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Paralegal Salary Levels & Trends

November 20, 2008

There are many benefits to obtaining a position as a paralegal in today's thriving legal industry. Given the steady, year-over-year growth seen in the field, the job offers high levels of stability and security, as well as healthy levels of intellectual stimulation. Paralegals are presented with potentially rewarding challenges and the opportunity to delve deep into intricate legal matters.

As legal costs rise in the face of a struggling economy, more tasks are being delegated to paralegals in an attempt to cut costs and give attorneys more time for billable work. With qualified legal assistants on staff to handle the large amounts of paperwork, research, and time management, firms are able to accommodate larger case loads to boost revenue without hiring additional full-time attorneys.

Among those considering a career as a paralegal, one of the most commonly posed questions is "How much does it pay?" According to a 2007 survey by Legal Assistant Today, the national average paralegal salary is approximately $52,000, a 3.7% increase over the previous year. It does take some time and experience to reach that amount, however: starting salaries average at $25,000 per year.

The amount of compensation for a paralegal can vary significantly according to a variety of factors:

Corporate or Private

According to the results of the survey, paralegal positions within a corporation pay significantly more than those with a private firm. The average salary for a corporate paralegal is $61,700, while a legal assistant at a private firm earns an average of $51,600. Paralegals employed by a local, state, or federal agency earn a median salary of $51,000. Corporate paralegals also enjoy higher raises annually, with this year's salaries increasing at an average of 3.9% as compared to law firms (with 2% increase) and government jobs (which saw an 8.4% dip in salary). Federal government positions seem to pay considerably more than positions with state or local agencies. As a general rule, larger firms offer more generous compensation and better benefits than smaller practices. Specialty practices often offer higher wages to legal assistants with experience in the firm's target area.

Practice Area

For every lawyer that specializes in a certain practice area, there's an employment opportunity for a paralegal within that same area of law. When choosing a specialty of law, keep in mind that there is a wide divergence in salary levels among the different practice areas. Within the corporate arena, international law was found to be the most lucrative, with an average annual salary of $77,000. Other profitable specialties include business mergers and acquisitions ($70,000), employment law ($67,000), litigation ($62,000) and securities ($62,000). Within private practices, the top-paying areas include tax law ($67,500), intellectual property law ($67,300), and commercial law ($57,800). Real estate is currently at the lowest end of the salary spectrum, most likely due to the decline in the housing market.

Market Demand

With salary averages and billing rates rising incrementally each year, there continues to be a healthy demand for paralegals in the legal market. This is primarily due to the vast scope of the legal field - even if one sector suffers, others will likely respond with higher levels of demand. This is best illustrated by the current decline of the real estate market, which in turn has increased the demand for bankruptcy attorneys. The paralegal field is one of the few sectors that have been virtually immune to economic shifts and downturns - as more firms look to cut costs, they seek out legal assistants to help attorneys with non-billable tasks. The rising rate of litigation and product liability cases has also heightened the demand for paralegals.

Experience

Not surprisingly, a paralegal's amount of professional experience has a direct impact on his or her starting salary, as well as the frequency and amount of increases. Those with less than one year of experience can expect to earn an average of $33,000, while those who have worked in the industry for 10-19 years bring in an average of $47,500 per year.

Education

Formal schooling is another factor that impacts a paralegal's salary. Earning an Associate's, Bachelor's, or Master's degree will result in higher levels of compensation. For instance, a legal assistant with a Bachelor's degree who secures a position with a successful corporation will likely earn close to $60,000 per year. Attending an accredited institution (as opposed to an online program or a school that does not follow ABA guidelines) will also help to raise a paralegal's salary.

Certification

As a supplement to formal education and on-the-job training, obtaining a certification as a Certified Legal Assistant (from the National Association of Legal Assistants) or a PACE Registered Paralegal (from the National Federation of Paralegal Associations) can help to boost earning power and ensure higher annual raises.

Gender

In a financial system where men almost always earn more than women in comparable positions, female paralegals report higher salaries than males, creating an interesting exception.

Location

As a general rule, big cities offer better-paying paralegal jobs than more rural or less populated areas, most likely due to the higher occurrence of litigation, crime, and other legal issues. As an example, the average salary for a legal assistant in California is $47,000, as compared with a $40,000 salary in Georgia.

Quality of work

As with most industries, paralegals are often rewarded financially for their dedication to their jobs. Legal assistants who are punctual, efficient, hardworking, and flexible can often earn generous bonuses from their employers.

Offering a generous average salary, healthy market demand, and reliable job security, a position as a paralegal can be a financially lucrative and personally rewarding career path.

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