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A wheezing economy has prompted law firms to eliminate associate positions and cut back on summer and first-year hiring. Now it seems paralegals are feeling the pinch. Firms aren’t looking for new faces, associates are hoarding billable work and formerly hot practice areas are fizzling. But paralegals and legal recruiters seem to agree that improvement will come, though it may come slowly. One avenue for improvement might be regulation of the profession, though this is a longstanding topic of debate among the profession’s insiders. “I think that because we don’t have some form of regulation, law firms are just taking pretty much anybody, but they’re not happy with what they’re getting,” said Stephanie Ristvey, owner and founder of Paralegals Per Diem, based in suburban Philadelphia. Of course, improved conditions will also come with an improved economy. StaffWise Legal’s Philadelphia branch manager, Judi Greif, predicted that the hiring scene would improve over the remainder of the year. “I see an upturn. It’s slow, but it’s happening,” she said. Until the upturn is in full swing, there is a question about what local paralegals can expect in terms of working conditions and job opportunities. “What I see generally is that when paralegals leave, [their firms are] not replacing them, and the paralegals left are getting more and more work,” said one senior paralegal at a large Philadelphia firm. But according to the paralegals, none of whom wished to be identified for this story, the work is not of the billable variety. “Associates seem to be needing more work, and it appears to me that associates are doing work that experienced paralegals should be doing because they need something to do,” the senior paralegal said. “There’s a struggle between paralegals and associates for billable work.” Ristvey said she had also heard that associates are hoarding billable work. “Partners are keeping more work for themselves,” she said. “And associates are performing traditional paralegal work, and the paralegals are forced to do glorified secretarial work, which is not helping the client. “The profession is changing. I think one of the biggest things I would like to see is some sort of regulation of the profession. I think you’ll find a lot of [firms] … are … disappointed in the caliber of their paralegals.” According to Ristvey, the quality and caliber of paralegal education has declined in recent years. While the better paralegal institutions used to require bachelor’s degrees, she said, a number of schools now admit students directly from high school. But, Ristvey said, some of the schools in the area are trying to improve their programs and get something similar to the Institute for Paralegal Training up and running again. Ristvey described the Institute for Paralegal Training, now closed, as the Harvard of paralegal schools. “Having it on your r�sum� meant law firms knew they were getting top help,” she said. One Philadelphia recruiter also spoke about consistency in education and training in the profession, saying she would like to see the same standards across the industry — whether it be a certification or a college degree. In the absence of industrywide regulation, paralegals are trying to distinguish themselves from those with less training by refraining from using “paralegal” and “legal assistant” interchangeably. “There is a trend where I know that the National Federation of Paralegal Associations … recently voted not to utilize those two terms interchangeably,” Ristvey said. “[Paralegals] need to make that distinction.” One experienced local paralegal sees a trend toward paralegals being called paralegals and secretaries being called legal assistants. “As a profession, we need to get moving on regulation,” the paralegal said. Ristvey said some paralegals who are highly educated turn away from the profession because they find themselves pressed against a glass ceiling. “Paralegal salaries just aren’t commensurate with experience,” she said. Ristvey is a former paralegal who founded her company when she capped out salary wise. She said she found herself putting in associate-level hours and performing associate-level tasks but not receiving commensurate pay. Joy Yablonski, the head of the paralegal division at Philadelphia-based Abelson Legal Search, said firms who use paralegals effectively can positively affect their bottom lines. “Law firms are more and more concerned about their bottom lines, and so are corporations,” Yablonski said. “If they can give work to paralegals, absolutely it’s cost-effective to have paralegals doing certain tasks and certain work.” The question is whether paralegal salaries and schedules reflect their value to their firms. In the Delaware Valley, the average base compensation for paralegals and other support staff is 1 percent below the national average, Altman Weil consultant Debra L. Rhodunda said. Altman Weil recently conducted a nationwide compensation survey in partnership with the Legal Assistant Management Association. Total cash compensation, according to Rhodunda, is about 5 percent below the national average. One Philadelphia paralegal who works at a large firm described salaries and raises as “meager.” “Paralegal raises, not just this year, but really for the past four or five years, have been very … small percentage raises,” the paralegal said. “When all the firms started paying the associates [six figures to start], it seemed like they took more away from the paralegals. Paralegals are the orphans of the associate money wars.” Lest the news seem all bleak, the same paralegal said firms are increasingly accommodating paralegals who would like more balance between their work and home lives. “People are demanding it … and the firms are allowing it,” she said. One recruiter indicated that whether a paralegal is able to strike a good balance depends on the individual’s firm and practice area. Some firms are actively becoming more family friendly, she said. Others still expect a full workweek. “The employee is expecting a more balanced life,” the recruiter said. “It’s become a mutual thing in many instances because employees are demanding it.” Litigation, of course, is one practice area that demands a sizable time commitment. On the flip side, litigation is an area that offers employment opportunities. As is the case for attorneys, other hot areas, according to paralegals and recruiters, include bankruptcy, estates and trusts, immigration and intellectual property. Commercial real estate, corporate work and securities have waned, they said. Specialties affect not only hours in the office, but also whether one gets a foot in the office door at all. The market is tough for entry-level paralegals. Recruiters with whom The Legal Intelligencer spoke all said they are having more success placing experienced individuals. In part, one recruiter said, entry-level paralegals are not finding work because they are not specialized. For experienced paralegals, however, work is available, especially in hot practice areas. “The market has changed,” Yablonski said. “It’s not what it was in 1999. But there are openings. It’s a matter of finding the opening, interviewing well, having your r�sum� in good shape and having a competitive edge. There are a lot of people out there looking.”

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