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After 22 excellent years, I’ve reached the salary cap–so, now what?

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Question: “I have been with my firm as a legal secretary, purchaser, database manager, etc. for 22 years.  I have always received excellent reviews and raises. However, at my last review, I was told I was getting to the cap for legal secretaries. I'm at a loss ... I work anywhere from 40 to 45 hours a week (at my regular pay for 37.5 hours). I pick up others' slack, I do what no one else wants to do, and now I'm told I've reached the cap and I probably won't get any more raises. How is a person supposed to respond? I feel as though I'm being penalized for being a loyal, hardworking employee. Any suggestions?” —Capped legal secretary

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha Woolf January 29, 2013 at 12:23 pm

This just happened to me. I’m a legal secretary. I think this is anticompetitive and designed to keep middle and lower-income people at the bottom. The law firms get together and decide what the caps are.

The problem with getting a “cost of living” or “bonus” each year, is that it is based on your capped salary, so you are losing money each year, and have wound up on a fixed income at your job. Let’s say you get a 3% COL or bonus on your capped salary this year. Then next year, you get the same, meaning your wages are stagnated. You have bottomed out and are not keeping up with inflation nor are you being rewarded for you knowledge, skills, and experience. It is unlikely you can move to another local firm and do better. There are few if any opportunities to advance within a firm beyond legal secretary. Like I said, it’s anti-competitive, and I believe designed to keep the middle and lower classes low. Our 401K matches have been taken away as it is where I work. I’m getting into a deeper hole.

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anonymous December 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I too have reached my cap this year. Started as a legal secretary and have been the training coordinator for the last 10 years. I go above and beyond. It’s extremely frustrating and really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I just don’t want to go the extra mile anymore because of it. I do agree that you need a job title change as a work around but in a law firm it a title doesn’t mean anything if you can’t bill for your time. You need to become billable if you want to remain in a law firm. I’m trying to get them to bill for all my word processing assistance and I’m hoping that will lift my cap or at least give me a better bonus. If you do a lot of word processing see if you can bill for it. Or maybe try to become a paralegal. They bill so they have no cap. I hope this helps. I have been with law firms since I was 18 and I’m not in my mid-40′s. Now is when money is important to me with all the increase taxes and everything else and a mortgage, not when I was 18.

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Over It May 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I worked in a place for 31 years, nearly ten for the CEO, who was the best and worst boss I ever had. He was great to work for, but became a political machine through a merger to save his job and threw the loyal, competent employees to the dogs to save himself. I did my job and alway went above and beyond, however, at this point I sadly do not have the same work attitude, but the work ethic is still there, no matter how I try to be different it is not my nature. The sad realism is that many times you get paid the same as those that don’t produce and that is a real frustration. I see it every day. I agree that education is the key to improving your job, which may require leaving. Sometimes we need to jog ourselves to new challenges and experiences…time to move on if you speak with them and you don’t get any type of increase or bonus. You can be prepared to strike when the right position opens.

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Rhonda April 5, 2012 at 9:55 am

You have to go to grow.. Which means moving to a different position and firm. Try education. Apply for other jobs and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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JoAnn Paules March 23, 2012 at 8:51 am

One of the things that I’ve seen done to get around a pay cap is to be classified with a new title. Obviously something without the term “secretary” would be more beneficial to you. If your employer is not willing to work with you on this, that’s a whole different issue.

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Who me March 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Unfortunately some jobs do cap. My husband works as a supervisor for a utility company. Some people have been there for 20 plus years and have reached their cap. They still get a bonus and overtime. If you are not getting a bonus, do your research on salary.com and find out what someone in your area makes. Approach your boss if you find out that it is more then you currently make. A company always has to remain competitive to keep the best people around!!!

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Jo Barnard March 22, 2012 at 4:21 pm

I am at the top of my salary range as well and can’t go any higher in the dept I am in, however, I can receive a salary increase every year in the form of a bonus, given all at once, once a year .. on my anniversary date. Suggest that…because everyone does deserve a cost of living increase.

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Sandi March 22, 2012 at 2:05 pm

What you need to do is YOUR job and no one elses. If it’s not in your job description DON’T DO IT. If you’re supposed to work 37.5 hours in a week, work 37.5 hours. Not a minute more. Once they realize they can’t walk all over you they will stop walking all over you. They might even find some “extra” money laying around.
You are the one who has to change so they realize they can’t take advantage of you anymore, because that is exactly what they’ve done.

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HRGirl March 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Sandi,

Is this a serious response? Don’t do what is not in your job description?? Don’t work a minute over 37.5 hours? Seriously? Wow! In my job description, there is a line that says, “Other duties as assigned”, which encompasses a LOT of things! There are so many other ways to get the message across that you will not be walked all over. There are ways of politely saying ‘no’ to certain things when you’re busy doing your ‘job’; I have to do it all the time in my line of work. I support the Executive Team (4 people) and I contribute support to about 80 others (non-execs). The Executive Team comes first always – President #1, and if I have time, I can help the others. There is a professional and courteous way of not being walked on, but putting your foot down to NOT go above and beyond I think will only hurt your career; NOT a smart move in my opinion!

-Lori-

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Tammi March 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Lori,
I totally agree with you.

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Barbara March 23, 2012 at 10:29 am

Lori,

I couldn’t have said it better. I support the VP of HR and the Director of IT & Chief Security Officer…. two extremely busy areas, as well as the teams they are responsible for (a total of 20 employees). I am responsible for the work that I do. There is no way I could or would limit myself to an 8 hr day. A persons reputation is built on who you are, what you stand for, and how you treat people.

Barbara

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Rebecca J March 21, 2012 at 11:29 am

Great ideas! Everything happes for a reason….it’s time for a change for you.

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Rebecca J March 21, 2012 at 11:32 am

Great ideas GWEN! Everything happes for a reason….it’s time for a change for you Capped Legal Secretary. It’s take for you to put that experience to work in another area, or possibly at another location. Either way….Good Luck!

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Trisha March 19, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Find out what employees who work for your state or local government get who do similar work to yours. They usually get a ‘cost of living’ increase. Perhaps you could request the same? After all, everyone’s cost of living goes up every year. There’s no reason why your salary shouldn’t, too.

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Rebecca J March 19, 2012 at 10:08 am

I can relate to your situation, having capped myself a long time ago. The hourly rate isn’t everything. Ask your employer if they would consider adding vacation days, birthdays, 401k, annual bonus, or other benefits since you’ve capped your pay grade. Since you are in the legal profession, perhaps your employer would pay for classes for you to become a paralegal, which would likely escalate your pay scale and open doors for additional benefits. The big question is if you love your job. If you do, be creative with a request for an alternative benefits or perks and be thankful you have a job you love. If you don’t love your job, cautiously investigate options and pay scales in other places of employment. You might find that the grass isn’t really greener after all. I have negotiated a very flexible schedule, and work from home. That is an incredible benefit for me, in lieu of additional pay. Good luck!

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Tammi March 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm

I don’t think anyone mentioned that you also need to weigh all of the benefits that you receive. Salary, vacation pay, medical, dental, 401K etc. I have worked for the same company for 28 years, moved to different positions and am capped also. I would not leave my position of my own accord. The company is great to work for, boss is wonderful, 30+ days of paid vacation. I don’t think I would receive the same salary or vacation time if I were to start over again with another company. Hang in there, the salary ranges usually change with time. Plus, if you have been with the company for that long, you most likely knew there is a salary range and should have exected to reach the max at some time in your career.

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Getoutgirl March 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm

I am seeing that in all areas of Executive Assistants right now. I work at a school and they are also putting caps on support staff, but also on senior faculty members who have been here a long time. It in the golden years, when the economy was booming, it was not unusual for huge raises, we saw anywhere from 5-7% some years, well over CPI, but now things have changed and with added expenses for health care benefits skyrocketing, additional compensation is being looked at even more. If they are also contributing to your retirement account, additional wages drive that number up as well.

I don’t necessarily believe that it is a message is to move on but more about what the market supports. The wiggle place here can be in additional time off, something I know as I get older I really appreciate.

Most of us are working those hours. If you can pitch and help others, I say that is great and makes you a team player but make sure they are carrying their own load.

A great exercise for you would be to meet with a recruiter and find out exactly what the salary range is for your experience and skills. You might be surprised to find out that they have been overpaying you to what is the norm within the industry. That would put a smile back on your face knowing that you have been valued. 22 years of service with one employer says just that to me. This is a financially driven move, not a personal one.

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AT March 15, 2012 at 4:48 pm

The advice I was given by a manager was to research other companies to see what job titles are available that relate to my job skills and also research salaries attached to these titles. This can be presented to the supervisor with a request to upgrade my current title with an appropriate salary range. An important fact is that my boss is willing to support me through this and his support is needed to make the change happen. I still look at my options with other companies to keep my expectations realistic should I decide to go elsewhere. Wish you the best.

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An Admin March 15, 2012 at 4:39 pm

I would respond by stating to my supervisor, in a very nice, polite, respectful way, something like the following: “If I am maxed out at the pay level, I’d like to work the hours I am supposed to work, 37.5 hours. I understand that there is a pay scale, and I know it applies to everyone so it is not personal. However, I also understand that I have been working for a LONG time at a level of hours that are beyond what I should be working. So if I am having to abide by the company’s pay scale rules, which I am okay with, then I should be able to abide by the company’s work week, which means we need to re-schedule some job duties so that I am only working the 37.5 hours a week. Now if you’d allow me to exceed the scale, I am fine working additional hours. But if not, it’s only fair that I work the hours that I should be working.”

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MeOverHere March 15, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Someone in the company makes the decision where to place the cap. Ask your supervisor to get with them and find a solution. If your supervisor won’t help, go to the department manager. It could be they need to create a new position title just for you, along the lines of Sr. Legal Secretary, or Lead, or Assistant supervisor. If they value your work, and it sounds like they do, they should go to bat for you.

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Legal Administrator March 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Are you in the United States? If so, as a legal secretary, you’re a non-exempt employee and entitled to overtime pay. See http://wagehourlaw.foxrothschild.com/2010/01/articles/exemptions/law-firm-sued-by-legal-secretary-on-exemption-misclassification-theory/
It’s not uncommon for an employee to “top out” after working at one company as long as you have. Even attorneys can reach the top of the pay scale. In many cases, employees will continue to receive cost-of-living increases even if they don’t get a “merit increase.” I would suggest that you follow up with your supervisor regarding the non-exempt issue and also ask about cost-of-living increases.
And, keep in mind that due to the economy, raises (even cost of living) have been few and far between for many people.

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DMDAVIS March 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

I have worked for the agency for 16+ years and reached my cap in 2005. I went out on 6 week FMLA for a brain tumor and was informed two days out of the hospital that my position and my level (Practitioner Level 2) had been abolished. BUT, there was a couple of positions I could APPLY for that were a Level (and 6K) less. I am now working as Admin Practitioner Level 1. But as one co-worker said, “I don’t see why she’s upset, she has a job doesn’t she?” So my gripe about being capped out was short lived. Now I wish I were capped out again.

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HRGirl March 15, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Capped Legal Secretary,

You haven’t exactly reached the end of your employment with your current employer. Considering that you have been with the company for 22+ years and have consistently received excellent reviews, there is still room for you to leverage your knowledge, skills, etc. and negotiate other options. Get creative. Have you researched the other responsibilities that you have taken on and found that they fall under a different job title? It sounds to me that you may have more of a hybrid position, which can be taken into consideration during review periods. Inquire about this. Have you inquired about possible bonuses in lieu of pay raises? This could be an annual percentage of your base pay. If these are options that you do not wish to consider and/or if your employer refuses to take these into consideration, then I would say move on. Good companies never value losing good knowledge and talent….so they will make it work if they want to keep you on board!

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Chris March 15, 2012 at 4:18 pm

I have been capped out for the past 5 years. I looked for other opportunities with more pay but when I sat down and weighed the options it wasn’t worth the couple of dollars more. I love my job, I really like my boss, the company I work for is great and treats the employees great, I met a lot of great people in this position and I am well established throughout the organization. Sometimes the perks and benefits are worth a whole lot more than a few dollars!

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Deb Sparks March 15, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Most positions do have a minimum, a midpoint, and a maximum pay scale. Our company gives annual reviews regardless of whether or not there is a pay change. I have been with this company 34 years and have yet to see any employee in good standing not receive at least a ‘cost of living’ increase. Many companies also review their pay scales on a regular basis (every year or every other year) and do adjustments to those minimum, midpoint and maximums to keep up with inflation. Maybe ask your company if they at least do this review and adjust when the economy dictates.

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Deb Sparks March 15, 2012 at 4:11 pm

This happened to me a couple of years ago and my boss solved it by giving me a “one time” bonus equivalent to what my merit increase should have been each year. Then last year the cap for my position was raised which allowed me to get the normal merit increase again.

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Deb Sparks March 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm

You might ask your supervisor all though you have met your salary cap, are bonuses and merit increases out of the question in lieu of yearly increases?

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Deb Sparks March 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I’m not sure if they are telling you to move on/out or not. But it sounds like you’ve been giving 120% for a while. Maybe you’d like to consider fitting your work week into the 37.5 hours you’ve been alotted. It’s admirable that you put in all of that extra time, but the company seems to be getting what they need and then some for free.

I’ve topped out at my salary, too, and the only raise I get now is for cost of living. I’m fine with that, and I can live with that. It pays my bills and gives me a little extra for my family. In the meantime, I keep my skills sharp, keep myself engaged at work, and do some continuing education. While the company may be saying, “sorry, we can’t do more for you,” there may come a day when they can—and I’ll be ready.

Good luck.

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Lisa (Chicago) March 15, 2012 at 4:08 pm

CLS – I would start by working 37.5 hours and not volunteering your services for grunt work. If you’ve with the same company for 22 years, you’re probably making a lot less than other legal secretaries in your area. See what else is out there.

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Chris W March 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Not a good idea to do less work; then management will think she is not up to par. It the work environment is good then just hang in there they usually review the company’s pay scales and raise the limits.

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Anonymous March 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Sad to say, the only way to have a raise is to leave. A person with your excellent qualifications should have no trouble finding new employment. Just think of it as a way to keep growing your skills.

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anonymous March 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm

It happens to all positions labeled “clerical” or “support staff”. It’s their way of telling you to move on (or out).

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