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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

What 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 paralegals.

“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 rewarding perks?

“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 of that.”

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 employees.”

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 meetings.” 

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.

Living Large

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.

Corporate Culture

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.

"It’s 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 Monica, Calif.

“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 the team.”

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 assistants.

Going Public

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 changed everything.

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 noted.

How To Make Changes From Within

So how 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 implemented.”

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, California.

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