2007 Salary Trends In Corporate Legal Departments: Attracting And Retaining Top Talent

Friday, December 1, 2006 - 00:00

Charles A. Volkert III

Robert Half Legal

As the accelerating pace of business and ongoing compliance mandates continue to boost workloads for corporate legal departments, many law offices are filling vacancies previously placed on hold. To attract top talent and retain valued staff, hiring managers must understand the factors that today's most experienced professionals look for when deciding whether to join or stay with a company. Among these, flexibility, work-life balance and career development opportunities are increasingly important to legal practitioners. A competitive salary, however, also remains one of their key considerations.

Legal departments with the most current information on employment trends, including knowledge of the compensation offered by other law offices in their area and industry, are in the best position for successful hiring. Following is a look at salary trends legal organizations are likely to see in the coming year, based on research conducted for the just-released Robert Half Legal 2007 Salary Guide .

Factors Affecting Salaries In 2007

One of the key drivers of the heightened need for experienced in-house legal professionals is the ever-expanding list of laws and regulatory requirements with which businesses must comply. Security and privacy issues, new interpretations of employment and immigration rules, Environmental Protection Agency regulations and Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates, are all adding to the complexity of the ethics and compliance efforts legal departments must support. A particular challenge is addressing these obligations while staying within budget.

The massive document-handling requirements in an age of e-discovery also are fueling the need for support staff who can work efficiently and accurately. While businesses may hope that they are never faced with the litigation that requires these ever-broadening discovery activities, lawsuits filed against companies of all types have unfortunately become more the rule than the exception. The most far-sighted firms are assembling staff with the technical skills tocreate and maintain information management systems in advance of a problem, thereby reducing expenses should they be hit with litigation.

Salaries Rising For Attorneys With In-Demand Skills

Growing competition among legal departments as well as law firms for the legal professionals who can help them with the aforementioned initiatives is moderately boosting compensation. Starting salaries for attorneys are expected to increase an average of 4.6 percent over 2006 levels. Compensation for corporate attorneys with 1-3 years' experience, for example, is expected to rise 5.4 percent, to the range of $70,500 - $109,000. First-year associates are likely to see an even greater boost, earning between $60,000 and $ 87,500, or 5.9 percent over 2006 levels.

While a variety of positions will see increases next year, this trend is not seen across-the-board. Senior lawyers are still selective in choosing new staff as they grow their departments. The highest compensation will go to experienced professionals in the most in-demand specialties.

Lawyers with regulatory compliance backgrounds, for instance, are needed by legal departments responding to corporate governance mandates, while those with real estate transactional experience are sought by title, mortgage and property management companies as well as corporate real estate firms. Other highly sought professionals - particularly among startup organizations - include those with expertise in copyright protection and legal assurances.

Business acumen, namely specific knowledge of industry issues facing a company, is increasingly sought by legal departments of all sizes who seek to offer more strategic advice to senior management. They also value professionals with legal expertise combined with a technical background as information management systems become more critical to a department's ability to track a monumental number of documents.

Paralegals Continue To Assume Broader Roles

Demand for paralegals is expected to remain steady within corporations. As with attorneys, the highest pay increases will go to legal assistants with experience in the hottest specialties, such as intellectual property, complex litigation, real estate or transactional corporate law. Those who possess relevant experience and certifications are most attractive to prospective employers; some states now mandate certification of legal assistants and paralegals.

Recruiting paralegals with increasingly sophisticated skills simply makes economic sense for corporate legal departments. Legal assistants who are able to assume more advanced duties often can deliver quality results at lower bill rates than attorneys. As this trend continues, competition for top paralegals is likely to escalate, prompting businesses to offer greater levels of compensation.

Senior and supervising paralegals with seven or more years' experience will see a 4.6 percent starting salary increase in 2007. Midlevel paralegals with 4-6 years of experience can expect their pay to rise 5.1 percent over 2006 levels, to the range of $45,250 to $58,000.

Shrinking Numbers Of Legal Secretaries

The supply of legal secretaries is diminishing due to impending retirements and fewer students entering the legal support profession. At the same time, these professionals are considered more vital to departments' operations. Legal secretaries are now assigned to projects in a variety of areas, particularly during periods of peak caseload activity. They also are required to interact more frequently with clients and court representatives than in previous years.

To attract legal secretaries with backgrounds in high-growth law specialties, such as corporate real estate transactions and litigation matters, many departments are offering lucrative compensation and benefits packages. On average, they can expect starting salary increases of 3.5 percent in 2007. Senior executive legal secretaries with seven or more years of experience will see salaries rise 5.2 percent, to the range of $46,500 to $60,500.

Staffing Approaches Must Be More Strategic

Rising salaries coupled with budget pressures are prompting departments to add staff only when there is an ongoing need for the position. To ensure access to the right talent at the right time, in-house attorneys are more frequently augmenting core legal staff with project and part-time legal professionals who have the specialized skills they seek.

A mix of full-time and project staff is especially effective in handling e-discovery requests in the event of a lawsuit. In most cases, it simply doesn't make sense to occupy top-paid attorneys and other key legal staff with the intricacies of the discovery process. Supplemental project professionals with experience in complex legal searches can save both time and money for legal organizations.

Looking Beyond Salary

As central as salary is to attracting and retaining staff, legal department managers would be remiss if they failed to ensure their compensation levels are matched by a superior work environment. Attorneys, paralegals and legal support staff all want to be intellectually engaged and challenged in their work, and a healthy work-life balance is also a key concern.

To this end, many departments are creating more opportunities for staff to make full use of their talents, hone their skills and grow professionally. The goal is to offer first-rate training and career experiences that will disincline top performers from feeling they have to look elsewhere when they're ready for the next step in their careers. A survey commissioned by Robert Half Legal indicates these managers are on the right track. Forty-two percent of respondents to the survey said 'challenging assignments' provide the greatest job satisfaction for legal professionals at their law firm or legal department. Compensation ranked second, with 22 percent of the response.

Unlike the relatively predictable path legal professionals followed in years past, many practitioners are choosing to make career changes for a variety of lifestyle reasons. To keep them, many law offices are offering perquisites such as flexible work hours, performance bonuses, career advancement opportunities and other benefits. Other perks include additional vacation days, reimbursement for expenses related to ongoing professional education, and flexible spending accounts for healthcare or childcare expenses.

To enhance service to internal clients, including becoming more strategic advisors to top management, senior in-house attorneys need the support of the most highly qualified lawyers, associates, paralegals and other legal staff. Keeping up with salary and workplace trends can tip the scale in a department's favor as they seek to build strong teams to handle the challenges of today and beyond.

These findings are discussed in greater detail in the Robert Half Legal 2007 Salary Guide. A complimentary copy is available by calling (800) 870-8367.

Charles A. Volkert III is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, CA., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.

Mr. Volkert began his staffing industry career when he joined the company in 1999 and previously served as vice president of national accounts where he was instrumental in the Eastern zone expansion of Robert Half Legal.

Prior to his employment with Robert Half Legal, Mr. Volkert was with Ford & Sinclair, P.A., in Miami and McGrane & Nosich in Coral Gables, FL. He is a graduate of the University of Miami School of Law where he received a degree of juris doctor. He also holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Furman University and is a member of the Florida Bar and the Dade County Bar Association.

Please email the author at charles.volkert@roberthalflegal.com with questions about this article.