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What really makes a paralegal happy? Challenging tasks and a little recognition. Those were just two of the often revealing answers in a confidential survey of Atlanta-area paralegals conducted by the Fulton County Daily Report. The online survey received 217 responses. The survey polled paralegals on a myriad of career topics: experience, training, education, salary and benefits. It also examined how paralegals view their jobs, their likes and dislikes and suggestions for improvements. The majority of respondents, nearly 75 percent, were located in downtown, Midtown or Buckhead. The rest worked outside the perimeter. Nearly 75 percent of the respondents were from litigation firms, followed by corporate, real estate, bankruptcy, intellectual property and immigration practices. Most participants were employed by private firms. Twenty-one percent worked for corporations, with a small sampling working for government agencies. Office size ranged widely — from sole practitioners to those with more than 800 lawyers. Firms with two to 10 lawyers had the most representation (27 percent). MORE THAN MONEY Yes, salary is an important issue. But the paralegals surveyed placed a higher emphasis on work challenges. Thirty-one percent of respondents pointed to the challenge and interest level of work as what they valued most in a job. Flexibility was the most important issue for 24 percent of respondents. Only 13 percent named salary as the most important consideration. “I would rather have flextime and/or more vacation than more pay,” wrote one respondent. Those opinions were not eye-opening for some. “People like to be recognized in their career for their efforts,” says Marcus Li, president of the Georgia Association of Paralegals. “The kind of acknowledgement we most often hear lacking is acknowledgement and advancement of position. It’s sometimes appreciated more than simply money.” That was a theme woven throughout the survey. Lack of advancement possibilities was named by 25 percent of respondents as what they liked least about their jobs. “It’s the nature of the career path,” observes Andi Wysocki, a paralegal with Arnall Golden Gregory. “I don’t know what can be done about it.” Sure, she says, junior paralegals can move into senior paralegal spots, but the pay difference is negligible and the work is not significantly different. “They hit the ceiling, and that’s it,” Wysocki says, adding she has known people who left the profession as a result. In the legal field just shy of a decade, Wysocki was promoted last spring to paralegal from a more clerical position. Doing so was not easy, she says, and required advocacy by others who wanted her to succeed. Although 23 percent of respondents were not happy with their salary, money doesn’t matter when you don’t like the environment. A congenial work atmosphere and a feeling of teamwork were reported by some as factors in their job satisfaction. “Our firm does a great job of making their employees happy. The little benefits, welcome coffees, etc. really make a difference in employee morale,” Wysocki says. Michelle Reiss, a legal secretary at Morris, Manning & Martin, says the small things make a big difference. “When the attorneys and administrative staff all work to create relationships, it results in a very cooperative environment. Work becomes more pleasant,” she says. Most participants got along with coworkers — only 2 percent reported that to be the worst aspect of their jobs. No doubt the participant who cited “stingy, self-absorbed, mean superiors” was in that category. A long commute and Atlanta’s notorious traffic woes, while not on the list of choices, also were frequent complaints. An enjoyable work environment becomes more important when a large part of people’s waking hours are spent at work. When questioned about work hours, nearly three-quarters of respondents averaged 40 to 50 hours per week. Twenty-two percent clocked fewer than 40 hours, and 4 percent worked 50 hours or more. Workaholics are becoming scarce — no one reported averaging more than 60 hours per week. Overtime compensation appears typical in many firms. Of those who reported overtime, 62 percent received an hourly-plus-half rate for overtime worked. A small number received compensation time or regular pay, but 27 percent of the responding paralegals received no overtime compensation. DOLLARS AND SENSE Respondents were largely paralegals with careers spanning more than 11 years. Forty-two percent had fewer than 10 years’ experience. Compensation seemed to reflect that, with 57 percent reporting annual salaries of more than $50,000. Only 4 percent had salaries of less than $30,000, and the vast majority of those work outside the perimeter or even outside metro Atlanta. “The days of paralegal salaries under $30,000, even for an entry-level paralegal, are nearly gone,” says Joan Krull, president of LegalPros, an Atlanta legal staffing company. “The low side had to come up due to the cost of living. Unfortunately, the high end doesn’t always follow.” On the heels of an economic slowdown, some firms have been slow to raise salaries. However, most paralegals have received recent salary increases — only 8 percent reported receiving no raises. Nearly 54 percent of paralegals received increases between 1 percent and 4 percent. Thirty-four percent received increases between 4 percent and 10 percent. Nearly 4 percent of respondents received pay increases of more than 10 percent. Seventeen percent of respondents worked for firms with a salary cap; most did not know if salary caps were applicable to their positions. Of those with a cap, 36 percent had salaries capped at $55,000 to $65,000. Thirty-six percent had caps ranging from $65,000 to more than $95,000. Twenty-eight percent reported salary caps between $30,000 and $55,000. Most survey participants felt they were compensated fairly, yet 44 percent believed their current job duties warranted a higher salary. Health insurance was available to nearly all the respondents. Most packages included life insurance and 401(k) participation. Disability insurance was offered to 67 percent of respondents. Nearly one-quarter of the paralegals received pension, tuition reimbursement and paid parental leave. Benefits offered to a few included health-club memberships, additional leave time, paid parking and a subsidized car lease. Evident of the continued maturation of the paralegal profession, most survey participants had advanced degrees. Fifty-six percent had a bachelor’s or graduate degree, and 37 percent had attended some college or earned an associate’s degree. Employment bonuses varied, no doubt due to the variances in firm size. Thirty-two percent of survey participants received a bonus of $1,000 to $3,000 in 2004. Twenty percent received less than $1,000. Nearly 26 percent received more than $3,000 in bonus payments. More than 18 percent of survey participants didn’t receive bonuses. Regardless of the method a firm uses to calculate bonuses, making a marked distinction between paraprofessionals and professionals can cause division in an office. When staff workers are expected to contribute their best efforts, excluding them at bonus time might send an unintended message about the value of their efforts. To make the financial end of bonuses more manageable, some firms divided bonuses into mid- and end-of-year amounts. There are other options, as well. “Bonuses aren’t always about money,” says Krull. “Job rewards can be non-monetary and still be appreciated.” Extra time off or flexible time are ways to reward staff members. Money is also not at the top of the list of what it would take to lure most paralegals away from their current jobs. More than 63 percent cited reasons other than salary necessary to consider a job change. Shorter commutes (19 percent), a different type of work (15 percent), better advancement possibilities (10 percent) and better hours (2 percent) were on the list. Thirty-seven percent named salary as a reason for leaving. A revealing 73 percent of respondents voiced a desire for higher-level work, and 74 percent of those have indicated such to their employers. Yet employers’ commitments to continuing education for paralegals were divided. Almost 53 percent of respondents participated in a professional development program, but 47 percent did not. The Blurry Line By far, the biggest concern most paralegals reported was what they saw as professionalism issues. There seems to be a fine line between legal secretary and paralegal in many offices, and one that some feel causes confusion. The terms “paralegal” and “legal assistant” frequently are used interchangeably. “Paralegal” was the job title of 65 percent of survey participants, and nearly 12 percent used “legal assistant.” Another 17 percent of respondents were called “legal secretary.” Fifty-two percent had secretarial support available to them. “The attorneys lump the paralegals together with the secretaries and treat us more like higher-functioning secretaries than associates,” said one respondent. After doing associate-level work, the writer said, it was “disheartening” to be repeatedly performing secretarial or file-clerk duties. More than 55 percent of responding paralegals reported spending more than 20 percent of their time on clerical duties. Ten percent spent more than three-quarters of their day performing clerical tasks. “The work I am given is extremely mundane and could be better performed by a secretary or other non-timekeeping employee,” wrote one. “I have a strong background in this line of work and have been given no opportunity to use real skills or show what I’m capable of.” A lack of clear job definitions can backfire when hiring. One paralegal cited an instance in which a firm advertised a legal-assistant job that was actually a secretarial position. The attorney started handing the new hire dictation tapes for transcription, and the firm soon was dealing with a disgruntled employee who regretted bypassing other positions for that job. Unfortunately, paralegals’ training also puts them in competition with associates for tasks. While this is an advantage in many firms, it can contribute to the feeling of an unbalanced workload. “I’m currently doing paperwork that an entry-level attorney would be doing; however, my salary does not reflect that,” commented one paralegal. “You may say that I’m gaining vital experience, but I would also like being paid according to my duties.” The paralegal industry is trying to address the issue of job standards and definitions, and many feel licensing is on the horizon. “There is no regulation yet, but it appears to be coming,” says Li of the Georgia Association of Paralegals. “Right now paralegals have the option of advanced certification, but it’s something that attorneys are still being educated about.” Two national associations offer certification to paralegals who want to improve their skills. The National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) both offer voluntarily skill testing. Paralegals receiving the Registered Paralegal designation from NFPA have demonstrated skills and knowledge across a broad range of practice areas. The Certified Legal Assistant Program offered through NALA is a five-section exam covering a range of subjects. Paralegals also can receive advanced certification in their legal specialty. “A mandatory educational requirement would help weed out problems of qualification,” says Susan Coker, a registered paralegal with Fortson, Bentley and Griffin in Athens, Ga. “But until that happens we need to educate attorneys on what a paralegal actually is, and what they should look for in terms of education, experience qualifications and skills.” The market, however, remains inconsistent on whether certification is necessary. Krull of LegalPros says it depends on where a hiring attorney places his priorities. “There are firms that demand college but are flexible about the paralegal certificate,” she says. “Others require both. But almost all firms hiring will want at least one degree.” Lack of advancement was an oft-cited concern of the respondents. As a nonattorney, options can be somewhat limited. But many firms are redrawing the lines to accommodate varying skill levels. “Many employers are starting to segment paralegal levels,” says Li. “They have entry-, mid- and senior-level paralegals, also supervising paralegals. Some employers are also appointing paralegals to head up their own departments.” Despite whatever problems they reported, nearly three-quarters of survey respondents felt they were treated as a professional member of the legal team. And being a valued team member seems to be the result most are searching for. “My attorneys treat me as an equal, recognize my skills/capabilities, and I participate in day-to-day decisions regarding each case,” wrote one paralegal. “I don’t think I’d leave this job, even for more pay. I have found a position that is very fulfilling.”

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