Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hitting the Pay Ceiling

As a new partner, I am now part of the world of people who decides what other people should get paid.  In fact, I was made the newest member of the pay committee at my firm.  We decide what raises all of the associates, paralegals, clerks, secretaries, and other staff get, and what their end of year bonus should be.  (Everyone gets a bonus around Christmas.)  This is a much more difficult job than I thought.

It's difficult because many of the clerical jobs at a law firm eventually reach a sort of "pay ceiling," yet they still think they should get a huge raise and bonus each year.   

Take clerks.  These are the people who make copies, put together exhibits, run packages over to other law firms or the court, put together files, and get lunches.  It is not an intellectually demanding job in any sense, although it is a job that requires attention to detail and at least some responsibility.  (Like, don't stop in for a beer and forget to drop off that highly confidential filing at the court.)  It's a job that is mostly comprised of kids who are working their way through college.  Most leave when they graduate from college in order to get a job in their chosen field, or leave when they land a part time or summer position in their chosen field.  This works out well paywise and raisewise.  They work for us for one to four years, and then move on, and we give them a stellar letter of recommendation. 

The problem arises when these clerks decide to stay on for years after college graduation.  I'm always suspicious of these people.  Why would you keep a job like this rather than pursue your degree?  It's baffling, but all I can assume is that they tried to get a job in their chosen field and either (a) couldn't get one; or (b) could get one but the pay was much lower, so they stayed put.  Some of them are lucky enough to be promoted to another job (such as paralegal) if the opportunity arises.  But others are good clerks and would not make good paralegals, and the fact is that there are rarely openings for new paralegals at my firm (we have very low paralegal turnover).  There just are not a lot of positions to "move up," so to speak.  So, they remain clerks.  And at a certain point, you look at what they are doing and what they are getting paid, and have to say "This is enough for this job."  You can't pay these people $20 plus an hour.  It's not a job that requires a person worth $20 an hour.  They have reached their "pay ceiling" for the job, no matter how good of a job they are doing. 

We have similar problems with other staff positions.  How much is a receptionist worth in this day and age?  All they do is answer the phone, greet people, and divert calls to voicemail.  At least once a day I get a miscall from our receptionist.  ("Oops!  I meant to call so and so.  Sorry!")  Back before all the new technology, they had to write out messages by hand.  Now they just divert to voicemail and shop on eBay all day long.  What about secretaries with five years experience who think they should be getting paid the same as secretaries with twenty years experience?  (Why people are sharing their pay information is beyond me.)  Or a payroll clerk who essentially enters data all day long?  Everyone gets a small raise commensurate with cost of living (or we give it to them even when it doesn't go up), so pay does go up, but not massively on a year to year basis.  But eventually, after a number of years, it has gone up considerably, and we have to make the hard decisions, such as "Is this a job that really requires another pay increase, or is the pay already getting outrageously out of line with the market?"   

At any rate, these long term clerks (and some of the others, but they are salaried, so I will avoid talking about them, although they make some of the same arguments) like to complain about their pay.  They complain about it to me.  I'm not sure if this is because they (a) forget that I'm now a partner; or (b) remember that I'm a partner and think I will be on their side and give them a big raise because occasionally I go out for drinks with them after work.  People also gossip a lot, so I hear about the complaints through either third parties or unintentional eavesdropping.  (Some folks seem to think that if you are in your office you are deaf.) 

The primary arguments for higher pay (I'm talking $20 an hour and up) are these:

Argument:  I have an Associate's Degree or Bachelor's Degree.
Rebuttal:  Your degree is in Restaurant/Hotel Management, or Art, or History, or Elementary Education or Social Work.  None of these degrees have anything to do with working in a law firm.  Are we forced to give your a raise simply because you have a degree, even when it has nothing to do with what we do?  If you get a paralegal certificate, come back and talk to me then, but be aware that higher pay means more responsibility and more work.

Argument:  I've been working here for X years.
Rebuttal:  And you've gotten a raise for each year.  Do you think if you stay for the next twenty or thirty years doing this job that you would be entitled to $50,000 or $60,000 a year doing this job?

Argument:  I do a good job.
Rebuttal:  You also spend a lot of time on Facebook and Sporcle, or reading People magazine.  You also roll your eyes at me when I give you a big, pain in the ass job.  You also come in late quite often when you've been out drinking the night before, and cut out early without telling anyone.

I've done the research on Craig's List, and there are a lot of these types of clerk jobs out there.  What we pay (starting and otherwise) is either on par or higher than some of the many help wanted ads for clerks I found, so I don't feel we are being unreasonable.  What gets me is that they don't seem to realize that they are doing a job virtually anyone could do, and it is a job that does not demand huge pay.  Not every job out there is going to end up in a high five figure salary.  The job is what it is.  That's why it is a job that mostly students do on their way up in the world. 

The more people who are well compensated for what they are doing complain to me or others about their pay, the more I want to say this:  "If you are so unhappy here, then find another job."  It's really that simple.  If you think you are worth more, then go there.  I mean, isn't that what people do?  I don't mean to sound like a jerk, because I truly appreciate the job they do, it's just that it is not a $20 plus an hour job, and I resent the attempt to put a guilt trip on me to convince me otherwise.            

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