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WANTED: Bright, articulate individual with college degree and computer skills willing to work hard in a dead-end job. About half your peers feel underpaid, but in general, they find the work interesting and appreciate the flexibility this career offers. Interested? Then become a paralegal, legal secretary or legal assistant. Because that’s essentially how they describe their jobs in Fulton County Daily Report‘s survey of the salary and working conditions of legal support staff. The Daily Report collected data from 255 respondents at law firms, businesses and corporations of all types and sizes around Georgia, including Dye, Tucker, Everitt, Long & Brewton in Augusta; Goodman McGuffey Aust & Lindsey; King & Spalding; The Mead Corporation; Scientific-Atlanta; Sutherland Asbill & Brennan; Tisinger Tisinger Vance & Greer in Carrollton; Troutman Sanders; and United Parcel Service. Those surveyed are almost evenly divided about whether they are fairly compensated: 50 percent say yes, 47 percent say no; 3 percent didn’t answer. Among paralegals surveyed, the highest percentage in one salary category earn $45,001 to $55,000; for legal assistants and legal secretaries, it’s $35,001 to $45,000. In addition to answering objective, multiple-choice questions about compensation, respondents were invited to write detailed comments about their careers, and many did. Though some wrote glowingly about their jobs and excellent relationships with co-workers and lawyers, others worried about dwindling benefits, poor chances for advancement, as well as salaries that seem less and less adequate in light of increased workloads and escalating associate pay. One paralegal who requested anonymity sums it up this way: “I didn’t realize I would hit the proverbial ceiling so quickly,” she says. “I’m in my early 30s, have been with my current employer for several years and have already exhausted, via promotions, all advancement opportunities for paralegals with my employer.” The other thing she’s exhausted is her employer’s pay scale. Paralegals are a part of cash flow, she says. At firms, many do lawyer-level work, freeing up attorneys for more complex and better-paying tasks. In-house, paralegal work can reduce bills the company pays to outside counsel. “You can’t have paralegals doing attorney-level work but treat them like staff when it comes to compensation,” she says. “If your clients are being billed for your services, but you’re not seeing any of that at bonus time and the attorneys are, it’s an annual slap in the face.” DISPARITIES IN PAY A major factor fueling pay dissatisfaction, according to survey responses, comes when legal support staff compare their raises — usually 4 percent to 6 percent — with the double-digit increases given to greenhorn associates already earning $100,000 or more. Of course, management and support staff see pay issues differently. That’s illustrated by comments from Troutman Sanders’ managing partner and some of the firm’s staffers. Of the 20 Troutman Sanders support staff members who responded to the survey, 16 complained about compensation. One Troutman legal secretary writes about lawyer-staff pay disparity through the lens of Troutman’s merger with Mays & Valentine. When the merger was announced, management told staffers that it meant “partners will now experience double-digit increases in their compensation,” the secretary wrote. “This was particularly galling since the staff raises have been held at 4 percent for four years, and 4 percent of $35,000 to $45,000 doesn’t come close to 10 percent of $300,000.” Robert W. Webb Jr., the firm’s managing partner, says he finds those survey responses upsetting. “That’s just not true,” he says, explaining that average merit increases have run between 4.25 and 4.5 percent, and that raises have never been held at 4 percent. In addition to merit increases, the firm spent about $350,000 on market-based pay raises for staff just this year, he says. Over the past three years, the total is $750,000. Partner pay increases were in the double digits before the Mays & Valentine merger, he says. According to the Daily Report Dozen, a ranking of Atlanta’s wealthiest firms, they’ve been at 10 percent or above since 1997. ADVANCEMENT OPPORTUNITIES High associate salaries ironically may be helping paralegals get the advancement opportunities they want, says Chris Cole, director of professional staffing at Bellon & Associates, a legal recruiting firm. “As a result of the salary increases for associates, a lot of the firms have stopped hiring first-year associates,” he says. “Paralegals have taken over some of those tasks.” Firms also offer supervisory positions, but there’s a rub. According to Cole, supervisory paralegals usually have the same billable requirements as those without the extra responsibilities. In addition, paralegals and legal assistants are doing more of their own secretarial work — a situation shared by lawyers. SHORTAGE OF SECRETARIES Part of the shift in who handles secretarial work can be attributed to a shortage of legal secretaries. Anne Rubin, owner of the placement firm Atlanta Secretaries, says that although there’s a big demand for intelligent, competent legal secretaries, there are fewer and fewer. Women — who hold most legal secretary jobs — now go to law school or pursue other goals, she says. According to Rubin, the dwindling supply has pushed up pay, and top legal secretaries can make as much as $53,000. To attract good legal secretaries, she says, firms must offer more flexible working hours, especially to women with long suburban commutes and children in daycare centers that charge by the minute after 6 p.m. DAYCARE BONUS AT A&B On that score, she says, “Alston & Bird is doing something incredible.” Cathy A. Benton, Alston & Bird’s director of human resources, says the firm plans to open a daycare center this fall. It will be housed a few blocks from A&B’s offices, and its services will be affordable and available to lawyers and support staff on an equal basis, she says. Alston & Bird was motivated in part by Georgia’s new higher tax credits for employer-sponsored childcare, but, says Benton, “We think it is important in balancing work and family and think it is the right thing to do in today’s market, to be able to recruit people and keep people.” THE BENEFITS FACTOR Benefits of all types were an important factor in job satisfaction — or dissatisfaction — according to the Daily Report‘s survey results. Among those surveyed, 93 percent receive some form of employer-subsidized health coverage; 87 percent get life insurance; and 78 percent are covered by disability insurance. Retirement benefits also were offered widely: 89 percent had a 401(k) or other retirement plan, 31 percent were offered a pension plan. One Georgia-Pacific Co. legal assistant praised the company’s benefits: reimbursement for MARTA (The Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority) costs and membership in professional organizations, flex time, on-site daycare and access to a chiropractor. Other support staff at other employers weren’t as happy. “We have been losing benefits in the last few years,” wrote one legal secretary at a firm in the 201-400 lawyer range. When her firm changed insurance companies recently, she says, coverage costs went up and prescription co-pays rose from $5 to $15. The firm also abolished a pension plan to which it had contributed at 4 percent of employees’ salaries. Four out of five Sutherland Asbill respondents complained about insurance benefits. One, next to the survey question about life insurance wrote, “Just enough for a cheap funeral! Maybe a pine box!” Melissa R. Todd, the firm’s director of human resources, says secretaries get a $25,000 life insurance policy from the firm, plus a $25,000 policy for accidental death and dismemberment. Paralegals get $50,000 for each. Support staff also can purchase supplemental insurance. “Certainly that would be enough for a funeral,” she says. But she adds that the firm may consider offering equal benefits to all staffers. In addition, the firm pays 90 percent of employee health insurance costs and buys monthly MARTA cards, she says. TAKING ON MORE WORK As firms cut costs — to pay higher associate salaries, some respondents speculated — support staff are required to take on more work. Wrote one Troutman Sanders legal secretary, “The day is coming in the near future when I am going to have to take on three attorneys (some already have four people!) At that time, I will no longer have the time to do anything other than churn out a work product that I normally would never consider approving.” Webb, the firm’s managing partner, says that any situations where work quality is affected by overload will be corrected. He also points out that it’s not unusual among Atlanta firms for secretaries to serve three timekeepers. Troutman’s firmwide ratio of secretaries to timekeepers is 2.2 to 1; the secretaries to lawyers ratio is 1.9 to 1, and fewer than 10 secretaries serve four lawyers, he says. Two paralegals, each from a firm of 15 lawyers or less, also lament increasing workloads. “My firm doesn’t replace employees when they leave — I am doing the job of three people at $14 an hour,” wrote one, who also said she worked more than 40 hours a week at a firm that refused to pay overtime or bonuses. The other paralegal wrote of being extremely disillusioned by the lack of support her firm gives its staff. “We have lost fantastic paralegals over the years due to pay and professionalism issues,” she wrote. “At times, they have been replaced by individuals with no four-year degree and no formal paralegal education, causing a decline in morale of the remaining professional paralegals who feel diminished as a class. (The jobs were necessarily ‘dumbed down’ to accommodate the low skill level of new recruits). “Rather than retain their experienced, professional paralegals, the firm simply finds new candidates they can pay cheaply regardless of the difference in skill-value to the practice.” KEYS TO CONTENTMENT Sheri H. Kornblum, director of paralegal recruitment at The Partners Group, says firms must change to keep paralegals happy. They’ll have to treat paralegals more like professionals and not micromanage them or tie them to time-clocks. But she says salaries already are pretty good, especially with overtime that’s often in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. The highest base salary at which she’s placed a paralegal is $62,000, she says, adding, “There are attorneys in this city who are only making $45,000.” The most highly compensated paralegal in the Daily Report‘s survey reported earning $75,000 to $85,000 and had 11 years to 15 years of experience. Salary caps, however, may compress pay as legal support staff gain experience, she says. According to the Daily Report survey, about 20 percent of respondents said their employers had salary caps. But there’s more to it than money, according to Kornblum. She says paralegals leave big firms for small ones because they’re bored. Though smaller firms might pay less, Kornblum says, paralegals like the work because they may get to attend depositions, or sit second-chair to manage papers during a trial. Kornblum’s observation runs parallel to the survey finding that one of support staffers’ biggest complaints is about poor chances for advancement. Some of the survey respondents who exhibited the most job satisfaction attributed their happiness to high levels of autonomy and responsibility. “In my department, my job as a bankruptcy paralegal offers an opportunity for court appearances handled exclusively by paralegals,” wrote one paralegal at an Atlanta firm. “Most other specialties are not as accommodating… . Although we deal with high-volume cases, we are treated very professionally and are given lots of freedom and with that comes greater responsibility.”

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