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Attorney Salaries: Getting What You’re Worth

published February 13, 2013

( 21 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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Salary Negotiation Strategies

Here's the exciting part-negotiating for your salary. This can be one of the most difficult segments of your job search only if you are unprepared. The good news about entry-level paralegal positions is that, at this writing, starting salaries are anywhere from $16,000 to $25,000 per year, depending on type of firm, region of the country, specialty and your work history. The bad news for career changers is that it is possible that, initially, you may have to take a cut in pay. However, remember that in this field, you are generally recognized as a "senior" at about the five-year experience level. Many senior legal assistants make well over $40,000 per year. Some paralegals with management responsibilities or high-level specialties earn between $60,000 and $70,000 annually.

Law firms are known for increasing starting salaries at a very rapid pace, particularly in the early stages of your career. This is because the steep learning curve is recognized and rewarded. In addition, law firms have historically compensated legal assistants well above cost of living increases. However, in recessionary times, this practice has changed. More than likely, the trend will revert to its former path, although perhaps not at the same pace.


The discussion of salary is generally timed by an experienced interviewer to occur at the end of the first interview or sometime during the second interview. Allow the interviewer to bring up the subject first. Be careful not to jump the gun. Your positioning is to appear as interested in the work, level of assignments, firm or corporation as possible. Your emphasis should be on how your skills, abilities and determination to succeed in this environment will benefit the firm. If you appear too anxious to discuss salary or benefits, you could come across-to paraphrase John F. Kennedy-as more interested in what the firm can do for you, rather than what you can do for the firm.


Law firms are populated with master negotiators. Attorneys spend years in law school learning the latest techniques.

Non-attorney staff members also learn to be just as sharp simply by being part of the environment. If you haven't had previous negotiating experience, you can still play this game skillfully by understanding your "opponent" and knowing:

  • what you want;
  • what you will settle for;
  • what the potential of the job is;
  • the history of the firm regarding its use of paralegals;
  • who you are negotiating with and what kind of power he or she has to get you what you want;
  • if the firm pays a year-end bonus;
  • when the next raises are scheduled;
  • whether the firm pays overtime.

The overtime issue is critical to your negotiations. You can easily earn an extra $2,000 to $10,000 per year in overtime alone. On the other hand, if the firm is known for generous end-of-year bonus payments, this might outweigh getting paid overtime.

Skilled interviewers will place the ball in your court by asking you first, "What kind of salary are you looking for?" By conducting your pre-negotiating research, you will already have a general idea about what firms in your area are paying for entry-level paralegals. There is a natural tendency to throw the ball back in the interviewer's court by asking, "What does the position pay?" Some interviewers will respond to your question. But others will indicate that your response is required first.

  • this level of starting salary holds true for the firm/corporation with whom you are interviewing;
  • you can accept this salary;
  • you can be flexible in the exact amount of dollars you will accept;
  • you can gain more dollars than the "norm" due to your transferable skills,

You can answer the question, "What kind of salary are you looking for?" in several ways. Some good responses are:

  • I am looking to be paid at market rate.
  • My salary requirements are in the mid-20's.
  • My salary range is $23,000 to $26,000 per year.
  • I understand the going rate for paralegals at this level of experience is $_.

If you choose to respond with a salary range be aware that stating a range gives the interviewer permission to offer you the lower salary. It is unlikely that an employer will offer the higher end of the range because you have already stated that the lower amount is acceptable to you. It is therefore a good idea to raise the lowest amount to the salary you really want. If you are really looking for $24,000 per year, then indicate that your salary range is $24,000 to $26,000 annually, not $22,000 to $24,000. Never set a specific dollar amount because you then leave no room for negotiation.

You may be asked about the amount of your present salary. If you are changing careers, your current salary may be higher than the salary an entry-level paralegal normally makes. There are several answers you may give to the "present salary" question:

  • I know that I have to take a cut in salary to begin my new career. However, working for your firm is exactly what I would like. Therefore my salary range would be between $_and_.
  • I realize that my current salary is higher than what an entry-level paralegal may expect but with my background in_, I feel that 1 should be worth $_to your firm.

If you are a career-changer whose present career ties in specifically with this paralegal position, you may say:

My current salary as an R.N. is $35,000 per year. Given that the medical malpractice position you are offering utilizes most of my current skills, I would be willing to make a lateral move at that salary.

If your current salary is lower than the norm, do not pad it. Your interviewer can easily check on the amount. Just mention that you are being paid below market value and you expect $_, which is what entry-level paralegals are being paid. Quote the most recent survey by name. Law firms are used to documentation and should not be offended when you substantiate your information.


If the offer is less than you expected go ahead and negotiate! Do not be intimidated. Lawyers love to argue. It's what they do best! Some effective answers to lower-than-expected salary offers are:

  • I am worth more because of my education and prior experience.
  • The current salary survey states that entry-level paralegals make $_.
  • My background relates to the paralegal field. It will not cost the firm as much to train me.

Negotiate for Perquisites

You can also negotiate further benefits and perquisites (or "perks") which can translate into more dollars. In attempting to do doing so, you must sell the interviewer on the value to the firm of bestowing these items upon you. Some of these perks, and their selling points, include the following items.

Continuing education

By granting you a continuing education allowance, the firm will gain a more valuable employee who can more quickly learn the position. You can even offer a cost-cutting benefit! When you return to the firm, you can educate other paralegals about what you learned, saving the firm the cost of sending everyone.

Law or Graduate School Tuition

Some firms will grant paralegals law school or graduate school tuition if the paralegal will agree to stay on at the firm utilizing the education for an extended period of time. For example, once the paralegal has passed the bar exam, he or she will agree to stay with the firm at least two to three years as an associate. Firms that have paid for undergraduate or graduate degrees obtain similar commitments for positions such as specialty paralegals. One firm I know of paid for a portion of a paralegal's Masters of Business Administration degree and then asked that person to stay on as the Director of Administration.

Early Salary Review

If you feel that you really want the job but the salary is just too low, you may ask for a salary review in three to six months after date of hire, instead of the usual one year. Of course, you must earn that raise-just having your salary reviewed at this time does not mean you will automatically be given a raise if your performance does not yet warrant one. But, if you "knock their socks off," you can gain a substantial increase like a litigation legal assistant I know. On my advice, she'd negotiated for an early salary review, and, at the end of her first six months with the law firm, she was given a 16% increase over her starting salary!

Be sure to ask for a salary review and not a performance review. A performance review may just get you a "You're doing great" pat on the back with no increase in salary. You may also request the promise of a salary review in writing keeping in mind that law firm management personnel does change. A new person may not honor your request.


You can also use exempt status (no overtime pay) and a bonus as negotiation issues. Find out if the firm gives legal assistants bonuses at the end of the fiscal year. If the firm does not have an established paralegal policy or you will be the only paralegal, you may be able to negotiate a bonus for yourself. I know of a legal assistant who successfully negotiated a six-month review bonus for herself, in lieu of a salary review at that time.

Hiring Bonus

A hiring bonus is often used to attract associates. This is a one-time bonus given at hiring. If you have heard the objection, "this is the maximum our budget will allow," and you are bringing an extra-special talent to this position, the firm may be willing to give you this one-time bonus. The benefit to the firm is that, amortized over a one year period, a hiring bonus is a minuscule amount of money. The firm can also probably pull it from a different part of the budget, thus keeping within its compensation guidelines for paralegals.

Association Dues

Many firms do not hesitate when asked to pay the dues for their professional staff. It's worth asking for, and will indeed be a benefit for you.


Objections to hiring you are bound to occur. Don't let it throw you. Objections will most likely be raised regarding your lack of legal expertise, salary expectations, or that your previous work experience does not relate to the job for which you are applying. Some effective key phrases you can use to counter these objections follow.

  • "Let's look at a different perspective to that."
  • "One alternate solution may be "
  • "It's certainly understandable how you have reached that conclusion. A different interpretation of that data may be ...."
  • "I am open to any suggestions you may have to overcome that problem."

Whatever phrasing you choose to use, do not issue ultimatums. If you do so, you will immediately be designated as an adversary. You want your approach to be that of a team player, a quality that law firms in particular seek for people filling paralegal positions.


If you are using a good agency, the representative should be able to negotiate the best possible compensation package for you. Your agency should be aware of starting salaries, and they will know the hiring practices, benefits, times of raises, continuing education policies, and history of the firm's utilization of paralegals. However, even if the representative has explained all this to you, it is in your best interest to learn this information during your own job interviews. A skilled recruiter will relay all offers to you and let you know if he or she believes the firm will offer a higher salary. It's entirely up to you to accept or reject the offer. Recruiters can only relay your specific instructions to the prospective employer; they cannot decide for you.


The fastest way to terminate a salary negotiation session is to appeal to the emotions of the interviewer. Anything that does not have anything to do with what you will actually do on the job is not relevant and not negotiable. Here are some sure-fire ways to make sure the salary negotiations end unfavorably to you.

  • "I cannot live on this amount."
  • "My friend got $_and that is what I want."
  • "I want more money because I have to travel farther to get here."
  • "Whatever you give me is fine."
  • "I'm a little older than most of the people here and therefore am worth more."
  • "I have two children at home and need more."
  • "I have a better office where I am now."
  • "Parking is more here."
  • "I need to buy new clothes to work here."
  • "I want more because I just feel that I'll do a better job than anyone else."

Believe me, a law firm does not care what salary you can live on. They are more concerned with their bottom line. Citing a friend's salary is not quoting an official source of information. It's much harder for the firm to argue your worth when you have a salary survey in hand.


According to Herb Cohen, author of You Can Negotiate Anything, conclusions to negotiations will occur as close to the deadline as possible. Therefore, you must establish a date for resolution of the issue. Ask the interviewer when the firm will be making a decision. Don't hesitate to call the firm on that date to find out how the decision-making process is proceeding. Ask if you can offer any further information about yourself or if anyone at the firm would like to see you again.

If the firm tells you that the decision is between you and one or two other candidates, let them know that you would appreciate knowing by a certain date, as you have other offers to consider. Don't, however, push yourself out the door by being overbearing or insisting that the firm react to your deadlines. Be flexible and accommodating. Many firms make decisions on a committee basis, which is not always a quick process.


Take an active role in the negotiations over your salary. You are entering a field whose members make their living through the negotiation process. Practice negotiating with a friend so that you sound confident and self-assured, even if in reality you are very nervous. Stay realistic with your salary expectations and above all, have fun with this process!

Click Here to View the 2015 Salaries of the Top Law Firms.


( 21 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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