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Negotiating the "Tangibles"—Legal Job Offers

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After the legal job interview an offer is made. Once an offer has been made, there will inevitably be some discussion of "tangibles" such as salary, pension and health care benefits, perquisites, and the size and location of your office. Rarely if ever will these items be discussed in detail prior to a job offer being extended (and you should never, ever, ever bring them up before you have an offer firmly in hand; it is an instant turn-off to an interviewer, signaling as it does that you are a money-power-and-status grubber who really does not care about the work or the employer's needs).

Once an offer is on the table, however, it is expected that there will be some discussion of the "tangibles" that will go with the position, and some give-and-take is not only expected, but is budgeted for. How much negotiation is sufficient? The answer will of course depend on the job, your employer's willingness to be flexible, and your needs for certain "tangibles". There are, however, two "rules of thumb" which can be stated categorically: (1) the candidate for a job who accepts an offer immediately without any discussion of "tangibles" is demonstrating his insecurity, his lack of self-esteem, and therefore his unsuitability for the position; and (2) the candidate who negotiates too hard and too long over "tangibles" (especially the less important ones) is demonstrating his unwillingness to follow orders, his inability to become a "team player", and therefore his unsuitability for the position.



This article will be short for two reasons. First, this is one of the few areas in which the general, non-legal books on interviewing skills excel, and you will be well served by looking up one or more of these books for guidance in specific situations. Second, and more important for interviewee, is that for most legal positions (1) there aren't a whole lot of "tangibles" available (other than a higher-than-average salary and some prestige) and (2) the employer's room for negotiation is usually quite limited. In a law firm, for example, salary increments are usually based on the number of years a lawyer has spent working since he graduated from law school (and sometimes not even then: at one large law firm in New York City there are currently four classes of associates who all make the same salary).

It would be very bad form for a law firm to pay a fifth-year associate (even an outstanding one) more than it pays its sixth-year associates. Moreover, the difference or "spread" between the fifth and sixth year salaries is likely to be only a couple of thousand dollars, which limits severely the firm's ability to negotiate a special deal for a highly desirable candidate. While this is beginning to change at some of America's largest law firms, the traditional "lock step" salary curve is likely to remain for quite some time. As such the effort now is to summarize some of the most important points of negotiating "tangibles" once a firm job offer has been made.

Rule 1: "I Want", Not "Can I Have?"

When asking for a better "tangibles" package than the one offered by a prospective employer, the preferred approach is to be polite but assertive. Being too bashful or too mindful of the interviewer's emotional needs at this point in the game will set you back in a big way. The interviewer, who up to now has been totally charmed out of his socks by your presentation, now begins to think you lack the self-confidence necessary to become a successful lawyer (sad but true: a lawyer who is afraid of polite confrontation is not destined to be among the great ones) and may be tempted to re-open the interview to make sure his judgment about you is really correct.

While asking for something more than is "on the table" must be done in a way that is consistent with your own style, I believe it is better to do it in the form of declarative sentences describing what you want in the way of "tangibles" than to ask for a better "tangibles" package in the form of a question. For example, let's say a prospective employer has made you an offer at a salary slightly below your expectations. If you respond to the news by saying "your offer is most generous, Joe, but do you think it is possible you could go up a few thousand?", here are some of the things your prospective employer may be thinking: "he hasn't really rejected my initial offer; if I say 'no' to this request he'll probably still take it"; "what makes him think he's worth an extra few thousand?; he's just as good as any of our other fifth-year associates, and they don't make anything more than my initial offer"; "he's made it too easy for me to say 'no'; do I really want someone like this negotiating multimillion dollar deals for my streetwise clients?"

A better approach might be to say something like "I think your offer of $70,000 per year is a good one, Joe, but I was hoping for something more in the range of $80,000 in light of my special expertise in this area and my recent stint with the government agency which regulates most of your clients." Here your prospective employer has a tougher time saying "no": you have given him a reason to pay you more than other employees who are similarly situated; you haven't really rejected the initial offer but you have sent a strong signal that your expectations were higher and that the employer should "reach" a little bit if he wants to get you; and you have sent an even stronger signal that this is an offer you can afford to walk away from (the importance of this will be discussed below under "Rule 2").

Rule 2: "You Can Only Get a Bargain On Something You Don't Really Want"

This advice is from `is that the more you really want or need something, the less you will risk losing the deal by negotiating aggressively and assertively. You should determine early on if this is a job you really want, a job you would not want under any circumstances, or one which attracts you in a lukewarm way (the job offer will fall in this last category if you find yourself saying "it's a good job, but there are some negatives so if I don't get it I won't lose any sleep")'. Knowing how much (or how little) the proffered job means to you will largely determine your clout when negotiating the "tangibles" of the job.

If you have been out of work for a year or more, and someone offers you a job at half your previous salary but enough to pay the grocer and make your mortgage and car payments, you will be hard pressed to ask for more (even though you may well get more in this situation if you ask for it, as an interviewer is likely to be very impressed by your courage in such a desperate situation). Similarly, if you have been offered a job that nobody but a fool would refuse at a salary that would make anyone green with envy, it will be hard to ask your employer to "gild the lily" (chances are, however, that if you have been made such an offer it is because you are a very special or unique person who probably can get more if you ask for it because there's only one of you available). Unless you are very good at "bluffing" and concealing how much you want or need the position, you will likely end up working on the terms set by your prospective employer.

The converse is also true: the less you want a job, the easier it is to play hardball when negotiating the "tangibles" (after all, any job is worth doing at the right price). Early in my youth, in my last year of college, I interviewed for a sales position with a major radio network. The interviewer, who would have been my boss, dressed in a sharkskin suit, wore an obvious toupee and the loudest tie I had ever seen, talked like a gangster, used an obvious "stage" name in his business dealings, and had a faint musty odor about him.

Moreover, it soon became clear to me that success in the position would involve incredibly long hours in a very political environment where the prevailing motto was "sell the customer no matter what you have to tell him", and absolutely no personal contact with customers or other salespeople. Even worse, the opening needed to be filled immediately, so I would have been forced to leave college early, before getting my diploma, to take the job. I decided early on that I was not interested in the position, and pushed the interviewer to bring the interview to an end early so that neither of us would waste the other's time.

Well, little did I know that that is the worst tactic to use with an aggressive salesperson; the more I resisted, the more he wanted me for the job. Before I knew it, I had an offer, which I promptly rejected. He then doubled the salary, on the spot. I again said no. The salary went up again. This time I excused myself and left the office; he followed me down the hall and into the street, sweetening the offer. The son-of-a-gun kept calling me at home late at night, for three weeks afterward, and each time the salary kept going up until the original offer had quintupled. By this time, I admit, he was getting close to a number to which I couldn't say no. But he didn't quite get there, and I didn't budge, so eventually he gave up. The moral of the story is that I did not then, and have never since, lost a moment of sleep worrying about what might have happened had I taken the job. It was easy for me to walk away from the situation (contrary to what the salesperson thought, I honestly did not want the job), and so it was easy for me to negotiate.

Rule 3: Noncash "Tangibles" Are Easier to Negotiate Than Cash "Tangibles "

The first item on anyone's list of "tangibles" is, of course, salary. Salary is a "tangible" that requires an employer to fork over cash to you on a regular basis. Cash is scarce, even in good times. What do you do when you and your employer are close to agreement on salary, but it appears that the employer has gone as high as he can go?

There are some very valid reasons why an employer can go only so high on salary and no further. He may only be authorized to go up to a certain figure for the position. If he is to be your future boss, he does not want you making more than he does himself. If there are others working at the same level for the employer, he does not want your salary to be grossly out of line with theirs (somehow the word always gets out, and it's bad for morale).

When this point has been reached, there are three possible solutions:
 
  1. You cave in (and possibly lose face with the employer);
  2. you indicate that you will accept the offer only at the higher salary (thereby forcing your interviewer to lose you or "put himself on the line" by making an extraordinary effort in his organization to win approval for the higher salary for you can you guess which way most interviewers will go?); or
  3. you suggest a "tradeoff that will get you something you want and save your interviewer's face.

If you desperately need the job, you take alternative
 
  1. if you really don't care whether you get the job or not, you take alternative
  2. and if you are disposed to take the job but not entirely on the employer's terms, you adopt alternative
  3. How do you go about executing option (3)?

One way is to suggest that while the lower amount can be your "base salary", it can and should be supplemented by some sort of incentive compensation based on your performance; that way, your employer is required to pay you the higher amount only if through your efforts there is more money to go around for everybody. This is a common approach for business people whose performance and results can easily be quantified (such as salespeople). It is a much more difficult approach for lawyers, whose contribution to an employer is often less tangible (how can you quantify the amount an employer has saved in litigation costs or regulatory penalties because your expert lawyering has prevented it from making a serious and costly mistake?). Still, in most law firms these days you should be able to negotiate a percentage - over and above base salary - of the firm's receivables from clients which you introduce to the firm.

A better approach for legal professionals is to suggest a non-cash "tangible" - one that does not require an immediate or regular outlay of cash - in lieu of the higher salary--A window office, for example, versus an interior office (or a private office as opposed to a shared office). An earlier performance review than would otherwise be the case (the implication here being that the "gap" between your salary position and that of your employer can be bridged several months hence, when the employer will have a better sense of your value)--Perhaps an extra few days of vacation time, or an assurance that you will do a particularly exciting and visible type of work. The key is to want the job enough to be willing to live with the (hopefully temporarily) lower salary.

Generally, this approach is easier when you are interviewing for a corporate job-- they have a wider variety of benefits and perquisites and thus there is more you can get in such a "tradeoff"-- than when you are interviewing for a job with a law firm or a government agency. Law firms are not known for offering a wide variety of benefits (most of the larger ones view the high salary and prestige of working there as sufficient inducements --a few regrettably don't want you to stick around and accordingly have no incentive to make your life at the firm comfortable -- and the smaller ones are usually so focused on the bottom line that they cannot afford a wide line of benefits), while government agencies are often required by civil service laws to offer the same "tangibles" --without negotiation -- to all applicants for a position at a particular level to avoid discrimination and other undesirable social effects.

Rule 4: Do Your Homework and Know What Is Gettable

Keep in mind that how aggressively you negotiate the "tangibles" will depend to some extent on the relative bargaining power of you and your prospective employer. If you are interviewing for your first legal job with a large and powerful law firm, you will most likely have to "take the standard package" without much negotiation (unless you are an editor of the Harvard Law Review, graduating first in your class, with a parent who is the chief executive office of the firm's most important client). If you have developed a specialty in a "hot" area of practice and have portable clients who will guarantee $1,000,000 or more in annual billings, and you are interviewing to become partner of a small firm that needs to grow, the balance of negotiating power is quite different; your interviewer may be willing to give you his own office if it means bringing you on board!

Before the "tangibles" stage of the interview is reached, it is best if you do your homework. Talk to others who occupy similar positions at similar organizations in the same geographic area, and find out what is customary and what is not. This will help you gauge more accurately whether the initial offer is "within the ballpark" or a "lowball" that can be improved. Make sure your requests are realistic and have at least some precedent for the type of organization with which you are interviewing. Do not ask for a company car when interviewing for a law firm; nobody has a company car at a law firm (this can, however, be a negotiable item when interviewing for a corporate legal job).

Rule 5: Remember That You Are Still Interviewing

Finally, when asking for more than the interviewer is initially willing to give, be sure you give your interviewer good reasons for wanting more (this will help your interviewer justify his concession to himself, his superiors and his colleagues). Remember that your interviewer is your "partner" in helping you get what you want, and he will not do this unless he (and his organization) is simultaneously getting what he wants. Keep stressing your unique achievements that make you a better "fit" for the position than anyone else, your better potential to market the firm to prospective clients, your wealth of connections, your mastery of environmental law, whatever it takes.

See the following articles for more information:
 


About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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