Image credit: Shutterstock.

While associates at some of the country’s largest law firms have enjoyed substantial pay raises twice in the last two years, some legal support staff say they are waiting on raises of their own.

“The staff have been overlooked,“ said one Winston & Strawn legal secretary. “We are working very, very hard. The partners keep lining their pockets and the associates get increases.”

The secretary, who did not want to be identified for fear of losing her job, said pay for secretaries in her firm’s office has been capped for about five years. She acknowledged she has been paid bonuses and stipends, but said she has not been able to move up in pay grade because of the cap. At the same time, she said, she and other secretaries are taking on more work.

“We would like to know how much we are valued as well,” she said.

Amid the latest associate salary hikes—and at a time of record profits for some Am Law 100 firms—legal secretaries who spoke with ALM had varied opinions on the state of their own pay, ranging from concern to indifference.

Winston & Strawn is one of a handful Am Law 100 firms that have raised associate salaries in recent days, after Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy first announced raises last week. Starting pay for associates at Milbank and Winston is now $190,000, while eighth-year associates can make $330,000. Associate salaries at top firms last rose en masse in 2016.

In a statement, Winston said its “legal administrative assistants are highly skilled, valued members of our team and many of them have been loyal employees for decades.”

The firm added that it is “consistently at or above market across the country” when it comes to pay, while “individual performance is also a factor in determining compensation.” The firm declined to offer a comment on any pay caps.

Law firms face very different market pressures when it comes to compensating staff than they do in setting associate pay. Staff members are in a diverse labor pool, drawn from multiple  industries and with varying levels of education. Associates are hired by law firms from the same job pool of law schools and other law firms, and the decision of a major player in the market to raise salaries can affect every other firm.

Still, law firms should “carefully consider whether they’re paying support staff” enough, said Natasha van der Griendt, division director for permanent placement services for Robert Half Legal in Manhattan. She said the unemployment rate within the legal industry, including nonlawyer support staff, is low: between 1 and 3 percent.

“If they [law firm employers] do not remain competitive with what the market demands, they will see turnover, because there are opportunities out there for people to move to other firms, other corporate legal departments or wherever they decide to take their careers,” van der Griendt said. “We have candidates with multiple offers, and they’re competing for the best. That’s a change from a year or two ago.”

According to 2016 and 2017 Robert Half salary guides, first-year associate pay in the U.S. has generally risen at a faster clip than pay for legal secretaries in the last two years—not surprising considering the 2016 industrywide salary increases for associates.

“In past years, we’ve seen associate law firm salaries increase 3 to 4 percent on average, and legal support salaries increase by 1 to 3 percent on average.” said van der Griendt. ”It is fair to say that we expect that trend to continue.”

Yet van der Griendt said she believes law firms are generally responsive to the need to raise pay for support staff, including secretaries. “I don’t think they’re keeping them stagnant,” she said. Given the tight market for support staff, “They’re seeing staff increases are an important part of their budgets,” she said.

Nationally, median pay for a secretary with three to six years of experience is $52,000, while it is $70,000 to $75,000 in New York, she said. For those senior secretaries with 12 years or more of experience or executive secretaries overseeing others, it can be $60,000 to $85,000 nationally and $85,000 to $120,000 in New York.

Changing Roles

New associate raises are coming at a time when the roles of secretaries and administration staff are quickly evolving. While the attorney-secretarial ratio has increased over the years, with secretaries supporting more lawyers, technology has also made some attorneys more self-sufficient, and staff members are performing different tasks than they were decades ago.

At Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, “our legal administrative assistant duties have changed significantly with the introduction of new technologies to law firms,” said managing partner Steven Wall, who oversees the firm’s practice groups and practice areas. “Administrative assistants are now much more able to focus on client relationships and communications and spend less time on typing and data import.”

But this doesn’t mean secretaries are working more overtime. “Technology is both changing and expanding the traditional job of a legal secretary,” Wall said, but “the work day hasn’t expanded. There are simply different duties within the same workday.”

Citing the firm’s policy not to comment on personnel compensation, Wall declined to discuss administrative assistant pay.

Some firms say they no longer have secretaries but are instead creating a “hybrid” role that incorporates paralegal and secretary tasks in one job, said van der Griendt. “In an effort to improve efficiencies across the firm,” she said, “firms are finding this as another way to save costs.”

Law firms, van der Griendt said, “are going to make slight adjustments to compensations” as the responsibilities change.

Pay Factors

For her part, the Winston secretary said she and other secretaries are working harder. She said some secretaries are supporting twice the number of lawyers as they once did—up to seven or eight attorneys—and they’re taking new responsibilities that include paralegal work, proofreading, e-filing, major billings, travel arrangements and obtaining certificates of good standing for lawyers. “You have to multitask all day long, every minute,” she said.

Meanwhile, she said she frequently hears how well Winston is performing. In 2017, Winston grew gross revenue by nearly 19 percent, to $978.5 million, as profits per partner topped $2 million for the first time, growing 18.4 percent, to $2.16 million.

“If they had such a profitable year,” why can’t they give more to staff, she asked. “All of us are very proficient and professional and have many years of experience.”

Another legal secretary at Winston, again speaking anonymously, confirmed that there was a cap in her office for secretarial pay lasting several years. But she said she wasn’t bothered by it, as long as it didn’t last too long. She said she understood the reason for the cap: that the firm’s secretaries were already paid comparably to others at other similarly sized law firms.

“Overall, I think we’re paid well,” said the second Winston secretary, adding others in the office have expressed a range of opinions.

Robert Half’s van der Griendt said pay isn’t the only factor in job satisfaction for support staff. It can also be determined by flexible hours, perks and bonuses that a firm offers, she said,

Indeed, two legal secretaries at other large firms who spoke with ALM anonymously, because they weren’t authorized to discuss their firms, didn’t voice discontent about the associate staff raises. They said they were satisfied with their jobs and pay.

One Washington–based secretary at a large firm said she receives annual pay raises. “I feel that I’m being fairly paid,” she said. She said she helps five attorneys, and she’s able to manage that with no problem. With better technology, some tasks have a quick turnaround time, she said.

“My feeling is that in the next 10 to 15 years, probably legal secretaries are going to be phased out. More attorneys are self-sufficient,” she said.

A secretary at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman said she wasn’t bothered by associate pay raises.

“They could make 20 times my salary. They went to law school and paid several hundred thousand dollars to get where they are. They are still paying and will be paying for many years their college and law school tuition,” she said. “They deserve whatever they can make.”

She said in her office, she hadn’t observed any ill will about staff pay, and the firm has traditionally given out raises to staff. “I’m certainly happy,” she said.