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Law firms need a reality check, say support staffers who believe there is a huge disparity between the pay raises they received last year and those that have been handed to associates. However, the gap between attorney salaries and those of staff members continues to widen dramatically. Profits per partner have surged appreciably at many firms over the past five years, and sensational raises have been given to first-year associates. Within the last year, their salaries have soared from the $95,000 to the $145,000 range — almost 53 percent. According to Texas Lawyer’s Annual Salary and Billing Survey, paralegals with more than eight years’ experience averaged 6.7 percent in raises and had average annual earnings of $49,408. The survey also reports that legal secretaries with more than seven years’ experience averaged 2 percent in raises with average annual earnings of $40,751. This discrepancy in salaries is not as much of a problem at small and mid-size firms as it is at the large firms because pay rates are generally lower for associates as well as support staff, says Kristine Farmer, president of the Dallas Area Paralegal Association. “The secretaries are the ones who are probably bothered the most by this,” says one paralegal at a large Houston firm. “They get most of the stress of all the last-minute deadlines and have everything put off on them. They don’t feel rewarded.” This staffer and three others spoke on the condition of anonymity because, as one explains, “It’s professional suicide to stand up and say, �This is wrong.’ “ Staffers don’t expect to earn the same amounts as attorneys, but they’re certainly not happy with the increases they’re receiving. “I don’t like it but I know there’s nothing I can do about it,” says one Dallas staffer at a large firm. “If it bothers me enough, I guess I can always go back to law school.” “I think the percentage increases should be equitable,” she says. “Our salaries are all over the board. There doesn’t seem to be any parity when it comes to experienced people.” It’s common sense that non-attorney staff members feel some resentment, says Bob Denny, consultant and head of Wayne, Pa.-based Robert Denney Associates. “When part of a firm receives dramatic increases in pay and it’s not spread around, people resent that,” he says. “I think that’s human nature.” Farmer says she understands both sides of the situation. “I try to stay neutral,” she says. “Lawyers contribute a whole lot to a firm. Eventually, they have the potential to bring in business to the firm. Paralegals don’t do that. However, we can bill and cover our salaries.” The increase in associate salaries is painfully obvious to some staffers. “I think there are a lot more day traders now than there used to be, and I have seen a lot of new clothes on people,” says one Morrison & Foerster secretary at the firm’s San Francisco office. In addition to feeling resentment over the disparity in raise percentages, staffers are also disgruntled over salary ceilings and bonuses. “Many firms have a ceiling, which is unfair when you get to that point,” says one Dallas paralegal. “You may be as good as you ever were and continuing to improve but their policies get in the way. That isn’t true for the attorneys. They have the partnership carrot out there, and we don’t.” This same staff member also points out that some firms pay the same bonus amounts to all non-attorneys — often two weeks’ pay. “We work just as hard as the associates do,” she says. “We’re required to bill a certain number of hours just like they do. Typically, we’re not required to bill as many hours as they do but some of us do bill that much, and there needs to be some sort of reward system in place for that.” Gripes about bonus structures are common, Denney says. “We recently surveyed the staff at one firm,” he says. “We found that the good staffers resent the slackers and the fact that the slackers are never called to task. Plus, they receive the same bonuses as the hard-working, productive people receive. That’s not an uncommon situation in a law firm.” But “lock-step” bonus programs are counter-productive, says Jim Jordan, managing partner of Dallas’ Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr. “We view a bonus system as an incentive program,” he says. “It’s not just based on how many hours you bill. It’s an incentive to do your best both in quantity and quality, but particularly in quality. A lock-step system doesn’t provide that incentive. You’re going to get it regardless of whether you’re doing bad work or are being lackadaisical.” The main thing support staffers want is equitable treatment, Farmer says. “I think employers should take a look at other benefits, monetary and non-monetary, that will provide nonlawyer staff with higher job satisfaction,” she says. Retention continues to be the name of the game, Denney says. “The biggest factor in changing these pay structures will occur when firms start trying to replace these people and find out how much the market has jumped on them,” he says. “Then they’ll have to review these salaries.” In California, where legal industry trends are being set, firms are actively recruiting paralegals and legal secretaries, says Cheri Vaillancour, director of human resources at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Fenwick & West. Many firms have increased the pay, and some are offering support staff signing bonuses, law school tuition, investment opportunities and flexible work schedules to attract qualified candidates. ATTITUDES Another complaint from paralegals and secretaries involves the treatment they receive from some summer and first-year associates. “The other day, a summer associate told me to be quiet when he was talking,” says one Dallas paralegal at a mid-sized firm. “I just stared him down.” Not surprising, comments Denney. “There’s nothing as arrogant as a new associate in a firm,” he says. “They give staff members projects at the last minute and don’t treat staffers with respect. Most of them have never had people working for them before.” That’s where management has to step in and let new hires know in advance what conduct is expected, Jordan says. “People treated badly hate their jobs and don’t treat clients nicely,” he says. “I’ve talked to associates myself and told them that they have to treat people better. We tell them to knock it off.” The business of law is a service industry, he says. “If your people are treated badly, you can’t expect them to provide good client service. This is the fundamental way to treat people, and it’s good business. I don’t know why companies and law firms can’t figure that out.” For those firms who haven’t figured out these basics, Denney’s message is loud and clear. “Get a life, and get real,” he says. “There’s a lot of issues involved in retaining your people. It’s not just in paying them more. That’s one thing. But it also involves communicating to them what’s going on in the firm and listening to their issues and problems and acknowledging those things. That includes issues such as salaries and bonuses.”

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