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In many ways, Stephanie Persi’s career as a paralegal is ideal. She graduated from California State University-Hayward with a degree in English. She then obtained a paralegal certificate from St. Mary’s College in Moraga. She began her career with San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster as a paralegal intern. After gaining more experience in her field, she now oversees the human resource functions at Pillsbury Winthrop’s San Francisco office as well as the paralegal program there. She says she thought about going to law school but decided that “it didn’t quite fit with my lifestyle.” But for Persi — and many other paralegals — an interest in the law can be more than fulfilled with a career as a paralegal. And while there are few certainties in the legal profession, one rule seems paramount: To succeed, it helps to specialize or move into managerial positions. Those were among the conclusions in a recent study conducted by Altman Weil Inc., the Pennsylvania-based consulting company that focuses on the legal profession. The study noted that salaries for specialist paralegals and paralegal managers had grown faster than that for generalist and low-level paralegals. In 2004, legal assistant managers on average earned more than 81 percent more than paralegals without supervisory experience. “Paralegal managers and specialists clearly hold increasingly important positions in law firms and law departments,” says Daniel DiLucchio, a principal at Altman Weil. “As legal organizations become more sophisticated, this is just one more area in which greater specialization is required — and must be adequately compensated.” The survey found that legal assistant managers last year earned average annual salaries of $88,781, a 6.2 percent increase from the previous year. Paralegals in the next lower category — those who still had supervisory roles — earned average salaries of $63,381, which amounted to a 5.3 percent increase. But legal assistants and paralegals with no supervisory roles earned average annual salaries of $47,453, an amount that reflected only a 1.7 percent increase from the previous year. Legal assistant clerks with no supervisory role earned average salaries of $32,185, less than a 1 percent increase from the previous year. Large law firms in San Francisco and Los Angeles tend to pay somewhat higher salaries compared to averages reflected in the Altman Weil survey. For example, beginning paralegals can expect to earn in the mid to high thirties. Legal analysts — specialty paralegals — typically earn in the mid fifties to mid sixties. Senior paralegals cover a wider salary range, typically earning anywhere between $65,000 and $110,000. Firm managers seem to agree with the trend in the Altman Weil study — that experienced and specialist paralegals are seeing their pay rising faster than lower level paralegals. “I think it’s a retention issue,” says Persi. “You are talking about people who have a lot of tenure with the firm. If you want to retain someone, you have to compensate them.” In the competitive market for paralegals, finding new ones can be challenging. In addition to the normal avenues for finding paralegals such as employment agencies, firms also use more aggressive techniques to find top talent. “We offer incentives to employees to let us know if there are good candidates they know about,” says Kate O’Brien, a partner and manager of the paralegal program at Los Angeles’ Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “To find new paralegals, we look at a variety of schools,” says O’Brien. “We look at boutique law firms that specialize in a certain area. We encourage attorneys who are making lateral moves to bring legal assistants with them. We also use employment agencies.” Even so, firms seem to have a tough time finding good paralegals. “We have a hard time recruiting. It’s really tough,” says Jeff Pouliot, legal assistant program manager at MoFo. “What we need are highly motivated people. We look through referrals and on-campus interviewing. We also go through agencies for the more hard-to-fill positions.” Firms often are looking for experienced candidates who may have been working as paralegals for at least 10 years. “But if they’ve had a few years’ experience, I’m happy with that,” says Lisa McNamey, manager of the paralegal program at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger & Kinsella, an entertainment law firm in Los Angeles. MoFo offers a specialty training program for its paralegals. The program is open to paralegals who have worked for the firm for at least one year. “It’s a retention tool for those who have developed an area of expertise,” says Pouliot. Not surprisingly, the hot areas for paralegal specialization tend to track the thriving practice groups at various firms. “We have different practice areas in our environmental group,” says Persi. “We have people who are very specialized in compliance litigation work, real estate and environmental litigation.” At Sheppard, Mullin, a good bet for paralegals there is to specialize in intellectual property and white-collar crime. “All of those demand a certain level of expertise,” says O’Brien. Greenberg Glusker for the most part hires only specialist paralegals. “We don’t usually hire new paralegals,” says McNamey. “If we do, we usually hire people who’ve already been in a temporary position first.” At most firms, it’s common to find a certain amount of push-pull dynamics between junior associates and more experienced paralegals. After all, most new associates don’t know much about the practical side of lawyering so soon after law school. By comparison, a paralegal with a few years’ worth of experience can easily be expected to know more nuts-and-bolts information than a first-year associate. That’s because a paralegal’s duties typically encompass everything from administrative tasks such as preparing documents, taking notes at depositions and hearings and filing court documents to higher level tasks that require thorough knowledge of legal practice, such as writing contracts, taking statements from witnesses or working as case managers. Of course, law firm officials are also quick to point out the differences between lawyers and paralegals. “There is a significant demarcation between what legal assistants do and what attorneys do,” says O’Brien, at Sheppard, Mullin. “The legal assistant’s expertise is in skills such as input storage and retrieval of data. They generate reports, prepare witnesses for depositions, produce documents — things like that. Lawyers define what the issues are.” Although experienced paralegals may beg to differ, if only in private, firms also recognize other distinctions between the lawyer and paralegal ranks. “You can have a legal assistant who understands a problem and the practical legal side of it,” says MoFo’s Pouliot. “But an attorney is educated in the intellectual aspects of the law. When new associates come in, we like to tell them that we’re one of the tools they have to help walk them through the processes.” Andrew Simons is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and a regular contributor to California Legal Pro.

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