Still $miling After 2002?
In a year rife with
economic decline, paralegals still managed some respectable gains.
By Rod Hughes
March/April 2003 Issue
Dennis Nakata likes his job. As a legal assistant
working on public law issues for the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based law firm
of Rutan & Tucker, Nakata said he enjoys his work and feels he is
appropriately compensated. And he isn’t alone.
Legal Assistant Today’s 2002 Salary
Survey shows nearly 66 percent of respondents said they feel they are
paid fairly for the work they perform. In 2002, LAT found the average
salary for legal assistants was approximately $43,461, leaving employee
satisfaction reasonably assured. Despite modest gains in earnings,
however, it seems the balloon that took paralegal salary increases into
the stratosphere in 2001 has lost buoyancy along with the U.S. economy.
In 2001, LAT found the average legal assistant salary
increased 9.4 percent over 2000’s average. For 2002, the rate of
increase slowed to 4.5 percent when compared to the year prior. While
it’s still an increase, it’s also the smallest year-over-year percentage
increase since LAT’s 1999 survey.
“I think, even in the legal market,
those dot-coms had a large role to play. When those businesses faded,
corporate law, intellectual property and civil law areas, to name only a
few, faded a little as well and employers acted in kind with regard to
salaries,” Nakata explained.
Having served as the survey chairman
for the Orange County Paralegal Association’s annual salary survey in
2000 and 2001, Nakata said he saw Southern California legal assistant
salaries continue to grow despite the dot-com bust, but said he also
didn’t notice anything “jumping out” at him in terms of compensation
Accordingly, Mary Ellen Perkins,
immediate past president of the Legal Assistant Management Association,
told LAT in 2002 that she was surprised by LAT’s impressive findings for
average salary growth in 2001. In contrast to Perkins’ view — along with
others interviewed by LAT that year — The Affiliates, a legal staffing
firm, published its 2002 Salary Guide, which found paralegals with
midlevel experience (four- to-six years) in 2001 were compensated within
an average range of $37,875 to $48,500. That same year, The Affiliates
guide provided an average salary range for senior paralegals (seven or
more years experience) of $43,750 to $56,250. Both ranges provided by
The Affiliates supported LAT’s 2001 average salary findings.
Even with slow growth in salary
increases, 2002 offered a number of noteworthy findings. In LAT’s
region-by-region analysis of the United States, every segment of the
country reported welcomed increases in average regional salaries.
Kristen Fullerton, immediate past
president of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and a paralegal
at Dechert LLP in Philadelphia, an international law firm, reported many
of the recruiters she and her association spoke with said 2002 was a
slow growth year for paralegal positions. “What I hear from recruiters I
have spoken with is that 2002 was very slow; very quiet. But recruiters
are telling me they are starting to see an improvement,” Fullerton said.
Most law firms in the Philadelphia area seem to have held steady
regarding staffing, and Fullerton said she knew of only one major firm
in Philadelphia that was forced to let people go last year due to the
sagging economy. She was quick to emphasize that 2002 was still a
relatively good year in terms of salary increases despite what many have
termed as a slow-growth economy.
“I think [LAT’s national average] is in
line with local figures we had gotten from NFPA’s survey back in 2001.
The average salary in Philadelphia then was about $43,000. The $2,600
average raise [LAT] found on the national level is probably close to
what we are seeing for midlevel paralegals here,” Fullerton said. “It’s
hard to say for certain because there are so many variables involved.”
In terms of her own region, however,
Fullerton noted that LAT’s Northeast region rate-of-growth findings are
higher than what many of the legal assistants she knows are
experiencing. “We’re certainly not seeing 12 percent salary increases in
Philadelphia as far as I know,” Fullerton added.
Minnesota Paralegal Association
President Debra Nelson said she found LAT’s $39,634 average salary for
Midwestern paralegals to be fairly accurate. “I think it’s pretty close
to being on par with what we’re experiencing in this part of the
country. In Minnesota specifically, we have midlevel paralegals making
between $39,000 and $40,000. However, I also know a paralegal making
$80,000 per year. What is important when looking at surveys is that they
are all about averages. Everything is subjective,” Nelson explained.
For the fourth year in a row, states in
the West boasted the highest average salary in LAT’s survey results.
Interestingly though, it was the Northeast region of the country that
experienced the highest percentage of growth when compared to 2001,
while the West tied with the South for last place in percentage-based
In August 2002, the National Association of Legal Assistants
released the results of its National Utilization and Compensation
Survey. According to NALA’s findings, the average paralegal salary in
2002 was approximately $43,002. NALA’s survey went on to find that the
average bonus in 2002 was $2,909 and that those holding the Certified
Legal Assistant credential made an average of $604 more annually than
those without the CLA designation. In one dramatic finding, the NALA
survey showed paralegals with a Certified Legal Assistant Specialist
designation earned an average of $4,403 more than those who didn’t hold
a CLAS credential.
When breaking out average salaries by
type of legal assistant education, NALA found those with the highest
salary held master’s degrees ($57,000), followed by post baccalaureate
certificates ($46,084), undergraduate certificates ($45,204),
associate’s degrees ($40,114) and finally bachelor’s degrees ($39,163).
LAT’s survey found that broken down by
general education, on average paralegals earned $41,931 without a
degree, $41,547 with an associate’s degree, $45,082 with a bachelor’s
degree and $44,561 with a master’s degree. Also, the number of people
reporting to hold undergraduate degrees increased noticeably compared to
2001, while the number of paralegals reporting to hold master’s degrees
declined nearly 3 percent. When considering legal assistant
examinations, paralegals holding a CLAS designation (6.3 percent of LAT
respondents) earned an average salary of $45,966. LAT also found legal
assistants who hold the CLA designation (20 percent of respondents)
earned an average of $44,151 while those with the National Federation of
Paralegal Assocations’ Registered Paralegal designation (4.4 percent of
respondents) earned approximately $41,189.
Despite the Market
For paralegals working in a law firm setting, LAT found
2002’s highest average paying legal areas were securities ($69,786), tax
($56,329), administrative ($54,000), environmental ($49,875) and
corporation and enterprise ($48,041).
In NALA’s survey, the hot areas for
2002 were intellectual property ($45,051), mergers and acquisitions
($44,956), corporate ($44,413), banking and finance ($43,208) and
securities and antitrust ($42,840).
Additionally, the highest individual
full-time salary reported to LAT in 2002 was $155,000 — nearly $70,000
more than the magazine’s 2001 findings and the highest reported
individual salary in the history of LAT’s gathering of such information.
It must also be noted that 2002 presented LAT with the lowest individual
full-time salary reported since 1999 ($12,000).
Further, averages for both annual
raises and bonuses fell when compared to 2001 findings by nearly $100
and $430 respectively.
Pride, Not Profit
But what about those respondents (nearly 66 percent) who,
like Nakata, reported they are paid fairly and satisfied with their
compensation? While there are more paralegals declaring satisfaction
with their wages, these legal professionals are indicative of what many
experienced in 2002 — they experienced an increase, but only slightly.
In all the years LAT has asked “Are you paid fairly?” there has never
been a year in which the percentage of people who responded in the
affirmative has increased by less than one percent, until 2002 (those
satisfied with their salaries increased only 0.7 percent compared to
So like many paralegals, Nakata said he
is still pleased with his work and his compensation, but some years were
better than others.
“I would say 2000 was my best year in
terms of salary increases,” said Nakata, who joined Rutan & Tucker as an
entry-level legal assistant in 1998. He noted, however, that while the
tech sector was still driving much of the economy in 2000, other factors
led to his satisfactory compensation increase that same year.
“I was also entering my second-to-third
year as a paralegal at the time. At that point in your career, you
generally move out of that beginning paralegal phase. With increasing
experience, you take on more responsibilities. When my employer found I
could do my job well and could be more helpful by handling more complex
tasks, my billing rate went up. And when that happens, you generally see
an increase in your salary,” Nakata explained. Nakata said that a strong
economy and a growing skill set are what allowed him to benefit from the
economic boom in 2000. And while the economy has fizzled a bit, he still
has an array of paralegal skills to meet the challenges and
opportunities his work will offer him in 2003 and beyond.
One tactic that many used to advance
their salaries in 2000 isn’t as advisable as it was when the economy was
still booming. In 2001, when the economy began to cool, only 22.2
percent of respondents to LAT’s survey reported they would seek other
paralegal work in 2002. Based on this year’s findings, that number is
down slightly, with 21.5 percent saying they will look for other work in
the legal assistant field. Reasons for leaving remain the same, although
a noticeable drop was seen in the number of paralegals who reported
being underpaid as the main motivation to find a new job (50.9 percent
in 2001 versus only 38.8 percent in 2002).
Expectations, Lower Pay
One factor that might have caused paralegals to rethink a job
change last year was the declining availability of legal assistant
positions and lower salary for more junior positions.
“Given the economy, that has everything
to do with [the slowed rate of salary growth]. We have a lot of
entry-level people entering the market and a number of senior paralegals
retiring or getting ready to retire,” Minnesota’s Nelson noted.
She explained that MPA saw its student
membership double in 2002. Her take on the slowed growth was simply more
entry-level legal assistants than before are entering the legal
marketplace in the midwestern region of the country, and are therefore
starting at the lower end of the legal assistant salary latter than
would more experienced paralegals.
“It also depends on where you are as
well as what type of work you are doing,” Nelson explained. Having
recently made the move from the state attorney’s office to a corporate
environment, Nelson said she experienced a significant increase in
While experienced paralegals were in
the majority of respondents to LAT’s survey, 28.1 percent of respondents
reported having seven or fewer years of legal assistant experience.
Combined, that 28.1 percent demographic boasted an average salary of
$37,805 in 2002.
How Is the Air
Average salaries broken down by employer in 2002 were $49,467
in the corporate environment, $42,582 for work at a law office and
$37,681 for government paralegal work. Only the average salary for
government work in 2002 declined compared to that same area in 2001
For paralegals in the job market, there
were a few noteworthy shifts in 2002 regarding just how they found their
current jobs. In 2001, networking was the main successful conduit to
employment for 33 percent of respondents. In 2002, people using this
means to a better job shot up to 42 percent of respondents, while agency
placement dropped from 15.8 percent in 2001 to 12.8 percent in 2002.
Whether it’s the economy or overall job
satisfaction, slightly fewer paralegals reported a desire to find a new
job in the paralegal market in 2002 compared to 2001. Paralegals who
want to stay with their current employers noted benefits such as
flexible schedules (41.3 percent), work from home opportunities (16.8
percent) and gym memberships (10.5 percent) as factors in their overall
Those who are considering a switch said
they rank a lack of recognition for contributions and a lack of
challenge in their work as the preeminent reasons for seeking a
Each year, paralegals struggle to gather information that
will assist them in making their case to employers for higher wages. The
battle is never easy, and surveys often conflict.
A frequent reaction to some survey
findings is either frustration that you are not making as much as others
or joy because you are ahead of the curve. What must be kept in mind is
a survey offers averages. There are salaries factored into that final
average figure that are both higher and lower than the published
To determine where you should be in
terms of compensation, you need to look at different surveys, analyze
and compare averages, and talk to your peers about ranges rather than
“To keep up-to-date on what your market
offers in terms of salary, I highly suggest that you join your local
paralegal association,” Nakata noted. He explained that through
associations, you will meet a variety of paralegals — from students and
entry-level paralegals to 30-year veterans and nearly everything in
between. After all, who knows better what salaries are available then
the people earning them?
LAT conducted its 2002 Salary Survey by mailing a four-page
questionnaire to a computer-generated, random sampling of 2,500 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 5.1
percent. Final data was compiled from the 15.3 percent of respondents
who supplied verifiable names and addresses on the surveys by the Dec.
6, 2002 deadline.