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Survey Says Money No. 1 Factor in Job Satisfaction
Survey is Michigan’s first. Flextime competes as most important benefit.
By Michelle DeVera

September/October 2000 Issue

A Michigan legal assistant salary and benefits survey released in March rated money as the No. 1 factor in job satisfaction.

Special Counsel, a national staffing firm based in Jacksonville, Fla., conducted the study, which is a first for the state.

“Just now employers are realizing how much education and skills they [paralegals and legal assistants] bring and how much employers depend on them,” said Sheley L. DeGraw, the firm’s Detroit office placement director. “Slowly but surely, we’ll start to see an increase.”

Not only does the survey help employers and employees alike judge if their salary and benefits package is competitive, but the survey results can also serve as a window into the future, DeGraw said. “It helps you see where you are now and where you can hope to be in the future.”

That future, she added, can be measured in dollars and cents.

According to the survey, in which 497 legal assistants responded, 78 percent said salary was the primary key to career happiness.

The average salary range for a paralegal or legal assistant in any field, from antitrust to residential real estate, started at $30,000 and topped off at $50,000. Less than 30 percent hit the $50 to $60,000 range and no more than 5 percent said they made more than $60,000.

The pay rates weren’t surprising, said Nanette Salawage, a legal services supervisor for Johnson Controls Inc., a large Michigan corporation.

“Lawyers sort of look at legal assistants who have been out practicing for seven plus years as just as valuable as a lawyer who just graduated from law school,” Salawage said.

Close runner-ups for job satisfaction were benefits at 44 percent and flexible hours at 34 percent. The least important factor was prestige, in which 81 percent rated it as “not important.”

However, despite the survey’s No. 3 ranking of flexible hours, some paralegals and educators consider flexible hours or flextime as the most important benefit.

“Flextime gives legal assistants a sense of professional responsibility about their own work, to achieve their goals and be more in control,” said Gloria Boddy, director of the legal assistant program at Oakland University.

“Being able to control one’s day, to make use of their own time without having a supervisor stand over them on a project-by-project basis helps get away from the attorney, secretary relationship,” Boddy said.
Kelly Neville, a paralegal manager at Bodman, Longley & Dahling, agreed. Neville’s top-rated benefit is flexibility.

“You just want the autonomy,” Neville confided.

Neville added, there are nonmonetary ways to make a paralegal feel more professional such as individual offices, benefits packages closer to attorneys and a pay rate that is salaried.

Although Boddy recognized the survey as an important educational resource, she also criticized it for not being able to reach all legal assistants, echoing Neville’s concerns.

“I have a former student who knows she’s being underpaid,” Boddy said. “The survey doesn’t speak to people like her.”

The findings also pointed to some trends that raised a few eyebrows for Special Counsel.

According to the survey, 55 percent received at least three weeks vacation, 71 percent had a bachelor’s degree, 49 percent had held two jobs or less and 87 percent had at least four years of experience.

“What this says is that it [Michigan paralegal field] has stability and is a reflection of comparable markets,” said Jill Pace, executive director for Special Counsel’s Detroit office.

What it also says is that there are higher expectations for paralegals and legal assistants, Salawage explained. She doesn’t hire anyone who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree. Neville said she won’t either.
But, the compensation matches expectations, which is better than it was 15 years ago, said Kelly LaGrave, chair of the legal sssistant section of the State Bar of Michigan.

“It wasn’t heard of for legal assistants to get merit bonuses,” LaGrave explained.

Now, according to the survey, 59 percent get merit-based or discretionary bonuses and 84 percent are earning annual raises.

Special Counsel began researching the survey last fall with help from the state bar’s legal assistant’s section and from Eastern Michigan University, Madonna University and Oakland University.

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