety of nonmonetary rewards and incentives that
shape and define a firm’s corporate culture. Formal and informal policies, fringe
benefits and perks can all help to create an environment conducive to improved employee
productivity and the bottom line.”
Messmer listed incentives such as flexible scheduling,
casual dress policies, health club membership, telecommuting, on-site child care
facilities and job sharing.
What About The Little Guy?
Dangling big salaries and fancy perks is just fine for
the megafirms, with megabudgets to match. But what about the small law office that may
have its heart in the right place even if the dollars aren’t always there? Creativity
is the best solution.
A good example would be the Lansing, Mich., firm of
Hubbard, Fox, Thomas, White & Bengtson. With 14 attorneys and three paralegals, the
firm is considered mid-sized for the area. A few years ago, Hubbard Fox created a support
staff longevity policy. A bonus is given on the employee’s anniversary and goes up
every year the employee stays. “Employee retention is an important component in our
long term plans,” said Sandy Bennett, legal administrator for the firm. “We want
to be active with rewards and incentives so that we can compete with the other firms that
can pay more.”
Hubbard Fox pays for its paralegals to belong to the
Michigan State Bar, the local bar, and one other association of the paralegals’
choice. Paralegals are invited to serve on in-house committees, such as the marketing,
computer and training committees. This support is very much appreciated by Tina Hall, a
13-year veteran of the firm, and president of the Legal Assistant Association of Michigan.
“The firm encourages my involvement. They are
concerned that their employees are satisfied with their work and doing what they want to
do,” Hall explained. Although she is a commercial litigation and bankruptcy
paralegal, Hall is also working as the firm’s network administrator. Hubbard Fox also
keeps its employees happy with other perks, such as an annual Christmas bonus, an
extremely liberal 401(k) plan and plenty of social and networking activities.
“One year for Secretaries’ Day, they gave
everyone a gift certificate to the local mall and the afternoon off,” Hall said.
“There is a very real sense that the firm’s shareholders care about their
Another example of a progressive smaller firm is the
eight-attorney firm of Paul Plevin & Sullivan of San Diego. Legal Administrator Lynne
Kemp works hard at keeping Dawn Yandel, the firm’s sole paralegal, happy. “We
pay Dawn a competitive salary and provide her with challenging work,” Kemp said.
“She is included in the attorneys’ weekly meetings so that she can understand
the strategies about the cases and knows [sic] what will be expected of her.” Yandel
is also welcome at the once-a-month associate training program put on by the firm.
Me And My Shadow
Even a sole practitioner can provide everything a
paralegal needs to keep him or her happy. Cindy Geib, CLAS, is a general practice
paralegal who works for Scott E. Albert in Mount Joy, Pa. “I’ve worked for firms
where all they care about is a warm body in the office,” Geib explained. “There
was so much pressure and the atmosphere was so negative, you felt like you had a gun to
your head.” Not so in her current working environment.
“My boss respects me as a person. He provides a flexible schedule so that I can stay
involved in my children’s school activities.” Albert said he encourages Geib to
attend continuing education seminars and supports her activities in two local and one
national paralegal association. “I am on the Professional Development Committee of
the National Association of Legal Assistants,” Geib said, “a position for which
I must occasionally travel. I never have trouble getting time off to attend those
Geib also said that her
predecessor at Albert’s law office left to work for a larger, more glamorous law
firm. “She really regrets it and wants her old job back,” Geib confided.
Depending on the paralegal’s personality, however,
that large, glamorous law firm may be just the ticket. Pat Elliott is an insurance defense
paralegal for the law firm of Lewis and Roca in Phoenix. Elliott is one of 40 paralegals
in the firm, which numbers 130 attorneys. She had been a freelance paralegal for 11 years
when she took a contract job with the firm and fell in love with it. She accepted a
full-time position with the firm approximately three years ago. “Paralegal[s] are
considered on a par here with the lawyers,” Elliott explained. “We are exempt
employees, who come and go as we please.”
The firm has a paralegal committee that meets regularly
with the paralegals to air concerns. Elliott noted that “during our annual review, we
are encouraged to prepare a memo which not only outlines the good work we do for the firm,
but also highlights the outside professional activities we are involved in.” She
likes the fact that annual bonuses are based not just on billable hours, but on the
paralegal’s total contribution to the firm. This includes professional and
educational development. Lewis & Roca is committed to promoting from within, and gives
its paralegals as much responsibility as they care to handle.
Despite a noted trend in paralegals leaving the
corporate world, the allure is still there for many. According to Regina O’Brien, a
paralegal placement consultant with Stone Legal Resources Group in Boston, corporations
require little overtime and have no billable hour requirements. “Corporations offer
better benefits, such as stock options, and they pay well,” O’Brien said.
Although the paralegal is part of a large corporation, “the legal department itself
is usually small and you feel as though you are part of a team,” she said.
One legal assistant who agreed with O’Brien is
Jeri Krueger. A corporate paralegal for the last 18 years with Cordant Technologies in
Salt Lake City, Krueger performs securities filings and does background research for
acquisitions and litigation. She has worked in the seven-lawyer, three-paralegal
department for the last 12 years.
In Their Own Words
Paralegals from around the United States reflect on
what makes them happiest at work.
not always about money. The most important thing for me is working with and helping
clients, followed by the ability to grow and expand my skills.” — Tina Hall,
commercial litigation and bankruptcy paralegal, Hubbard, Fox, Thomas, White &
Bengston, Lansing, Mich.
“I work very independently and get paid well. I have
some flexibility with my hours and the work I do is very interesting.” — Kai
Ellis, CLA, insurance coverage paralegal, Nelsen, Thompson, Pegue & Thornton, Santa
“My office is committed to my educational
development. They offer excellent fringe benefits in the form of time off, holidays and
paid insurance.” — Marcy Jankovich, an executive legal assistant with the
Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, Jackson, Mich.
“I get a lot of responsibility from my boss. The
firm has a great salary review process and we receive bonuses twice a year. They make it
as enjoyable as they can for you to come to work and provide you with whatever you need to
get the job done.” — Tina Brower, CLAS, estate planning paralegal, Hyden, Miron
& Foster, Little Rock, Ark.
“There is no class system in this firm. Our
administrator has an open door policy and welcomes new ideas. We get year-end bonuses
based on the firm’s productivity and they make everyone feel as though they were part
of the [firm’s] success.” Grace Carter, CLA, intellectual property paralegal,
Myers, Bigel, Sibley & Sajovec, Raleigh, N.C.
“What I love is the variety of work and the great atmosphere,” Krueger said.
“There are not a lot of hierarchial lines and I’m made to feel a major part of
Cordant pays well, provides
excellent insurance, vacation and retirement benefits to its employees, and pays for
Krueger’s professional organization dues. “They will also pay for my continuing
education, from seminars to college tuition,” she boasted.
Another contented in-house paralegal is Taint L.
Roebuck, who is employed as a trademark paralegal by Polaroid Corp. in Cambridge, Mass.
There are three paralegals and 13 lawyers in her department.
“Polaroid is supportive of and fosters career
growth,” Roebuck explained. “Management respects our opinions and relies on us
as though we were associates.”
The paralegals are included in the lawyers’
meetings and take part in the interviewing process for secretaries and administrative
The public sector is another place where paralegal
retention is taken seriously. Fawn Barnes, division chief of the Legal Assistant Division
of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, oversees 84 paralegals, who
support 320 attorneys in both the civil and criminal sectors. There are many paralegals
who have been with Maricopa County for a dozen or more years. Barnes said she attributes
the low turnover rate to several things, but first and foremost to the county attorney
himself. “He is very aggressive and employee-oriented,” Barnes noted, “and
he is very supportive of paralegals.” When the division began losing some second and
third-year paralegals, the county attorney stopped the exodus by quickly bringing the
salaries up to market rate for the area.
“We also have extremely varied and interesting
work for the paralegals to do here,” she said proudly.
Paralegals interested in criminal work can choose from
the division’s homicide, vehicular crime, family violence, sex crime, white collar
crime, drug, gang, insurance fraud or asset forfeiture units. “Paralegals in the drug
unit have actually gone out on drug busts,” Barnes added. If the paralegal prefers
civil work, he or she can pick between the environmental, administrative, litigation,
prisoner civil rights, or tax appeal units. And if the paralegal gets bored, he or she can
always transfer between units for a change of pace. “The work is fun here and the
turnover is low. One paralegal left to try out the private sector and was back in two
weeks,” Barnes explained.
The Dark Side
Along with the tales of contented paralegals, there are
also those who have seen the less than pleasant side of the paralegal workplace. Some
paralegals, even those who had once been content, found that a simple change in management
One such paralegal is Rhonda Flores (not her real name), a 15-year veteran paralegal
working for a Florida firm. The firm used to have a great reputation for generosity and
treating its employees well, according to Flores. Paralegals were looked upon as profit
centers and important contributors to the firm. When Flores’ daughter became
seriously ill, management was empathetic, allowing Flores extra time off when needed to
attend doctor visits and treatment with her daughter.
“I appreciated this special treatment tremendously and worked all
the harder in gratitude,” Flores explained. Everything was rosy. Then the firm’s
administrator, who had been there for 20 years, retired, and a new manager took over. The
new manager did some “research” and determined that the paralegals’ pay and
benefits were excessive for the market.
The firm cut back Flores’ vacation time from six
weeks to four. According to Flores, the paralegals at her firm began receiving raises best
described as insulting. Adding insult to injury, Flores and her co-workers were told not
to expect more money because they were already overpaid.
“We used to be a highly motivated and productive
group,” Flores explained, “but the new management policy has made everyone less
dedicated.” In the end, what Flores describes as management’s short-sightedness,
may cause a once reputable firm to suffer as its experienced paralegals begin to leave and
look for more rewarding opportunities.
“And its new reputation is such that it is going
to have a difficult time replacing the departing paralegals,” Flores complained.
Another horror story comes from Shannon Ross (not her
real name), an in-house paralegal for a Texas corporation. “Our former manager was
one of the lawyers,” Ross explained, “who had a very hands-off management
style.” As the only paralegal in her department, Ross said she had received very
supportive annual reviews. Then, during a “housecleaning” at the firm, all of
the attorneys in her department were fired and replaced. A new person was brought in as
the administrator who, according to Ross, had no prior management experience. “She is
the textbook micromanager,” Ross said. “She has to know everything you are doing
at every minute, when you leave, where you go and when you come back. The support staff is
starting to leave.” Ross said she’s bored and unchallenged in her position and
is considering the possibility of moving into another area of the company.
Paralegals in Southern California rate their job and salary satisfaction.
Members of the Orange County Paralegal Association in Southern
California were asked to rate their job satisfaction as part of a salary survey conducted
in 1999. In total, 105 southern California paralegals responded and of the paralegals who
reported the greatest overall satisfaction, the most (73) reported a high level of
independence and autonomy in their work. The second highest factor (with 60 paralegals
reporting) was variety of work, followed by interaction (57), challenging projects (53)
and regular hours (52). Although only 36 of the respondents said they were satisfied with
their salaries, that fact didn’t have a major impact on the overall happiness of
respondents. The vast majority of the paralegals who answered the survey planned to make
the paralegal profession their permanent career.
Why are so few paralegals happy with their salaries?
Perhaps the artificial necessity of tying paralegal salaries to associate salaries, which
many firms subscribe to, has something to do with it. According to Rhonda Flores, a
Florida paralegal (not her real name), associates began leaving her firm because they were
making as much or only slightly more than senior paralegals. “But if you start
capping the salaries of paralegals because they make more than two-year associates, you
take away one of the best incentives for paralegals to stay with the firm,” Flores
How To Make Changes From Within
can you make some positive changes in management policies within your own office?
“You must get the firm’s key management
people on your side if you want to make any changes,” advised Bennett. To test the
waters, she suggested you make one small, non-threatening suggestion and present it in a
way that shows it will benefit the firm rather than yourself or the other paralegals.
“I have often found that attorneys feel very competitive with other firms in the
area,” noted Bennett. “They become concerned if they are the only ones in the
area not offering that particular perk.” She said she was able to obtain Internet
access for the firm’s employees using just that approach. Another trick Bennett keeps
up her sleeve is letting her managing attorneys take credit for the ideas she suggests.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the kudos as long as a good, new policy is
Camille Grabowski, division director of The Affiliates
in Palo Alto, Calif., has the following specific recommendations depending on the type of
changes you want to see made. “If you are not able to balance between your work and
family duties, there is probably an overtime problem,” she said. “You must
approach the firm’s management and inform [them] that there is a staffing
issue.” Lobbying for the hiring of an additional paralegal may be one of the ways to
solve this problem.
If you’re longing for the ability to grow in your
job, you should suggest that your firm create new career opportunities. “Establishing
work tiers within the organization or creating work teams will give paralegals the
exciting and invaluable experience of being managers,” Grabowski suggested.
Suppose you’d like to get your company to
establish a flex-time policy. It’s not as impossible as you might think, according to
Grabowski. “The idea is to get the employers to expand their thought processes and
begin thinking creatively about how they utilize their employees.” A paralegal could
ask for a simple accommodation that may spark the change (i.e., informing management that
child care is a problem on Fridays and asking to be allowed to telecommute that day).
Grabowski explained, “Once the creativity starts flowing, management is much more
open to other suggestions.
The key is for paralegals to make themselves into
valuable employees, recognize their value, and get the firm to recognize that added value
as well. Creating change is a subtle balance between making reasonable requests and gently
reminding the firm they can’t replace you overnight. Operating from platforms of
mutual respect, paralegals and their employers can cooperate to make each other happy, and
ultimately, more successful.
STACEY HUNT, CLA, CAS, has 14 years of experience
as a litigation paralegal and is co-author of “Hot Docs and Smoking Guns: Managing
Document Production and Document Organization”. She is an adjunct instructor in the
paralegal programs at Fresno City College and California Polytechnic State University, San
Luis Obispo, California. Stacey is employed with Jencks Law Group in Arroyo Grande,