If you think a career working in law might be for you, but you don’t want to become a full-blown lawyer, then consider the paralegal career. Not only is this position very fulfilling, and a true challenge, especially for people who love working in the law field, but the paralegal salary is pretty impressive, even for those paralegals who are fresh out of school.
If you have an eye for detail, are very focused, enjoy research, and possess excellent writing and grammar skills, then working as a paralegal just might be the perfect job for you. But working as a paralegal is much more than just carrying out simple administrative duties, and it’s definitely a job that’s designed more for the self-starter.
The paralegal is a type of paraprofessional who has the necessary knowledge and training to assist a licensed attorney. The basic paralegal job description involves helping lawyers prepare for hearings, trials, interview clients, collect and organize data, and even the preparation of important legal documents. But paralegal services tend to vary based on state and specialty, as does the salary.
Entry Level Positions in the Paralegal Field
Working as a paralegal and being a part of a successful legal team can be very fulfilling and exciting, but aside from the prestige that comes with this position, you’ll also enjoy an excellent starting paralegal salary. However, the salary for this position is often based on experience, education, specialty certification, and of course, location. In fact, where you live can have a major impact on what you can expect to make in this field, which is why we’ve done a little digging to find out the average paralegal salary and how this varies from state to state.
Currently, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for this position starts out at around $49,000 in many states. However, it’s important to recognize that this salary can vary based on several factors.
|District of Columbia||US$75,000|
Average Paralegal Salary Based on State
The salary for the paralegal will differ from state to state and region to region.
Currently, the five states that offer the best pay for paralegals include:
- District of Columbia: $75,000
- Alaska: $66,000
- Washington: $60,000
- New York: $59,000
- California: $58,000
The five states that offer the lowest salary for the paralegal include:
- Arkansas: $39,000
- Idaho: $39,500
- Michigan: $42,600
- New Mexico: $43,000
- Oklahoma: $43,200
Additionally, statistics have shown that the Far West is the highest paying region, followed by the Southwest. The Southeast and the Plains States currently offer the lowest pay, while New England/Mid-East, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Lakes regions fall in between.
How Education and Training Affects the Paralegal Starting Salary
To qualify for an entry-level paralegal position, most firms are looking for applicants with the minimum of an associate degree, although there are one-year certificate training programs available that will qualify you to work in this field.
To graduate with an associate degree in paralegal studies requires seventy-semester units. And like in any profession, the more education and training you have in this field, the higher your annual salary will be.
Individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree in another discipline, along with a paralegal certificate, or those who have a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies, typically earn more. The National Association of Legal Assistants gathered data that indicates that paralegals with this four-year degree can earn approximately three thousand dollars more a year, compared to paralegals with an associate degree. These intense four-year programs will require a total of one hundred and thirty-semester units.
Paralegals with a master’s degree in paralegal studies stand to make six thousand dollars more a year compared to individuals with an associate degree or certificate.
Experience Working in the Field
In the legal world, experience is definitely a valuable commodity. Paralegals with more than six years of experience can expect to earn a higher salary compared to someone who’s fresh out of college. The National Association of Legal Assistants reported that in 2017 individuals with one to four years of work experience made around $40,000 a year, while paralegals that had six to nine years of experience earned approximately $55,000, annually. Beyond nine years, paralegals earned a salary closer to $60,000 per year. Individuals with more than fifteen years of experience saw an average salary of $64,000 annually. On the higher end of the pay scale, paralegals with more than twenty-four years of experience made over $68,000.
Specializing in a Particular Area of the Law
Specialization refers to the area of the law in which a paralegal has received extensive training. The BLS reports that the top five highest paying areas of specialization include the following:
- Federal government: $64,000
- Insurance and finance: $59,000
- Local government: $49,000
- Legal services: $47,000
- State government: $46,000
Increasing Your Earning Potential Now
One of the best ways you can increase your salary is by working at a larger firm. In a larger firm, the experienced paralegal can end up supervising a large team of new paralegals, so it’s important that you work hard to gain seniority.
Other paralegals will choose to increase their annual salary by heading back to schools and earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree. While some will continue their education on a part-time basis and work towards becoming a licensed lawyer. On average, a lawyer can make up to $120,000 a year.
Another way to increase your income is by building a successful career over the years. However, this is a relatively passive strategy and there are other ways you can boost your income to make more than the average new paralegal.
As an example, take into consideration your education and training. If you’ve recently decided to change careers, do you possess a paralegal credential or do you have an associate’s degree in an unrelated field? For you, enrolling in a paralegal certificate program will be your best first step. Look for an accredited program that offers on-campus or online options for students with or without a degree.
Your field specialty can also affect your pay. A position in a high-paying specialty area such as finance or government can boost your earning potential. When checking out prospective training programs, make sure you take a closer look at the courses available in order to ensure they offer classes that will prepare you for a career in your intended specialty area. This can include the option of enrolling in an externship program in the area of law you prefer or target courses in business and corporate law.
According to statistics, the practice areas that offer the highest paying positions for the paralegal include:
- Litigation Paralegal
- General business
- Commercial law
- Real estate
The NALA gathered data regarding income for paralegals based on specialty area of practice, and this is what they found:
- Mergers and acquisitions: $67,000
- Securities: $65,900
- Corporate: $64,300
- Tax: $63,000
- Contract: $62,000
- Finance: $61,000
Perks and Benefits
As a paralegal, you can expect to enjoy the same basic perks and benefits that you would at most jobs, including sick days, medical benefits, paid time off, bonuses, and a pension. Many law firms will also offer their paralegals education reimbursement. Usually, the perks and benefits will boost compensation by around thirty percent, bringing the median $49,000 average paralegal compensation up to $79,000 annually.
While initially, the paralegal doesn’t make a lot of money, there’s definitely plenty of potential for an excellent salary, as long as the paralegal is willing to earn plenty of experience in the field and stick to one position in order to gain seniority benefits.
Is the Entry-Level Salary for the Paralegal Negotiable?
Even when the economy was at its best, negotiating a starting salary can be tricky, especially if you’ve just graduated and you’re pursuing an entry-level position.
While you may have a little leverage to bargain with, especially if you’ve chosen a specialty, in most cases, the starting salary for new paralegals is basically set in stone. Those new to the field simply don’t have enough to offer potential employers to get that starting salary to budge.
A college degree may not be enough to boost your paralegal salary. If you bring expertise to the table or special experience, then by all means, give negotiating your salary a shot.
Yet that doesn’t mean you can’t try negotiating an offer you’ve received, especially if you feel that you have something to offer that other applicants don’t.
If your employer appears to be open to negotiating when it comes to salary, make sure you present a compelling case. The key to successful salary negotiation is to do your homework. This can mean visiting your school’s career center, networking with professionals in the field, and checking out salary websites in order to get an accurate sense of what to expect in terms of the average starting salary for paralegals.
It’s important to know the market well and whether or not you have the experience or skills that will warrant being paid a higher salary.
As we’ve mentioned, experience is one of the biggest factors that will determine your salary in this field, but how do you go about earning more experience if you’re still in school or you just graduated?
Externships Can Significantly Boost Your Salary
Externship is a term used for training programs that offer students exposure to the internal workings of corporate legal departments and law firms and they’re often the most exciting part of most degree programs in paralegal studies. An externship is rarely paid, and often results in college credit.
These days, most accredited schools require the completion of an externship in order to qualify for graduation.
Working as an intern for a local law firm will help you build your resume, hone your interview skills, and will allow you to stretch your paralegal wings in order to prepare for an exciting career. Pursuing an internship position with a law firm that specializes in the area of law that you plan to specialize in can make a huge difference in terms of your starting salary.
Obviously, the biggest benefit when working in an externship position is the amount of experience you’ll earn. If the position is arranged through your school, you can expect to work a total of two hundred hours, which will be spent performing common tasks.
For students and new graduates, an externship provides the type of exposure you need to build skills at large successful firms that normally wouldn’t offer the position to candidates without more experience. These training programs will provide you with a taste of what the job is really like, but you’ll also have the opportunity to network with professionals, which can be one of the most important benefits that come with participating in this type of program.
For many, interning at one of these firms will be their best chance to get their foot in the door after graduation. Many students will apply at the firms they interned at because these firms will also be more likely to offer a higher starting salary since they know the applicant and their work ethic.
But if the grad decides to try applying at a different firm, they can use their externship experience at another major law firm to leverage a higher starting salary.
Often, you won’t find an externship program available in certificate paralegal programs.
Making the Most Out of Your Salary in the Paralegal Field
Location, education, training, and work experience will all factor into how much you can expect to make per year.
If you’re willing to relocate you may find that rural states tend to offer higher pay if there is a significant shortage of applicants in that particular area. Additionally, signing bonuses are also usually offered in order to draw more qualified applicants.
To sum it up, if you’re interested in the paralegal career, doing your homework will go a long way toward making a higher starting salary in this field, especially if you’ve chosen a specialty field or reside in a state that offers a higher than average salary.