How Big Is Your Piece of the
Paralegals carved out a
large salary increase in 2001.
By Rod Hughes
March/April 2002 Issue
Following the events of Sept. 11 and the apparent
deepening of the U.S. recession, many paralegals might think their share
of the financial pie has spoiled. Not so, according to Legal Assistant
Today’s (LAT) 2001 National Salary Survey. In fact, in 2001 legal
assistants as a whole enjoyed one of the largest slices of increased
salaries in more than six years, according to LAT’s findings. The
average salary for paralegals in 2001 increased by an amazing 9.4
percent over 2000’s salaries, reaching $41,599 in a year marked by steep
economic decline. In addition, 70.6 percent of respondents indicated
they received a bonus, averaging nationally at about $3,058. While the
nation was largely concerned with safety and the ability of workers to
put food on the table last year, paralegals continued to enjoy the just
desserts of a growing profession.
In an interesting comparison, according
to LAT’s 1995 Salary Survey, the average paralegal salary was then just
$31,503. In the last six years, paralegals have seen their salaries
increase by an average of $1,700 per year. Additionally, the largest
year-to-year percentage increase in recent memory was just 4.9 percent
when comparing 1996 salaries to their counterparts in 1995. At the close
of 2001, LAT found salaries increased by nearly twice as much.
Mary Ellen Perkins, president of the
Legal Assistant Management Association (LAMA), said she was surprised at
hearing of a nearly 10 percent salary growth rate between 2000 and 2001.
“If [law firms] are turning more to
legal assistants from a cost-cutting perspective — giving work to
paralegals instead of associates — [the average salary increase] would
make sense,” Perkins explained.
National Association of Legal
Assistants (NALA) president, Pat Elliott, CLAS, was equally surprised at
the growth in average national salaries in just one year.
Elliott said she hoped one reason for
salary growth in 2001 was due to better use of paralegals as a cost
cutting measure. “We can save clients money,” she added.
Other organizations analyzing legal
assistant pay scales in 2001 included the National Federation of
Paralegal Associations (NFPA), which recently issued the results of its
own bi-annual salary survey. NFPA determined that in 2001, paralegals
earned an average of $41,721, with an average bonus of $2,468.
Salary figures for 2001 from NALA and
LAMA were not available at press time.
In a more broad-based profession
overview, The Affiliates 2002 Salary Guide found midlevel-experienced
paralegals (those with four- to-six years experience on average) earned
salaries in an average range of $37,875 to $48,500, regardless of firm
size in 2001. A specialized legal staffing firm, The Affiliates reported
its data was derived from job searches, negotiations and placements
conducted by its North American offices in 2001. It’s worth pointing out
that case clerk workers were included in The Affiliates survey analysis
of paralegal salaries.
Meanwhile, LexisNexis reported on Jan.
29 that “most recent paralegal salary surveys consistently indicate that
the average paralegal had an annual salary of approximately $41,000 in
2001.” LexisNexis didn’t specifically identify which surveys were used
to support the company’s conclusion, however, both NFPA and The
Affiliates were named as salary information resources, along with
Putting aside bottom-line figures and
turning more to perception of the market, LAT’s survey indicated 65.2
percent of respondents with average salaries of $44,004 felt they were
paid fairly, an increase of 4.4 percent over findings from 2000.
Conversely, 34.8 percent of 2001 respondents with average salaries of
$37,440 claimed they were unfairly paid — a decrease of 4.4 percent
compared to LAT’s 2000 findings. These figures indicate that on average,
legal assistants on a national scale increasingly feel salaries are
moving toward more acceptable levels.
“The people I speak with regularly at
conventions and conferences, I think these people are very happy with
their jobs. I don’t think we are seeing as much moving around in terms
of switching jobs,” Elliott explained.
Perkins agreed with Elliott, and noted
that the growing rate of satisfaction may also have to do with efforts
made within the paralegal field as well.
“I think we are seeing paralegal
stature improving. As regulatory schemes are looked at and the activity
of paralegal associations increases … a message is getting out about the
effectiveness of paralegals,” Perkins said, adding that increased
satisfaction with legal assistant salaries is tied closely to the
education of lawyers about the roles and responsibilities of paralegals.
The Crème de
The top three specialty areas in which to work, in terms of
volume of respondents rather than salary figures, remained consistent
with findings from 2000. For 2001, the largest number of respondents —
47.3 percent; down 5.4 percent from 2000 — worked in the field of
litigation with an average salary of $41,619. The next largest group,
22.1 percent of those who responded, worked in personal injury law and
averaged an annual salary of $37,830 last year. Corporate paralegals,
averaging $44,838 in annual compensation in 2001, rounded out the top
three fields of law ranking at 18.9 percent of the total respondents.
The top three leaders in highest
average salary more or less continued to grow beyond 2000’s highs, yet
offered somewhat interesting results. For 2001, intellectual property
($52,540), mergers and acquisitions ($49,002) and product liability
($48,915) proved to offer the most earning power for legal assistants.
Mergers and acquisitions ceded its number one spot in 2000 to
intellectual property in 2001, and even took a slight dip in earning
power, dropping $71 from its 2000 high. Meanwhile, product liability
managed to edge out last year’s big number three player, banking and
finance, which appears to have taken a nearly $3,000 nose dive compared
to its 2000 average. For 2001, criminal law supplanted family law in
terms of lowest national earning power, averaging $31,253. The last year
LAT measured criminal law as last in terms of salary was in 1999, when
it averaged $26,592 for the year.
Specialty practice areas not
withstanding, the Western region of the United States took the biggest
bite of legal assistant salaries for the second year in a row, with
paralegals in the Western states earning an average of $45,620 in 2001 —
a $5,248 increase over 2000. The Midwest region, as it has consistently
done since LAT’s 1997 Salary Survey, reported the lowest average annual
legal assistant income for 2001 at $36,376. Unfortunately, as a whole,
Midwestern paralegals managed to increase their 2000 salaries by an
average of only $626 in 2001.
A Variety of
Looking beneath the surface, there were a number of
ingredients that came together to create the national averages for 2001
in the paralegal marketplace. Fifty-three percent of respondents
reported being classified as nonexempt employees by their employers,
while 47 percent said they were considered exempt. Nonexempt employees
earned an average of $498 more than their exempt counterparts
As for billing, 53.2 percent of
paralegals who responded to the LAT survey by the Dec. 14 deadline
reported their employers billed clients for paralegal time spent on
client matters, while 46.8 percent didn’t bill for their time. Of those
who did bill for their time, 20.7 percent reported their time was billed
to clients within a $76 to $85 per hour range. Nineteen percent billed
between $66 and $75 per hour, while 11.6 percent billed between $56 and
$65 per hour. Slightly more than 49 percent of paralegals who were
required to bill their time in 2001 reported having to meet a minimum of
between 1,401 and 1,600 hours per year. Of those who billed, 23.1
percent said between 6 and 10 percent of their time was spent on
Of those who responded prior to the survey deadline, 69.1
percent of paralegals said they identified themselves using the
paralegal title, versus 31.3 percent who use the title legal assistant.
Included in both responses were those who use both titles.
“We are seeing an ongoing debate [in
terms of title],” Perkins said. “To some extent, it’s geographic. There
is a great deal of concern on the part of paralegal associations on the
muddying of the distinction between the paralegal or legal assistant
titles and the legal secretary title. I don’t know that we are going to
settle on a single term.”
From Elliott’s perspective, the terms
remain — for now — unalterably intertwined.
“If you look at all of the court cases
and the [American Bar Association’s] definition, they use the terms
paralegal and legal assistant interchangeably. Within our own
organization, every year or so we ask that question of our membership.
We have asked which title our members prefer and they have come back
more or less evenly split,” Elliott said.
Regardless of title, the makeup of the
typical paralegal position demonstrates that last year’s findings
regarding paralegal duties are largely unchanged. Document management,
client relations and research were 2001’s top priorities for paralegal
duties, while there was a marginal move away from clerical work with
31.5 percent of 2001 respondents handling this task in contrast to 32.7
percent of 2000 respondents.
One of last year’s significant
improvements over 2000 was a 28 percent jump in the number of paralegals
sharing a secretary, thus allowing paralegals to continue working on
more substantive legal matters under the supervision of an attorney.
Positions, Dough Both on the Rise
In 2001, 27 percent of paralegals who responded to LAT’s
survey said they witnessed an increase in paralegal hiring by their
employers compared to 25.5 percent from the year before.
What is most interestingly reflected in
these figures is that, despite the state of the economy, 2001 showed an
overall drop in the nationwide percentage of paralegal positions lost
during the year. Just 7.7 percent of respondents said available
paralegal positions with their employers decreased in 2001, versus a 9.1
percent decrease in 2000.
Overall, the estimated loss of
paralegal positions in 2001 was not a bad average when considering
overall unemployment rates had been rising steadily last year until
“From what I understand and what I have
seen personally, (the job market for paralegals) has mostly stayed the
same. A couple of firms I know have had hiring freezes, but I haven’t
seen major cuts in terms of legal assistant positions. In the Phoenix
area, we still have a good job market for paralegals. We’re still
hiring,” Elliott said.
A majority of paralegals (81 percent)
with less than three years experience reportedly began their careers
working in the law firm environment. Law firms in 2001 continued as the
dominant employer of paralegals who had between three- and-five years
experience (88 percent), while corporate and government entities tended
to more frequently retain paralegals with five- to-seven years
experience or more.
With a slight improvement nationally on
the available job front, salaries based on firm size or field of law
also took an interesting turn in 2001. Legal assistants working in law
firms or for the government saw their average overall salaries rise by
nearly $4,000 compared to 2000’s findings, while corporate paralegals
saw a more modest increase of about $2,700 over the prior year. “I would
think the law firms are where the money is,” Perkins said, herself a
corporate paralegal. “Working in a corporate law office is a lifestyle
choice in terms of less overtime and what-have-you, whereas law firms
are where the real money usually is at.”
And while paralegals working for law
firms with more than 100 attorneys continued to earn more than any other
group for the third year in a row, legal assistants working for law
firms with between 26 and 50 attorneys reported earning an impressive
average of $9,700 more than the same group in LAT’s 2000 findings.
It has long been understood that while salary is one of the
most important issues for employees, benefits and perks offered by
employers sometimes rank nearly as high on the priority list. In 2000,
LAT found 83.1 percent of respondents had employers who either paid or
shared in the costs of continuing education opportunities for
paralegals. By comparison, the number of employers in 2001 who offered
this benefit grew by less than 2 percent. Additionally, 82.7 percent of
this year’s respondents said their employers offered a 401k or other
retirement-related program, up just 1.1 percent from the year before.
Given the economic upheaval of 2001, it
isn’t surprising to discover employers efforts to control costs by
offering more dough — literally — and less filling. Despite the average
decline in added employee incentives, a few interesting perks were
reported sporadically throughout the country. A handful of legal
assistants called attention to some of their more unique employment
benefits which included: charitable contribution matching; special
occasion dinners (anniversary, birthday, graduation) paid for by their
employers; an in-house gym, complete with a personal trainer; free legal
services; and telecommuting options.
While the scope of legal assistant
benefits and perks may not have broadened significantly in 2001, the
diversity of what was made available is noteworthy in itself.
Consistently identified as the single most important factor
in the professional advancement of the paralegal community, education
proved to be a means to higher salaries in 2001, according to LAT’s
Salary Survey. The highest earners, as determined by educational
experience, were the 5.4 percent of respondents who reported holding
master’s degrees. This group averaged approximately $45,899 annually in
2001, followed by 46.8 percent of respondents with bachelor’s degrees
who earned an average of $42,171 last year. Paralegals holding
associate’s degrees (32.9 percent of respondents) reported an average
income of $40,021 in 2001, ranking about $1,500 below paralegals without
degrees (14.9 percent), who reported $41,567 in annual average
compensation. Of those responding with education information, legal
assistants with associate’s degrees saw their incomes improve by 15.5
percent over 2000 figures. Those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees
saw their average salaries rise 10 percent and 5.9 percent respectively
over the previous year. Those without degrees experienced a less-than 1
percent growth rate in annual salaries compared to 2000 figures.
In a reversal of fortunes from LAT’s
2000 findings, 4.9 percent of paralegal respondents holding the PACE
(Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam) certification earned an average of
$52,030 in 2001, while 18.8 percent of legal assistants who passed the
Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) examination reported an average salary
of $40,010. In 2000, the opposite was found with CLA-designated
paralegals earning nearly $2,500 more annually than legal assistants who
Tying education to regional averages,
paralegals holding master’s degrees in the Northeast region of the
United States commanded the most earning power in 2001 with an average
regional salary of $45,784. The Western region took the top regional
salaries for legal assistants with bachelor’s and associate’s degrees
with average annual incomes of $49,860 and $43,736 respectively. Legal
assistants without degrees appeared to fare best in the Southern region
of the United States with an average salary of $41,609, according to
When the Pie
Many people take great satisfaction in polishing off that
last slice of pie, and as a result, find nothing more disturbing than
discovering their dessert missing. A cute analogy for sure, but one that
can easily apply to the apprehension surrounding employment in difficult
In the 2001 Salary Survey, LAT asked
paralegals to share their concerns about the job market by answering
questions related to their employment goals and recent experiences. Less
than 1 percent of respondents reported being recently laid off from
their paralegal jobs in the 12 months preceding their receipt of the
survey. While that figure reflects well upon the previous year, some
paralegals are not willing to leave 2002’s economy to chance.
Approximately 23.3 percent of respondents reported having looked for
other paralegal work in the 12 months prior to receiving their survey,
with 22.2 percent indicating they plan to look for new legal assistant
positions in 2002.
“Our whole lives have changed
(following Sept. 11), and we’re a little bit nervous about what is
happening in the world. I think, in times of crisis, more people tend to
take stock and stay put. I think [22 percent is] low given the fact that
the country is at war,” Elliott said.
For Perkins, 22 percent of the
paralegal market looking for work, given the economic woes of 2001,
seems just about right.
“I know that whenever you have a
downsizing situation, people start putting their feelers out there, and
they sometimes find there are other employers out there who are willing
to pay more. People who have no intention of leaving, when they get a
whiff of a merger or a downsizing, suddenly they start looking and find
better opportunities. It makes sense,” Perkins explained.
Precipitating factors that sent more
than a few searching for work in this small but vocal group vary,
however, a feeling of overall discontent seemed to fill each response.
Slightly more than half of all
respondents who plan to look for a new paralegal job said they will do
so because of low pay. Approximately 40 percent said they are no longer
challenged by their work, and 28 percent reported their contributions
are not recognized by their employers.
A small but noteworthy minority — 11
percent of respondents — said they intend to seek work outside the
paralegal profession in 2002.
Of those paralegals who reported having
to find work in 2001, either through lay-offs or their own desire to
change paralegal jobs, a majority said they were able to find new jobs
in the field within one- to-two months.
The Aroma of
2001 was truly an ironman year for many paralegals. Despite
depressed economics, terrorism and a war, legalassistants made a number
of noteworthy advances on the financial front when many might have
In addition, while some areas, such as
benefits and perks failed to demonstrate dramatic improvements,
paralegals held their own against incredible financial odds and lost
little, if any, ground in the advancement of the profession and its
Legal Assistant Today conducted its 2001 Salary Survey by
mailing a four-page questionnaire to a computer-generated, random
sampling of 2,000 of the magazine’s current subscribers.
The resulting data is illustrated in the charts throughout this feature,
and includes a margin of error of plus or minus 6.1 percent. The final
data was compiled from the 13.6 percent of respondents who supplied
verifiable names and addresses on the surveys by the Dec. 14, 2001