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While suburban law firms elsewhere battle to keep their support staffs from succumbing to the lure of big city salaries, perquisites and benefits, non-legal staff at firms in the suburbs north of New York City seems quite happy to stay put. “Our support staff has stayed with us for at least the past five to 10 years,” boasted Mary Ann Zeolla, director of administration for Bleakley Platt & Schmidt, the largest firm in Westchester County with 47 attorneys. Zeolla, who has been an administrator with the firm for the past 30 years, added, “People who work for us are pretty settled and don’t want the commute regardless of the pay difference. Their time is more valuable.” At the same time, however, firms have realized that they have to offer their employees more to keep staff in this strong job market. To retain secretaries, treat them with respect and pay a competitive salary, advised Gary Cooper, senior partner for Cooper & McCann, a five-lawyer firm in Elmsford. Cooper said his secretary, who has been with the firm for eight years, earns near $50,000, with raises every year. She also gets three weeks paid vacation. “She’s been with me a long time and really knows how to run my office,” he explained. “I know what the going rate is in Westchester and I want to keep her.” Cooper said he learned this hard lesson from the departures of other secretaries, who decided to leave for Manhattan’s better pay. “I can’t really blame them. They were young, had families and could make up to $60,000,” he said. Arming themselves, Bleakley Platt offers salaries comparable to those of New York City, a 401K and profit-sharing plan, as well as free parking and a holiday bonus. Secretaries and paralegals can make anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000, depending on experience, Zeolla said. Filing clerk positions pay around $12 an hour and messengers up to $16. Other firms are rewarding their employees with nontraditional incentives such as casual dress days, flexible work schedules and profit-sharing. Although he declined to provide specifics, Michael Cerussi, managing partner for the 24-lawyer Cerussi & Spring in White Plains, said that over the past two years, he has substantially increased the bonuses given to support staff so they would feel like they were participating in the firm’s profits. The firm also offers support staff greater flexibility, especially if they are deemed industrious and competent. “If someone is worth keeping, we will do what it takes to keep them,” he explained. “Although the firm’s policy only allows five personal days, we let one of our secretaries have 12 days because of (deaths in her family.) That’s the advantage of being at a less bureaucratic firm.” SURVEY RESULTS Offering employees more to stay appears to be the wave of the future, according to a recent survey conducted by The Affiliates, a staffing service in Manhattan that places project attorneys, paralegals and legal support personnel. Among 1,000 businesses in the nation, the survey showed that 82 percent offered casual dress days, more than half provided flexible workday schedules and profit sharing or stock options, 45 percent had initiated child and elder care programs, and 43 percent accommodate telecommuting. Lawyers state that offering such incentives may be the key to retaining their staff when city salaries beckon. The most recent figures from the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics show a large difference in salary. In New York City, legal secretaries earned an average $42,557 in 1997 (most recent available), compared to $24,378 in the Hudson Valley region (including Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam and Sullivan counties). The mean hourly wage in the Hudson Valley was $11.72, while in New York City, it was $20.46. Paralegal salaries, on the other hand, were more nearly comparable. In the Hudson Valley, paralegals in 1997 earned an average of $38,979, while city counterparts made $35,776. The mean hourly wage for paralegals in the Hudson Valley was $18.74, compared to $17.20 in New York City. Westchester lawyers and office managers estimate the average pay for paralegals in 2000 to be around $30,000 a year, while legal secretaries can range from $35,000 to $45,000, depending on experience. HIRING A PROBLEM Hiring experienced support staff has been difficult, commented Zeolla and other mangers, because there are fewer people entering the field. In addition, firms, trying to cut costs, are using technology to eliminate jobs. Cerussi, whose firm has six legal secretaries working for 24 lawyers, said his firm has less demand for staff because computer literate lawyers do their own word processing. Cerussi estimated that the ratio of lawyers to secretaries, which was two to one 10 years ago, is now four to one. In the past several years, he eliminated a full-time position for entering an attorney’s billable hours the since attorneys now do it themselves. To find secretaries, paralegals, and even messengers, managers like Zeolla place advertisements in publications like the New York Law Journal or the Journal News, and work through employment agencies. She said she prefers to stay away from temporary employees because they may not be as committed as a full-time worker. Jackson Lewis Schnitzler & Krupman advertises on Web sites, such as www.headhunters.net, www.monster.com and www.hotjobs.com. WORD OF MOUTH TOUTED Most managers, however, believe word of mouth to be the most reliable recruiting method. The Association of Legal Administrators, a national organization with a chapter in Westchester County, works toward improving the quality of management in the legal profession. Members, from local firms such as Cerussi & Spring, McCarthy, Fingar, Donovan, Drazen & Smith and Clark Gagliardi & Miller, meet at least once a month to help each other find quality support staff. “The organization is a great way for the local administrators to know what’s going on and who is available,” suggested Zeolla. Another networking vehicle is to offer a financial bonus to firm employees who make solid referrals, said Marianne Rogers, office administrator for Jackson Lewis for the past 23 years. “People are going to refer someone who is a good worker because their own reputation is on the line,” she commented. Once a secretary is found, firms train them to develop legal skills. This not only can keep costs down, said managers, but can also help with retention since the firm is investing in their employee’s career, said Camille Kaiser, staff administrator for Danziger & Markhoff, a 12-attorney firm in White Plains. Support staff, said managers, should be prepared to wear many hats — especially at small practices that do not have armies of nonlegal workers. Meryl Freundlich, a paralegal at the White Plains firm Skyer & Most, said she is a jack-of-all-trades. “I write memos, answer phones, network for the attorneys, schmooze clerks and even move furniture,” she said. She and co-worker, Eleana Noble, who is pregnant with her third child, have no plans to leave the firm anytime soon. According to Noble, Skyer & Most’s flex-time and job-sharing arrangement have made it easy for her to balance a career with raising children. She works two days, full-time, a week. “I really have the best of both worlds,” explained Noble. “I can keep up in my field, but at the same time, still raise my children. I’m fortunate that I’ve been given that kind of flexibility,” she said.

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