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Robert Half survey shows legal salaries on rise

Things are looking up for the legal community, according to a recent survey by Robert Half Legal.

The company's 2013 salary guide indicates that the average starting salary for legal professionals in the United States is expected to rise by 3 percent in the coming year.

Associates, paralegals and legal secretaries at midsized and small-to-midsized firms are expected to see the largest increases in base compensation.

Litigation support specialists also should see greater-than-average salary gains.

“As law firms focus on pursuing new revenue opportunities, the market is strengthening for mid- and senior-level associates with business development skills, extensive client contacts and experience in high-demand practice areas such as health care, commercial law and litigation,” said Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal, a legal staffing firm.

He said while salaries have not returned to pre-recession levels yet, hiring managers are offering above-average compensation to the industry's best candidates.

According to Robert Half Legal's research, the position that will see the biggest increase in compensation is a licensed lawyer with four to nine years of experience at a small-to-midsized law firm (10-35 lawyers). Their base compensation is expected to rise 4.9 percent, to a range of $87,250 to $157,500 annually.

First-year associates at small to midsized law firms, on average, will earn between $58,250 to $84,750 a year, an increase of 2.1 percent from 2012 projections.

Corporate attorneys will see average compensation gains of 3.4 percent over 2012.

SunMi Kim, the regional vice president for Robert Half Legal in San Diego, said several factors have caused salaries to jump, including the increasing focus on specialization.

Regulatory changes that are being caused by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act have made health care a growing practice at law firms.

"I think the increase in compensation also is attributed to the fact that employers want to retain their top legal professionals [and] because the market is looking more favorable for employees," Kim said.

Paralegals at law firms are expected to see their average starting salaries increase by 3.3 percent in 2013. A salary for a mid-level paralegal with four to six years of experience at a midsized law firm should climb by 4.4 percent, to the range of $53,500 to $66,000 annually.

Legal secretaries can expect average starting salaries to jump 2.7 percent in 2013, according to Robert Half Legal's survey. Midlevel legal secretaries with seven to 11 years of experience at midsized law firms will see the highest starting salaries at the range of $49,250 to $61,750 per year, a 3.5 percent increase from 2012.

"At the end of the day, I think employers want legal professionals who have multiple skill sets, and they are willing to increase compensation [to get those candidates]," Kim said.

Individuals with a technology background or management experience are the most highly sought, she added.

The information in the 2013 Salary Guide was derived from thousands of full-time and project placements handled nationwide by Robert Half Legal’s recruiting and staffing professionals.

Not only will firms be willing to pay more in 2013, they will be looking to add staff as well, especially in San Diego, according to Kim.

Intellectual property continues to be among the hottest practice areas, along with health care, general business and commercial litigation.

"The hiring outlook in San Diego also is very promising," Kim said. "Employers are looking to hire across the board."

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