Every 2 years, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) conducts a survey of paralegals to establish current trends in the paralegal industry. Among those surveyed are NALA members, non-members, and members of affiliated organizations. Topics include the duties and responsibilities of paralegals, where they work, common practice areas, and the changes in billing rates and compensation. What is the meaning of survey results and how should paralegals use this information to improve their practice?
In this episode of The Paralegal Voice, Vicki Voisin interviews NALA President Kelly LaGrave, ACP about the results of the 2015 NALA Utilization and Compensation Survey, ways in which paralegals achieve professional growth, and the importance of certification to a paralegal career. LaGrave talks about the trends in the paralegal industry according to the survey, including more paralegals working in corporate legal departments, banks, government entities, the medical field, as well as private law firms. Popular practice areas, she says, include litigation, corporate law, real estate, administrative law, trust and estates, and increasingly commercial law. In order to keep up with trends, she explains, continuing education in unfamiliar areas and certifications are valuable to all paralegals. Voisin and LaGrave then discuss what it means to be certified, how to choose a qualified certification program, and ways to promote certification when looking for a job or promotion.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP joined Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC in Lansing, Michigan in 1993. She is a member of their business and corporate practice group. A successful passionate paralegal, LaGrave works in a wide variety of matters such as mergers and acquisitions, entity selection, and organizational planning for profit and nonprofit corporate planning and tax-exempt applications, loan transactions, real estate transactions, insurance regulations, and intellectual property. The current president of the National Association of Legal Assistants, she has served in many NALA leadership positions throughout the organization. She most enjoys helping develop and deliver training to other paralegals.
Special thanks to our sponsors, NALA and ServeNow.
Mentioned in This Episode
Paralegal Voice: Results of the 2015 NALA Utilization and Compensation Survey for Paralegals – 3/3/2015
Advertiser: Welcome to the Paralegal Voice, where you hear the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistance by one of the best known paralegals in the industry, Vicki Voisin. A paralegal for more than twenty years, Vicki is dedicated to helping legal professionals reach their goals. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Vicki Voisin: Hello everyone, welcome to the Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Vicki Voisin, the paralegal mentor and host of the Paralegal Voice. I’m a NALA Advanced Certified paralegal. I publish a weekly e-newsletter titled Paralegal Strategies. I’m also the co-author of the Professional Paralegal, a Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success. You’ll find more information at ParalegalMentor.com. My guest today is Kelly LaGrave, ACP, NALA president. Welcome, Kelly.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Thank you, Vicki, I’m excited to be here with you this afternoon.
Vicki Voisin: I’m pleased that you had the time to be with us. I know that you’re really busy, as I remember from being NALA president. Before we begin, our sponsor should be thanked and recognized. That would be NALA, a professional association for paralegals, providing continuing education and professional certification programs for paralegals at NALA.org. NALA is a force in the promotion and advancement of the paralegal profession, and has been a sponsor of the Paralegal Voice since the program began. Our other sponsor is Serve-Now, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. When you are working with the most professional process servers, you will be working with professionals who have experience with high-volume serves, who embrace technology, and also understand the litigation process. Visit Serve-Now.com to learn more. The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics important to the paralegal industry and to share with you leading trends, significant developments and resource you’ll find helpful in your career and everyday job. Guests are usually included to help explore timely topics. For that reason, I’ve invited Kelly LaGrave, ACP to join me today. First, let me tell you just a little bit about Kelly. I’ve known Kelly for a long time, she’s a very successful, passionate paralegal. She joined Foster Swift Collins & Smith, PC in Lansing, Michigan in 1993. She’s a member of their business and corporate practice group. Kelly works in a wide variety of matters such as mergers and acquisitions, entity selection, and organizational planning for profit and nonprofit corporate planning and tax-exempt applications, loan transactions, real estate transactions, insurance regulation, and also intellectual property. As I said, she’s passionate about her profession and the instrumental role paralegals play at Foster Swift and delivering high quality work product and exceptional services to clients. To that point, Kelly has earned the highest level of paralegal certification from the National Association of Legal Assistants, along with the advanced paralegal certification in three areas. She has served NALA in many leadership functions within the organization. And the role that she really does enjoy most – and I know this is true – is helping develop and deliver training to other members. Kelly is currently the president of the National Association of Legal Assistants. She frequently speaks on basic business organizations on a national scope. So again, Kelly, I’m delighted to have you with me today.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Thank you, Vicki, I’m really happy to have an opportunity to talk with you today about the paralegal field.
Vicki Voisin: We’re going to first talk about some of the latest trends in the paralegal industry and because you’re the president of NALA, I know that you speak with paralegals all the time and you’re watching these trends. What do you think they are?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: I really think the biggest trends I see right now for paralegal is that paralegals are specializing more and more – more than they have in the past. And there’s so many different areas of the law that paralegal are working within. And they’re also not working just within the law firm setting anymore, they’re working in corporate legal departments, governmental agencies, insurance companies, banks, financial institutions. We see paralegals working in a variety of types of businesses.
Vicki Voisin: NALA recently conducted a survey of members and that was done to explore paralegal duties and responsibilities, billing, and also compensation rates. So tell our listeners, first of all, a bit about the background of this survey.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: NALA began doing the survey in 1986, that’s when the first survey came out. And they continued to do that survey approximately every two years. And the survey’s done on a national scope, national level, it’s sent to paralegals across the country – those that are NALA members, non-members, and members of NALA-affiliated associations. In this past survey, we had about 1,100 paralegals respond. The findings of the report are divided into 4 sections. Backgrounds of the participants – the people that are responding to the survey, employers in practice areas; we talk about billing rates, and then compensation levels. And the most recent survey was opened to paralegals from November of 2014 through mid-January of this year, so the results are very current.
Vicki Voisin: Sounds like NALA’s been doing this survey for almost thirty years, so we should have a lot of good information for paralegals. I want to point out right now before we go on that this survey is free to anyone who wants to download it at NALA.org. We’ll give them that information again at the end, Kelly, but I think that’s one of the nicest things. Frequently, you either have to be a member of you have to be a subscriber, or somehow you have to pay for the professional association surveys, and NALA’s is totally free to anyone. And I really like that, I give NALA credit for that. Now what I’d like to know is does the survey reveal where paralegals are working.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Yes, it does. It talks about different areas where they’re working and right now the most recent survey shows that 61% of paralegals are working in a private law firm. Other employers include the corporations, banks; we have a lot of paralegals now that are just starting to work in a medical field, in insurance agencies, with government, in court systems, and non-profits.
Vicki Voisin: Does all of your information also address the practice areas that paralegals are working in? Has there been a lot of change since the last survey?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: There’s been some change since the last survey; not a whole lot. If you look at the surveys though in the last 30 years, you’ll see quite a bit of a change. Right now on the most recent survey, there were over 44 practice areas listed in which we asked paralegals to indicate areas in which they work. The median number of areas selected was a little over 3, so most paralegals that responded were working in 3-4 subject areas. So paralegals are working in a variety of practice areas. Only about 16% reported that they worked in just one specialty area, so we’re a pretty diverse group. The top practice area in which paralegals are still working is no surprise, litigation. But the other areas selected frequently are corporate, contract, real estate, government or administrative, personal injury insurance, employment labor laws, probate, commercial transactions and trust and estate. Although, like I said there’s really not a lot of change since the last survey. We did find that there was a decrease in the percentage of paralegals who reported working in the areas of administrative law, personal injury, bankruptcy, medical malpractice, environmental law, energy and immigration. The biggest change we found, though, is that there is over a 3% increase in the number of paralegals working in the commercial area of the law. It’s interesting when comparing the list overtime, it shows the employment opportunities for paralegal shift as the economy changes.
Vicki Voisin: So this does have some bearing on whether the numbers go up or down in certain areas, is that right?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Yes, as the economy changes, for instance, when the economy tanked in 2008, there wasn’t as many real estate deals or corporate transaction deals happening. We saw an increase in the use of paralegals in bankruptcy cases. I think nowas the economy’s gotten a little better, that that’s slowed down. And then we see more people working in the medical area because of things like HIPAA and the Affordable Care Act.
Vicki Voisin: And that’s why I always give the advice as to watch the trends that are going on. If you’re working in real estate and you see that that’s kind of tanking, get into another area quickly.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: It’s always good to expand your horizons.
Vicki Voisin: I agree, and I always say that when you’re going to any kind of CLE or to a convention, don’t ever think that there’s nothing that might work with what you’re doing right now because it might work later; so learn some new things. Now I know that the survey addressed billing rights and compensation. Did those increase from the last survey?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Billing rates and paralegal compensation were analyzed in our survey by size of employer, experience, whether they’re certified and geographic location. Generally we found that billing rates increased by about 5% and compensation levels increased by about 3%. Average billing rates were between 122 and 141, and that’s an average across the country. We did find that those holding advanced certification typically billed at higher rate. The national average for compensation – and again this is an average from individuals working as little as less than a year and over 25 years – is a little over 58,400; which is up about 3% since 2012. Again, obviously those with the most experience do tend to show the highest average salaries. The complete survey results can be found at the NALA.org website, and just click on, “About Paralegals,” and then the “2015 National Utilization Compensation Survey.” Because there’s so much information on there, we don’t have time to go over it; but it’s a great place to get it. This does include the breakdown of compensation by employer, experience of the paralegal, the geographical location; so if you’re working on the east coast, you can get information on that compared to if you’re working, let’s say, in the south. And then it’s also broken down by practice areas.
Vicki Voisin: Lots of good information. I also know that the survey asked paralegals what tools they’re using for professional growth and development. What were their responses?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: I’m real happy to say that most paralegals do see the value in continuing legal education and certification. Over 88% indicated that one of their top tools for professional growth was continuing legal education, and 53% are seeking certification. Other actions that people listed included seeking more complex work, changing practice areas, or becoming involved in a professional association.
Vicki Voisin: Kelly, we’re going to take a short break right now, and when we come back we’re going to talk a little bit more about certification. We need to have a word from our sponsors, NALA, the association of legal assistance paralegals, and Serve-Now, a nationwide network of prescreened process servers. Don’t go away we’ll be right back with Kelly LaGrave, ACP, NALA president.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin and my guest today is Kelly LaGrave, ACP, NALA president. Kelly and I are discussing the results of NALA’s recent Utilization and Compensation Survey, as well as how paralegals achieve professional growth. So, Kelly, let’s talk a bit more about paralegal certification. Explain the value of certification and what certification demonstrates.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Professional certification is a voluntary process by which an individual demonstrates their expertise at a certain level of knowledge. Certification indicates that the individual has met predetermined, standardized criteria. The certification is also time limited, which means that an individual must continue to fulfill ongoing continuing education in order to maintain their certification.
Vicki Voisin: I know that we’re both proponents of certification. I think it’s probably one of the best things that I ever did for my career, but I guess it’s kind of like preaching to the choir. I always tell everyone that they need to be certified. In your opinion, what does seeing this paralegal certification on a resume – when you’re applying for a job – what does that say to the employer?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: I think it says a lot, and like you, I’m a huge proponent of certification for paralegals. For an individual who may be looking for a new job, or even somebody who is looking for promotion within an existing place of employment, a person who holds a certification stands out from the competitor for the job. So generally, an employer knows that a person who took the time to obtain certification is motivated. Because as we know, it’s not an easy process and it can be a long process, so we know that person’s motivated to succeed. They go that extra mile in their professional careers and they’ve obtained a proven competency in their field. Also, those that are certified are also motivated to continue with their education, because CLE is required to maintain that certification.
Vicki Voisin: Kelly, as I was getting ready for this program, I talked with my sister who is an HR director with a real estate development company – a pretty big one in Detroit. She has all her HR certifications and does all the hiring for this company and the hiring from the janitor on up. So I asked her when she sees someone coming in who has the certification, she says that’s one of the best things they could have on their resume. For instance, paralegals must remember that the skills that they learn at a paralegal job might transfer to some other job, because she has people who are reading contracts and doing things like that. And she says if I know that they’ve got that certification – and even in their HR people, obviously – but if they have their certification, she says I look at them much more closely as a successful candidate. So it’s not just important in our everyday jobs, it could be important in our future, whatever path that we take. What I’d like to know is how paralegals can market certification to their employers. Do we have to educate them all over again or do they know about this?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: I think the more we go out and talk to each other and talk to employers and give them the facts about certification of that earn, certification works is noticed in certain locations in the country; it’s more prominent than others, it’s a continuing education process. But it’s important that when a paralegal goes out to interview for a job, that they make sure that their certification is listed on their resume. They need to really spell it out, don’t just use the acronyms. Let people know what it is and then a prospective employer will ask them about it. Make sure that the certification says when it was obtained and when it expires so you can definitely make sure it’s current. If the paralegal has obtained advanced certification, make sure to list the specialty areas. For instance, NALA currently has over 26 areas in which a paralegal can obtain advanced certification. The most recent was added in December of 2014 in the area of family law, adoption, and assisted reproduction. The directory of certified paralegals is also on the NALA website, and access is available to anyone, free of charge, including prospective employers. So the onsite directory provides certification date, expiration date, and any advanced certification specialties held by the paralegal.
Vicki Voisin: As I said, I certainly love my certification; wouldn’t let it lapse for anything because I don’t want to go through that again.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: I agree with you.
Vicki Voisin: I want to know, is it possible to demonstrate the credibility of certification exams. What important steps are taken to put an exam in place, keep it credible for more than a quarter of a century – which NALA’s has been. How’s that done?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: It’s really important and necessary to demonstrate the credibility of a certification program. You can’t just one day say, I’m going to set up a program and it becomes credible. The NALA certified paralegal legal exam, as you mentioned, has been in place for over a quarter of a century – actually for almost 40 years now. The first test was given in 1976. The NALA Certifying Board, which is comprised of working paralegals, attorneys, and paralegal educators – they work very hard to keep that exam relevant to the work paralegals are doing today and that anyone obtaining that credential has met a very high level of knowledge and standard. The Certifying Board does conduct a survey to validate and update as needed, the CP exam content specifications and to ensure that NALA has current information about the roles and responsibilities of paralegals. And the Certifying Board does this about every five years. The exam is always being reviewed and revised to ensure relevancy for today’s paralegal. One of NALA’s biggest accomplishments with regard to the certification program happened last April when the Certified Paralegals program received national accreditation from the National Commision for Certifying Agency.
Vicki Voisin: Tell me about that, Kelly.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: The standards set by the NCCA require demonstration of a valid and reliable process for development implementation maintenance and governance of the certification program. NCCA uses rigorous peer review process to establish accreditation standards, to evaluate compliance with the standards and recognize the organization programs which demonstrate compliance. It’s a long and arduous process to get accredited in which NALA’s really excited about. For the person taking the exam, I have people ask me why accreditation is important. Accreditation is really important for a variety of reasons. The process represents an independent third party review and oversight of the program. The CP program demonstrated compliance with national standards set for the governance, exam, administration assessment and re-certification policies and procedures. NCCA rigorously reviewed the program and made sure that the program was what we said it is. In addition, the program must continue to adhere to those standards and quality for certification programs through annual reviews and a five year re-accreditation. Obtaining the accreditation and committing to the compliance and re-accreditation procedures, does demonstrate that NALA really has a lasting commitment to the excellence of the program and those who seek the certification. And finally, the program is to be relied upon by employers, law firms, clients and courts as a reliable and valid, professional credential for paralegals. Certification in general does provide value to employers in career development programs, setting and defending billing rates, and hiring decisions. National accreditation of the program ensures employers that the program is really worthy of their trust. The bottom line really is that NALA walks the walk when it comes to these exams. When it comes to the high standards we have set for the program and it is the only nationally accredited certified program for paralegals.
Vicki Voisin: Kelly, that is a lot of great information, even some that I didn’t know yet, which I’m really glad that NALA got that accreditations good step. if any of our listeners want to get in touch with you, how would they do that? And I think we’ll tell them again how they can get to the survey and the other study that you mentioned.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: The survey and the job analysis study is on NALA’s website on NALA.org and I would love to hear from your listenres. We threw out a lot of information today, and there’s so much information on the website. But if they would like to talk to me, I am more than happy to do that. My email address is [email protected].
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Well, Kelly, I am so happy that you were able to join me today. I thank you for imparting all this information, it was just wonderful. I think there is some confusion about certification and I think that we’ve been able to answer a lot of questions. I do think that the survey results are interesting, especially when you start comparing them to past years, also helpful for planning your career. Anyway, I assume that I’ll see you at the NALA Convention in Tulsa in July?
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Of course you will, Vicki. I’m really looking forward to our 40th anniversary celebration and convention. It’s in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from July 22nd to the 24th. I hope your listeners will join us for the largest convention of paralegals in the country. There will be eight exceptional legal education institutes available in multiple areas of the law. In addition to the institutes, attendees have an opportunity to learn from fellow paralegals doing a member exchange, and from affiliated association members through the affiliates exchange, and they’ll be able to see a presentation from the NALA leadership class of 2015. Vicki, I’m also looking forward to hearing your presentation along with your co presenter, Vicky Kuntz, during the member exchange program on the topic of speed mentoring and networking workshop.
Vicki Voisin: We’re going to be doing that, we were just talking about it yesterday, how we’re going to make it all work; i love doing that. Thank you, Kelly, and I look forward to seeing you soon.
Kelly LaGrave, ACP: Thanks, Vicki.
Vicki Voisin: Let’s take another break now, but don’t go away because when I come back I’m going to have some career tips for you as well as some news about what’s going on in the paralegal profession. Don’t go away.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice,it’s time for my practice tip for today. Today’s program focused on certification. I’m a huge advocate of certification, I think that it’s something that every paralegal should strive for. It’s voluntary, so it’s something that you get to decide; but it does help you be more credible and I think it’s a good thing for you to have on your resume. I have a little example for you: if two paralegals are applying for the same job, they have the same amount of education and they also have the same amount of experience, one has a certification and one doesn’t. Probably the paralegal with certification has a leg up in that job search and will be most likely the one who will be hired. At least I think you’ll agree with me that that’s how it will look to an employer. So be sure that you look at certification when you’re going to be doing that. There are more certification exams out there besides NALA’s. Different ones are recognized in different geographical areas. You’ll need to be sure that whatever certification you sit for, that the employers in your area do recognize that certification. The other thing is to be sure that you prepare for that exam. Don’t just go in and say you’re to take this and see what it’s like; be sure that you prepare. And also, there are state certification exams available. Louisiana has one, North Carolina, I believe Kentucky has one now. These are specific to the state law, and then of course you have the national certifications that are based on federal law. When you are choosing ,the best thing to do is to get both state and national certifications. Just remember that the state certification doesn’t travel with you. So let’s say you move from Kentucky to Texas, Texas has its certification exam. But NALA’s exam, or any other one that is credible, does travel with you and is recognized in all of the states. So that’s a decision for you to make.
Well, that’s about all the time we have today for the Paralegal Voice; I would love for you to check out my website, ParalegalMentor.com, sign up for my newsletter, Paralegal Strategies, that I send every week or so. Also I have a new resource for you and that is strategic guidelines for planning for your career. And it’s again – I probably said this – a free resource, that is available at ParalegalMentor.com. And all of these resources that I have for you are planned to your career in the right direction, and of course that’s forward. We always want to move forward. So this is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to the Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to make your paralegal voice heard.
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