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We all have seen the reports, articles and surveys that used to rave over the future of the paralegal profession, describing it as one of the fastest-growing career opportunities in the country. That prediction came true in the 1980s and 1990s, but today’s paralegal market is vastly different than it was even a year ago. The changes have been so dramatic that they have affected the profession itself. Many say the legal market has not been in such a slump since 10 years ago, when we were experiencing a longer and more severe recession. A year ago, an entry-level candidate would have had her pick of offers from good firms, but this year the number of positions will be considerably smaller. During the past year, some of the paralegal managers we spoke to said their firms had made a conscious decision not to replace paralegals who left for another job or to go to law school in the fall. Compounding the situation was the fact that a number of firms and in-house legal departments downsized, laying off associates, paralegals, administrators and secretaries. The hardest-hit practice areas were corporate securities, immigration, intellectual property, telecommunications and, in a few instances, litigation. Some firms that laid off paralegals did so on a basis of “last in, first out.” To keep their talented paralegals, many other firms have taken steps to avoid layoffs, such as moving paralegals into other practice areas and instituting a hiring freeze. Consequently, there are now few job openings and many job seekers, especially for entry-level positions. Firms that used to hire recent graduates to work in their litigation practice are cutting back on those positions, partly because there is less work but also because entry-level people require the most training and are less profitable than experienced paralegals. A year ago, a job listing for a candidate with no experience might attract 60 to 70 r�sum�s in a week. That same ad posted last month netted at least 250 r�sum�s the first week. The salary for entry-level paralegals has remained the same over the past year, though: generally in the low $30s. Occasionally, someone will receive a salary as high as $35,000, but usually that candidate has acquired some legal experience somewhere, either by working as a summer legal temp or through an internship during college. COMPENSATION HOLDING The market for midlevel (three to seven years of experience) and senior (seven years of experience and up) paralegals is not as competitive. They remain in demand primarily because employers do not need to train them. Experienced paralegals are able to come in and hit the ground running. Salaries for midlevel and senior paralegals remain strong and in some cases are a little higher than they were last year. The salary range for a midlevel is $40,000 to $55,000. On the other hand, according to many paralegals we consulted, their last annual raises were not as much as they received in previous years. In addition, many firms that routinely considered paralegals for merit and productivity bonuses either gave less or did not award bonuses at all last year. It is no secret that firms benefit from using well-trained, skilled paralegals instead of junior associates to handle more substantive tasks. Their hourly rate is considerably less, which clients appreciate, and, as a whole, paralegals are a source of profit for a firm. However, paralegals we talk to have noticed a significant decline in the quality and the quantity of their tasks lately. There are two related reasons for this change. First, many practice areas have experienced a serious slowdown in billable work. As a result, associates often hold on to work they normally would delegate to a paralegal. To make things worse, many firms have increased their billable-hour target for paralegals, as firms try to cover the dramatic increase in associate salaries over the past two years. Although not every firm has such a requirement for paralegals, firms that used to expect 1,200 to 1,600 hours now demand 1,400 to 1,750 hours. In a healthy economy, that increase would not be difficult to meet; however, many legal assistants we’ve spoken with are finding it difficult in today’s slow economy to remain as productive. Changes in workload have had an impact on the responsibilities of the experienced paralegal. A hiring freeze at many firms means that when extra help is needed, temporary paralegals are brought in to handle the overflow. Temporary staffing can be a good solution for the firm because it’s able to handle the ebb and flow of work without having to make a commitment. For senior paralegals, this means that instead of supervising the more junior paralegals, they are more likely to be supervising temps. Paralegals with seniority have other options if they become dissatisfied with their job. Firms have frequently promoted them to administrative positions, including paralegal coordinator and practice area coordinator. Paralegals have also successfully moved into marketing and other areas of the firm that need smart, committed, detail-oriented employees with good research skills. Despite the significant changes in the economy and the paralegal profession as a whole, the competition among firms for great legal talent continues, and most of the basic rules still apply. Hiring managers continue to look for applicants who have a strong commitment to their job, outstanding skill and a flexible “can do” attitude. What we see now and for the foreseeable future is a more competitive market and a highly selective process. If you are an experienced career paralegal, have no fear. The outlook appears to be positive. Though entry-level people are at a disadvantage now, we have not seen a change in the need for experienced people. Recent positive economic trends combined with more activity in the law firm community lead us to believe that our market will once again be healthy. Paralegals remain a valuable commodity for firms, and we predict that the profession will return to where it was a year ago. We cannot erase the dramatic changes that have occurred in the past six months, but we can look forward to a positive recovery. Susan Maginnis and Lily Graves are legal recruiters at Pat Taylor and Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., professional placement firm. Their e-mail addresses are [email protected]and [email protected].

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