After the success of our survey of law firm associates several years ago, in March, Abelson Legal Search surveyed paralegals to assess the job satisfaction, backgrounds and experiences of these important legal professionals. Like the original survey, this one produced meaningful results and inspired thoughtful comments and discussions. Survey highlights include the following:
• A majority of paralegal respondents work more than 40 hours per week.
• Fewer than half of paralegals are paid overtime.
• Only 45.3 percent of respondents intend to stay in their current jobs.
Approximately 40 percent of the respondents provided written commentary about their experiences, and those comments are interwoven into the statistical discussion that follows. This article also includes the observations of our senior legal recruiter, Joyce Feinstein, who has a 30-year perspective on the paralegal profession.
Feinstein, a graduate of Ohio State University, also was educated at the Institute for Paralegal Training in Philadelphia and later was an administrator for the institute. She met with lawyers nationally about hiring institute graduates and educated them on the value of hiring these highly trained professionals. This school was the “pioneer” in promoting paralegals as professionals.
Gender, Education and Paralegal Training
The survey pool included more than 1,300 paralegals, of whom 15 percent responded. (The average response rate for an external survey is 10-15 percent, according to SurveyGizmo, a Web-based software company focusing on surveys — see http://goo.gl/xNi7P.)
As expected, the gender difference was significant: female — 84.3 percent; male — 15.7 percent.
Similarly, educational background results were much as anticipated. Because Philadelphia has been at the forefront of dedicated paralegal education since the early days of the Philadelphia Institute for Paralegal Training, which required all candidates to have a baccalaureate degree, a high percentage of respondents were college graduates. We were surprised that more than 16 percent of respondents also had advanced degrees.
The educational breakdown was as follows: high school diploma — 10.2 percent; associate’s degree — 16.7 percent; baccalaureate degree — 56.7 percent; graduate degree — 11.2 percent; law degree — 5.1 percent.
As an aside, some respondents with law degrees were frustrated because they were not permitted to do paralegal work if they wished, but why they were pursuing paralegal employment was not clear in their answers. Some may be foreign-trained attorneys; others may not have appropriate bar membership.
Paralegal certifications appear to be on the ascendency. Graduates of ABA-accredited programs made up 43.5 percent of respondents, while 33.9 percent possessed other types of paralegal-specific training, as indicated below:
• Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in paralegal studies: 5.6 percent.
• Registered paralegal (RP): 2.8 percent.
• Certified paralegal (CP): 20.4 percent.
• Advanced certified paralegal (ACP): 5.1 percent.
Typical survey respondents were experienced (10 or more years) litigation paralegals in firms of fewer than 21 attorneys, who had been in their current positions fewer than 10 years, with 2-5 career job moves.
We had expected more answers from less experienced paralegals still looking for the “ideal” position. The high percentage of answers from experienced paralegals with 10 or more years’ experience would seem to indicate many continue to “keep their career options open,” Feinstein remarked.
Feinstein observed that paralegals change positions more frequently than do attorneys, usually for financial (as opposed to career path) reasons. We, therefore, anticipated more respondents with more career moves. With 62 percent of the respondents having more than 10 years’ experience, we thought there would be more answers in the six-plus-year groups. The distributions of the number of positions and longevity in their current positions as paralegals were interesting.
• Number of positions held: 1 — 10.7 percent; 2-5 — 68.2 percent; 6-8 — 15.4 percent; 9-12 — 4.2 percent; more than 12 —1.4 percent.
• Longevity in current position, in years: less than 1 — 34.9 percent; 1-3 — 25.8 percent; 4-7 — 19.4 percent; 8-10 — 7.5 percent; more than 10 — 12.4 percent.
We had hypothesized paralegals in private practice would only slightly outnumber in-house paralegals. Respondents disproved our theory, as 66.3 percent were with firms and 33.7 percent were in-house. The respondents’ comments reflected preferences for work in both settings.
Although respondents came from all sizes of firms and legal departments, the results are possibly slightly skewed toward smaller organizations because many corporate legal departments are leanly staffed. The distribution of respondents by firm size is as follows: 1 — 12.8 percent; 2-5 — 19 percent; 6-10 — 15.6 percent; 11-20 — 13.4 percent; 21-30 — 7.3 percent; 31-50 — 8.9 percent; 51-75 — 6.1 percent; 76-100 — 2.8 percent; 100 or more — 14 percent.
We were pleased to receive responses from paralegals in a range of practice areas. The percentages of respondents by practice areas: general practice — 9.1 percent; trusts/estates — 5.3 percent; corporate — 13 percent; litigation — 45.2 percent; real estate — 4.8 percent; IP — 4.3 percent; and other — 18.3 percent.
Because of the nature of litigation practice, we had projected a high percentage of litigation paralegal respondents.
Within law firm respondents, there was an even split between respondents in plaintiff-side and defense-side litigation practices.
Respondents’ commentaries disclosed that some individuals are frustrated by being pigeon-holed in a single practice area and noted encountering significant or insurmountable barriers in trying to move from one specialty area to another.
Compensation and Benefits
A singular issue remains on the forefront of paralegal concerns: compensation. Although much has changed in the three decades since Feinstein became involved with paralegal recruitment and education, “the relatively low compensation of paralegals has persisted and remains a major source of frustration.” Feinstein further explained paralegal compensation remains flat, noting:
“Relatively few paralegals make more than $80,000, and those who reach that level invariably have 20 or more years’ experience. Compensation is depressed across the board in both private practice and corporate settings. In the latter setting, however, paralegals sometimes are willing to trade lower compensation for ‘better quality of life’ factors associated with in-house practice.”
Echoing these observations were the comments of experienced paralegals who felt they knew more and produced more work than new associates, but who were paid less than half the associates’ compensation. Meanwhile, two respondents noted their respective firms compensated administrative assistants and legal secretaries better than paralegals, which had a significant, demoralizing effect on the paralegals. Overall, this discrepancy was the exception, not the norm.
Some respondents expressed concern that generally low pay scales for paralegals reflected institutionalized, wage-based sex discrimination.
Turning to the numbers, 40 percent of respondents earn less than $50,000/year or about $20/hour. The annualized compensation breakdown is as follows:
On the issue of discretionary bonuses, a significant majority of respondents (63.8 percent) are eligible, but only 51.4 percent actually received bonuses in 2011. A slightly higher percentage (53.6 percent) have received bonuses at some point in their careers. Unsurprisingly, bonuses seemed to be more prevalent for litigation paralegals who participated in the rewards of particularly successful cases.
Paralegals are a hardworking group, regularly putting in more than 40-hour work-weeks. With the heavy representation of litigation paralegals in the survey, this result was predictable, as indicated by the average number of hours worked per week: less than 20 — 8.6 percent; 21-40 — 39 percent; more than 40 — 52.4 percent.
Of course, litigation paralegals made particular note of significant overtime during trials. Long hours, however, did not necessarily translate into overtime pay: Only 52.1 percent were compensated at time-and-a-half for work-weeks of more than 40 hours.
The vast majority of respondents are eligible for and participate in employer-sponsored benefits:
• Health insurance offered: Yes — 84.7 percent; No — 15.3 percent.
• Participate in plan: Yes — 69.9 percent; No — 30.4 percent.
• 401k/other profit sharing: Yes — 79 percent; No — 21 percent.
• Participate in plan: Yes — 66.1 percent; No — 33.9 percent.
(These figures include those respondents working fewer than 40 hours per week, who are ineligible for most benefits.)
Professional Certification/State Licensure
“For 30 years, the debate regarding national certification of paralegals has endured,” Feinstein noted. “Today, significant discussions continue in the paralegal community about advanced certifications and the possibility of state licensure.” Intriguingly, survey respondents substantially supported the idea: 58.2 percent voted “yes” and 41.8 percent voted “no.”
On the whole, pro-certification respondents believe certification and licensure will elevate the standing of paralegals in the eyes of attorneys and clients because certification:
• Makes attorneys pay more attention to specialties within the paralegal community.
• Encourages more respect and better compensation for skilled paralegals.
• Will help to raise educational standards.
• Supports continuing education, important for paralegals.
• May help eliminate the sometimes blurred lines between administrative assistants and paralegals.
• May ultimately facilitate independent paralegal practices.
Among other things, opponents were concerned that certification might further limit their ability to move from position to position. The following issues were mentioned:
• Less experienced paralegals were concerned about the employment prerequisites for certification.
• There is a perception the certification process is designed to exclude certain types of paralegals.
• Licensing will confuse the public as to the limits of what a paralegal can do.
• Licensing is unnecessary because paralegals are working under an attorney’s supervision.
• Solid experience outweighs licensure.
Feinstein noted that, in her experience, “employers are not yet fully attuned to the benefits of certification. Because certified paralegals are a small minority, the process for attaining certification and the achievement it represents are largely unknown and/or under-appreciated.” While “clients — especially corporate ones — often require a bachelor’s degree, they rarely request certification.”
Notwithstanding the essential contributions of paralegals to the practice of law, Feinstein observed, “many attorneys do not value paralegals or treat them as key members of the team.” This long-standing problem is particularly acute in litigation practices because litigators sometimes “forget to doff their battle gear,” Feinstein said. Adding to paralegal discontent has been a shifting of substantive work from the desks of paralegals to those of associates as a result of the economic downturn.
Many respondents articulated variations on the theme of under-appreciation by employers, saying:
• “We are overlooked as an integral part of a team working on a specific case.”
• “I despise my current position [because] they do not value my skills. Being referred to as ‘the secretary’ or as ‘the girl’ is insulting.”
• “I used to love being a paralegal. Nowadays, my job is more administrative than paralegal, and I hate it.”
• “I hate being a paralegal; truly hate it; however I am very good at it and especially great at organizing chaos. I am completely overworked and taken advantage of because I am a hard worker and get the job done.”
Others were unimpressed by attorneys’ supervisory skills:
• “Attorneys are bad managers and bad communicators.”
• Attorneys “are difficult and expect a lot from you, even though [there is] little incentive for higher pay or advancement.”
Clearly of concern to many respondents were the perceived limited career path and the static nature of the work. (It should be noted that, traditionally, more negative responses are made to any survey than positive ones. It seems human nature would prefer to complain than to praise.)
Feinstein stated that this professional frustration is much more common among paralegals in private practice than among those in corporate settings. Depending on the size and industry sector of the employer, the latter “have vertical and horizontal career path opportunities, such as moving into litigation management, compliance or IT roles.” Private practice paralegals have “little room for upward mobility unless they move into firm administration or happen into a firm with an e-discovery practice.”
On the other side, some paralegals clearly love their work, particularly in some specialist areas. One respondent wrote: “Being a [p]aralegal is a dynamic and rewarding position.”
And, even among those who enjoy the substance of the work, there is desire for better compensation: “The pay stinks,” wrote one respondent. Not surprisingly, making lifestyle choices even more difficult were expectations of take-home work or uncompensated late hours. Several respondents commented on being expected to do more work than was acknowledged in a pay envelope.
We anticipated a majority of respondents, as most are registered in our database, would be seriously considering new position options, but the answers showed greater ambivalence.
Thinking of changing jobs: Yes — 45.3 percent; No — 26.8 percent; Unsure — 27.9 percent.
Some of these concerns could be addressed by employers providing more opportunities for weekend, evening and from-home work to make it easier to balance work/family issues.
Finally, one lengthy, particularly thoughtful response suggested more recognition be given to paralegals as real middle-management employees. This same writer summarized much of what other paralegals said:
“Our skills are just as valuable and necessary [as those of attorneys]. If lawyers viewed paralegals as independent professionals who … offer … different skill sets … [from] attorneys and law clerks, and, if they [were] concerned a good paralegal would find a better paying job in another field, that might be an incentive to pay us what we are worth to keep us … Hey, lawyers eventually embraced computer technology (only after every other profession … had done so) — perhaps they can someday change their elitist view of the legal world. One can dream.”
Sandra G. Mannix has been a recruiter with Abelson Legal Search for almost 20 years following a career in graduate and professional education that included many years as director of admissions and financial aid for the Villanova University School of Law.