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What paralegals and legal assistants earn

Salaries for the 247,940 paralegals and legal assistants employed in the U.S. in 2010 ranged from a mean of $35,220 in Montana to $65,740 in the District of Columbia, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Although the BLS lists D.C., California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois as paying the top paralegal and legal assistant salaries in 2010, all but Illinois are also in the top 10 most expensive areas in the nation to reside, so you might expect salaries to be higher.

High paralegal salary and low cost of living: the perfect combination

When you compare BLS salary information with Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) cost of living data, however, you find that there are five states that are in the lower half of the fourth quarter, 2010 cost of living list and in the higher half of the salary list, which means your pay could go further there:

  • Texas. This state has the 5th lowest cost of living and the 20th highest paralegal salaries at $47,980
  • Georgia. 9th lowest cost of living; 12th highest salaries at $48,910
  • Michigan. 18th lowest cost of living; 17th highest salaries at $49,510
  • Illinois. 20th lowest cost of living; 4th highest salaries at $52,700
  • Virginia. 24th lowest cost of living; 18th highest salaries at $49,900

According to the BLS, West Virginia, Arkansas, Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana pay the lowest paralegal salaries. West Virginia and Arkansas have costs of living that are also considerably lower than the national average but the other states are in the upper half of the cost of living list.

Paralegal and legal assistant salary survey says…

Salary highlights from the 17th and 18th annual Paralegal Today salary surveys, which used 2008 and 2009 salary data respectively, include:

  • The highest legal assistant salaries were paid to those working in intellectual property and tax specializations.
  • Average legal assistant salaries paid by U.S. region: highest in the West, lowest in the South.
  • Lowest paralegal and legal assistant salary paid in 2009 was $14,000; highest $175,000.

Current information from salary.com shows that paralegal salaries increase between 13 and 17 percent for each two to three years of experience. The website lists entry-level paralegal salary of $47,224; those with eight or more years of experience earned an average of $72,746.

Paralegal careers and beyond

Some paralegals, looking for increased knowledge and autonomy, continue on to become lawyers. The BLS reports that the 2010 mean annual wages for lawyers was $129,440. Earnings for lawyers are obviously higher than paralegals but there is also a substantial time and educational investment that includes obtaining a bachelor's degree if you don't already have one, attending law school and passing the bar exam. Also, the BLS projected job growth between 2008 and 2018 is considerably higher for paralegals at 28 percent than for lawyers at 13 percent.

Being a paralegal or legal assistant can be an interesting and fulfilling career or could be the first step toward a career as an attorney or even a judge. But there is plenty of room in law for exceptional paralegals with expertise in legal specializations that are gaining momentum such as financial crisis law and international trade law. Law firms; corporations; and local and state governments and the federal government are all hiring paralegals and legal assistants. This is definitely a career with a future.

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