The Salary Survey That Can Ruin Your Career

I got all excited. The NALA salary survey was out. Time to find out what paralegals around the country were making.

And then the other shoe dropped. 

I'm not a statistics expert. I don't claim to be. However, I am an advocate of higher salaries. Frankly, I don't know of advocates for lower salaries. I started to read the "small print" in the salary survey and all I can say is, buyer beware or at least question the information your employer is using.

While the NALA survey is generally thought of to be a quality survey, I noticed that only 1,069 paralegals were surveyed. The small print says that "With a population of 100,000 to 150,000 the sample is large enough for a confidence level of 99%, confidence interval (margin of error) of 4." 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that as of 2012, there were 277,000 jobs for paralegals and legal assistants. My little calculator says that 1,069 is .003 of the BLS stats and if we use the 150,000 population, it's .007%. I have a couple of questions here. Did the paralegal population drop almost 150,000 positions in two years? I mean, come on. There were a few layoffs here, a couple of mergers and acquisitions there but 150,000 positions?

Then there is the vast difference in small firms vs. large firms. The International Practice Management Association (IPMA) salary survey that came out last year claims that paralegal managers are making around $80 per hour.  The NALA survey says that some results were not considered in the analysis where the numbers were unreasonable. I don't know. Has anyone looked at major firm billings for paralegals lately? What do you consider unreasonable? If those billing rates and salaries were unreasonable, why are clients paying them? Someone, certainly, doesn't consider those unreasonable and I can assure you, anyone making in excess of $150k really doesn't consider their salary unreasonable.

Then, we have what I consider significant: the different regions all combined in a manner that has just got to make the inconsistencies stick out like a braying donkey.  It's called Southwest, Southeast, Far West, well, you get the picture. So states that pay bupkus and states that are rolling in dough are combined into some kind of magical geographical boundary. In some of the states that paid the highest, such as New York, only 2 paralegals answered the NALA survey. States that pay on the lower end, such as Florida had some of the highest responses. How the heck are we going to even that one out? For heaven's sake! Get those higher paying salaries in there! And what about the "working" supervisors? Those managers who are still supposed to bill time? Where do they fit? Part-time? Apparently, the NALA survey looks at primarily small firms while the IPMA survey looked at 9,500 paralegals from 298 firms but concentrates on large and mid-size firms. Then there's the fact that the majority of law firms in the U.S. are small firms. But the more attorneys in the firm, the higher the salaries seem to go. I'm telling you, my pretty little used-to-be blonde head is swimming over here.

Then, we have the issue of age. The NALA survey says the average age of paralegal is 48. Forty-eight? I need to drop doing my 5 Simple Steps to Beat Age Discrimination seminar because at 48, certainly no one is discriminating. That means there are paralegals older and paralegals who are younger. Maybe it's the gray hair. If you're 25 and you have gray hair, you get to get discriminated against. Do they still make Clairol?

I also want to know about those paralegals who have the title of "Legal Assistant" who are included in the survey. Now, lately, "legal assistant" is the state-of-the-art term in lieu of legal secretary. That's so that the firm can bill out some of the duties a legal secretary does. No client is going to pay for something a legal secretary does. They will if they are charged for something a "legal assistant" does. Are these legal secretaries filling out a paralegal survey or are these paralegals whose firms refused to change with the times and are left with the title legal assistant from the old days? I need a little clarification here, folks. 

Moving right along, I noticed that the average salary for a paralegal with a high school diploma was around $57,960. At the same time, the average salary for a paralegal with a Masters Degree was $57,123. So, if I get this right, the time you spend in grad school actually decreases your compensation. To think I could have spent that time at the beach instead. A nice pool boy spritzing me as I read a mindless novel instead of grinding though the psychology of attorneys acting like second graders wearing ties. Maybe it's that the high school diploma folks have more street savvy and get paid for it. It's a mind tumbler, that's for sure.

So, I contacted a colleague of mine, Scott Barnett, who is CEO of CareerNumbers, a salary survey company to find out his take on all of this. Here is what he said:

"It's important to do apples to apples comparisons when benchmarking compensation.  Salary survey's that collect the majority of their data from one sub-segment of the population, such as those employed at small firms, often misrepresent what the data would look like for other segments of the population, such as those employed at larger firms."

He did go on to point out that 1000 people is a good sample size for the paralegal population. That said, there's two places where you're likely to see issues:

— biases to the sample (e.g., it over-representing paralegals at small firms)
— sub-populations not having enough data (e.g., having 2 data points from a specific city is not nearly enough to know the pay levels for that city).
My conclusion? If you are in a small firm with 1 – 5 attorneys, the NALA survey just may help you. If you're in a large firm in a major metropolitan city, it could be a career buster. Well, a budget cutter at least. On the other hand, if you're in a small city using the IPMA survey, you might be down at the BMW dealer looking over that cute little two-door racer with the black interior. 
Since there are very few paralegal salary surveys available, my advice is to run right over to your local headhunter. That's right. Your local headhunter. Here are the folks with the most accurate information. National salary surveys can skew your local market salary. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, can be so finitely defined that paralegals working downtown can earn more/less than those working on the Westside (only 12 miles away). Who has that information? The person who is actually negotiating the salaries for the same positions over and over and seeing the full picture. 
I should have thought of that to begin with before I started with all this mishugas. In fact, now that I think of it, I'll be back.  Apparently, I have to go and make a few phone calls. I sure hope they'll take my call……