Association and national statistics provide the latest
information on paralegal compensation and benefits
By Rick Brundrett, Special to Carolina Paralegal News
Next to sex, one’s pay might be the most sensitive topic to discuss openly.
But as paralegals across the country have faced layoffs, furloughs and salary freezes and cuts with the Great Recession, the subject of pay has been on the front burner in recent years.
Carolina Paralegal News wanted to find out what’s happening with paralegal pay, both in the Carolinas and in comparison, nationwide.
Melissia Ford, president of the South Carolina Upstate Paralegal Association, knows from personal experience how tough it’s been on paralegals. Her husband’s aunt, who had been a paralegal for more than 20 years, recently lost her job because of downsizing.
“Though the firm I work for is relatively secure at the moment, I have heard of many firms that were cutting back due to smaller caseloads,” said Ford, a nationally certified paralegal with Stephen D. Baggett Attorneys at Law in Greenwood, S.C.
Several other S.C. paralegals who provided written responses to CPN but who asked to remain anonymous said while they had noticed few or any layoffs or furloughs in their areas, benefits have been reduced, and raises and bonuses eliminated.
At the request of CPN, Ford distributed a survey to members in May asking them questions about their pay, education, certification and experience. Ford said her organization has about 80 members. Twenty-four survey responses were returned.
Following is a breakdown of the survey responses. Some respondents did not answer all of the questions, and several gave multiple answers to particular questions. Of 23 responses on base pay ranges:
• 48 percent earned between $30,000 and $45,000;
• 35 percent earned between $45,000 and $60,000; and
• 17 percent earned below $30,000.
When it comes to benefits, 71 percent of respondents said they receive incentives or bonuses. Most respondents were evenly split on the question of whether the bonuses were based on a firm’s productivity policy or the employer’s discretion.
In terms of education and certification:
• 52 percent of respondents held associate’s degrees;
• 29 percent held bachelor’s degrees;
• 19 percent held certificates in paralegal studies; and
• Nine respondents said they had obtained a certification. The National Association of Legal Assistants’ designation was the most common.
SCUPA also polled its members’ experience levels:
• 29 percent have up to five years’ experience on the job;
• 25 percent reported five to 10 years’ experience;
• 12 percent have 10 to 15 years’ experience;
• 17 percent listed 15 to 20 years’ experience; and
• 17 percent have more than 20 years’ experience.
When it comes to firm size and job location:
• All but one of the respondents worked in a law firm;
• More than 70 percent work in urban regions;
• Nearly half of the respondents work in firms with more than 50 lawyers; and
• 34 percent work in firms with 10 or fewer attorneys.
“I do not feel underpaid,” Ford said in response to a separate list of questions from CPN. “Actually, I feel I am well-compensated. I have a flex schedule, and my boss still contributes to retirement – that says a lot for a small firm. I actually feel more fortunate than most of my fellow paralegals because I have a great boss.”
Several survey respondents who asked to remain anonymous expressed concerns about pay.
“Particularly with the reduction in benefits and raises, most paralegals I have spoken with believe they are underpaid,” one respondent wrote.
As far as hiring is concerned, Ford said she believes that experience and education are the two most important factors. Rhonda Rodenbough, chairwoman of the Legal Assistants Division of North Carolina Advocates for Justice, emphasizes experience more.
“I can tell you that our firm would be more likely to hire somebody with five to 10 years’ experience in a particular field than somebody with 25 degrees,” said Rodenbough, a North Carolina-certified paralegal with the Wells Jenkins Lucas & Jenkins firm in Winston-Salem.
Still, Rodenbough added that if “we’re talking about an entry-level [applicant] getting in the door, we would look at education – a degree from a university or paralegal program, or certification.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that as of May 2009, there were 8,920 paralegals and legal assistants in North Carolina compared to 3,770 in South Carolina. The annual mean wage was slightly higher in the Palmetto State – $41,510, compared to $41,100 in the Tar Heel State.
Nationally, the bureau estimated there were 246,810 paralegals and legal assistants in the U.S. as of May 2009, earning a mean annual wage of $50,080.
Pay varied widely by region of the country. For example, the average mean wage in metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of paralegals/legal assistants ranged from $31,260 in Bowling Green, Ky., to $63,110 in the Washington, D.C., area.
The national statistics do not include self-employed paralegals, but the Palmetto Paralegal Association in a 2009 survey, among other things, tracked hourly billing rates by independent paralegals and firms that charged clients for paralegal work. The hourly rates ranged from $66 to $125, according to a summary of the survey provided to CPN.
In 2009, the PPA had 143 members, 46 of whom participated in the survey, said Natalie Butrym, the current association president.
“PPA believes that education as well as experience does impact the salary range, and that is why our main focus is continued education and why we
advocated ABA-approved paralegal schools,” Butrym told CPN.
According to the 2009 PPA survey summary:
• 45 percent of the respondents had an annual base salary ranging from $34,001 to $50,000;
• 11 percent earned between $50,001 and $55,000;
• 17 percent made between $55,001 and $70,000;
• 7 percent earned more than $70,000; and
• 13 percent made less than $34,001.
In another 7 percent of the responses, the question was not applicable.
When it came to bonuses:
• The average bonus paid in 2008 was $2,200, though 61 percent of respondents said bonuses made up no percentage of their annual salary.
When bonuses were paid:
• 15 percent of the respondents said they ranged up to 3 percent;
• 11 percent said they ranged from 3.1 to 5 percent;
• 9 percent said they ranged from 5.1 to 7 percent; and
• 4 percent said they ranged from 7.1 to 10 percent.
More than a quarter of PPA’s respondents said they hadn’t received any recent salary increase.
• 42 percent said they received raises of up to 3 percent;
• Another 20 percent of respondents indicated their raises ranged from 3.1 to 5 percent;
• 9 percent said their increases ranged from 5.1 to 7 percent; and
• 4 percent said their raises ranged from 7.1 to 10 percent.
As for benefits:
• 46 percent of the respondents said they received fully paid employee medical insurance;
• 61 percent had cafeteria or pre-tax plans; and
• 401(k) plans or other types of savings plans were offered to 83 percent of the respondents.
• The average number of vacation days was 18.2;
• The average number of paid sick leave was 10 days; and
• The average number of paid maternity or paternity leave was 17.5 days. In addition, 39 percent of the respondents had fully paid parking, while 28 percent had partially paid parking.
The PPA survey also covered education and experience levels, as well as information about the paralegals’ employers. For example, 70 percent of the respondents had bachelor’s degrees, while 58 percent had at least 10 years’ experience.
The PPA survey did not ask respondents whether they had any certifications.
Theresa Prater, a PACE (Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam) registered paralegal and vice president/ director of professional development for the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, told CPN that in general, paralegals “with any type of certification earn slightly more in most markets.”
“I know paralegals who have gotten raises upon passing the [PACE] exam,” Prater said. “When I was in corporate, my duties and salaries were influenced by my certification.”
Prater said about 800 paralegals nationally have a PACE certification. In comparison, as of Feb. 1, there were 15,856 paralegals in the U.S. with a NALA certification, according to NALA executive director Marge Dover.
Those with certified paralegal or certified legal assistant designations earned an average salary of $49,652 in 2008, compared to $45,256 for those without the certifications, according to a March 2008 NALA survey. Dover said NALA conducts the national survey every two years. The 2010 survey began June 1.
Ford, of SCUPA, said for all the focus on pay these days, the “bigger question from my conversations with my fellow paralegals is not so much pay, but how a law firm views paralegals versus legal secretaries.”
“There are many firms that call them a paralegal but treat them like a legal secretary,” she said.