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Paralegal Salary Overview: Entry-Level, Average and Top-Earning Paralegal Specialities


Paralegals, also referred to as legal assistants, are professionals who perform a variety of tasks under attorney supervision. Paralegals most often work in law firms, but can also be employed by corporations, government entities, non-profit organizations, and elsewhere. A paralegal’s duties tend to be more substantive than administrative in nature and commonly include tasks like conducting legal and factual research, meeting with clients, preparing legal documents, filing documents with the court, drafting correspondence, and assisting with trials.

Average Paralegal Salaries

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS,) the average annual salary of a paralegal in 2011 was $49,960. In addition to their salaries, many paralegal also receive bonuses and other benefits such as vacation and sick time, health insurance, and reimbursement for expenses related to furthering their paralegal career. According to the 2010 NALA survey, paralegals received an average of $3,093 in bonuses each year.

Starting Paralegal Salaries

According to PayScale.com, paralegals with 1 to 4 years of experience reported annual earnings ranging from $24,000 to $43,775. The 2010 NALA survey coincides with this, listing the 2010 average salary for paralegals with less than five years of experience as $37,282. An entry-level paralegal who has no legal experience and has completed a paralegal education program can likely expect a first-year salary in the range of $29,000 to $36,000.

The Top-Earning Paralegals by Speciality

Areas of Practice

Average

Municipal Law

$71,254

Energy Law

$68,000

Tax

$64,350

Workers' compensation

$63,742

Commercial law

$63,360

Family Law (Lowest Paying)

$35,512

Criminal Law (Lowest Paying)

$37,003

Personal Injury (Lowest Paying)

$45,576

Mergers and acquisitions (Highest paying)

$94,096

Real Estate (Highest paying)

$89,822

Corporate governance

$73,562

Source: Paralegal Today magazine's 19th Annual Salary Survey (April/June 2011 issue).

How the Economy Affects Paralegal Salaries

The state of the U.S. economy affects the demand for legal work in many areas, such as causing an increased need for services in the areas such as bankruptcy, foreclosure, and divorces. In addition, in light of the large aging population, there is a high demand for legal services related to elder law and healthcare law. At the same time, many law firms and companies are laying off attorneys due to the recession. This can result in the increased use of paralegals, as paralegals can do much of the same work as attorneys at a much lower cost. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the paralegal field will experience much faster than average employment growth. The high demand for qualified paralegals can result in higher wages for paralegals.

Factors that Affect a Paralegal’s Salary

The salary for paralegal jobs can vary widely depending on a number of variables. In general, paralegals see their earnings increase as they gain legal experience. In addition, paralegals with higher levels of education usually earn more. How much a paralegal makes can also vary by geographic region. According to the BLS, the highest paying states for paralegals are California, New York, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. Along with that, those employed in large metropolitan areas and who work for large law firms, corporations, or the government tend to earn salaries on the higher end of the spectrum. The highest paying areas of law for paralegals include Finance, Corporate Law, Intellectual Property, Employment Law, and Securities/Antitrust Law. For example, according to NALA, the average salary of a paralegal working in Intellectual Property law (which pertains to trademarks, copyrights, etc.) is $61,133.

How to Earn a Higher Paralegal Salary

The top 5% of paralegals in the United States earn salaries of more than $80,000 per year. There are several things that can be done to earn a higher paralegal salary - one of the most beneficial being the attainment of a higher level of education. Paralegals who have a High School diploma should consider working towards a paralegal certificate or associate’s degree, and those who have an associate’s degree should consider taking additional classes to complete a Bachelor’s degree. There are many flexible options for paralegal studies available, including online programs, evening and weekend courses, and part and full-time programs.

Paralegals who desire a higher salary could also aim to specialize in a high-demand area of law, such as intellectual property or employment law. This could include taking continuing education courses on the topic, which are often paid for by a paralegal’s employer. Getting involved with a local paralegal association and networking with other members can also lead to a higher paying position.