A Guide for Attorney Salary Negotiation: How to Negotiate Your Salary Like a Pro

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A Guide to Attorney Salary Negotiation
Summary: When you can answer the following three questions, you are ready to negotiate your salary.

How much money do you need to pay your monthly bills? What do you believe you deserve to earn? What do employers in your segment of the job market pay someone with your background and experience? When you can answer these three questions, you are ready to negotiate your salary.



Determining your basic monetary needs is the best starting point. Most of us have a general idea of our total monthly expenses. However, it is a good idea to define your budget more precisely. You don't necessarily need to write down the cost of every cup of coffee, but a close approximation of your monthly spending should be determined. Those weekly cash expenditures can expand without your realizing it, and they can shrink if you choose to exercise control.

Your day-to-day spending is a variable element to which you must give thoughtful consideration. Some non-recurring expenditures that you may wish to include in your calculation are medical and dental visits, vacations and gifts. The easiest expenses to account for are your fixed or relatively stable costs, such as housing, any outstanding loans, utilities and transportation.

A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

Your ego is the next factor to examine. Most of us believe that we should be paid a lot of money, maybe as much as an NFL quarterback or a major box office actor or a partner at a leading law firm. Realistically, unless you are in that category, contemplate a salary that is fair and will make you feel good about going to work each day. Resentment over accepting too little pay can lead to job dissatisfaction and undermine your performance even if you are doing the type of work you most enjoy. Based on my conversations with job seekers, I have found that harboring such resentment has catapulted many of them into the job market. To keep from falling into this predicament, take stock of yourself before jumping at a salary offer.

There may be circumstances where you decide to ignore your financial needs and your ego, without feeling any resentment. Incurring debt may be worthwhile for a certain amount of time as you try to secure a position that promises greater rewards and satisfaction. For example, you may follow the path of one attorney who used all his savings and maxed out his credit cards while writing and submitting scripts in order to break into television. He was one of the fortunate few who succeeded in becoming a producer and writer of a long-running dramatic series.

KNOW THE MARKETPLACE

The last part of this equation is the marketplace. Regardless of your needs and wishes, your calculation has to come within the parameters of the salary range that employers customarily pay employees in the position you are seeking. There can be great variations in pay from one employer to another. Such differences can be explained by the employer's size, financial situation, or difficulty in finding suitable candidates, as well as the credentials required by each employer. Another factor to take into account is the pay structure within an organization. Your salary will have to be commensurate with the salaries of others in a like position.

The marketplace is the hardest factor to gauge, except in the case of those organizations whose pay scale is firmly set and easy to learn, such as major law firms, government agencies and public interest organizations. Research is necessary to ascertain the range of salaries in most other situations.

Your networking efforts can be one of the best ways to find out about pay structures. When you are networking, you are gathering information, not interviewing for a position; it is appropriate to ask your contacts about salary. You can also get a sense of the marketplace by reviewing job listings on the Internet or in print to see whether they indicate salary for the type of position you are seeking.

You may find that there is a wide range of salaries, depending on the nature of the organizations with which your networking contacts are familiar and those which are covered by your other sources. This provides you with a good foundation for calculating a range that applies to your situation. A range with a difference of up to $15,000 is acceptable.

SALARY REQUIREMENTS

One question that frequently pops up is how to handle the many job postings that request salary requirements. In effect, such employers are asking you to start salary negotiations before they invite you for an initial interview, and before you know very much about the position or, in the case of blind ads, even the identity of the organization. Employers use this as a quick way to screen the many candidates who will respond to their listing.

Ideally, in negotiating your salary, you try not to be the first to propose a figure, and these ads undermine that strategy. Another disadvantage is not knowing whether you are on target, undervaluing your skills, or pricing yourself out of contention. With only the tiny bit of information contained in most ads, it is almost impossible to know specifically the marketplace. In these cases, you can base your range on your general knowledge of the market and your sense of what would best satisfy you.

DISCUSSING PAY

Salary discussions can begin at any phase of the interview process, as early as the initial screening interview or as late as the final interview after three or four rounds of interviews. If the employer says nothing during the first meeting, do not raise the issue. Wait to see whether the employer invites you for further interviews or extends an offer by telephone. There is no downside to leaving salary discussions to the future, when there is a meeting of the minds regarding whether you are the best fit for the position.

There is no rule regarding whether you or the employer will be the first to propose a figure. In either event, be prepared with a range. If the employer tosses out a number first, regardless of whether it is within your range, you can counter with a higher figure. If the employer poses the salary question to you, give your range. In either case, explain that you arrived at your figures based on your research regarding the salaries typically paid to individuals in similar circumstances.

For example, if you are interviewing for a position as a fourth-year corporate associate in a 25- to 50-attorney law firm, you can say your research shows that fourth-year corporate associates in law firms with 25 to 50 attorneys earn between x and y dollars; x and y need not match your range exactly. Then, to lend further weight to your proposal, you can point to your background and level of experience.

Expect a good deal of back and forth in this process. As the bargaining continues, look beyond salary. Consider the total package before making a decision. At times, you may find that there are tradeoffs making it palatable to accept a lower salary. Be sure to factor in the added value of such items as a generous benefits package, the promise of a review in six months leading to a substantial increase in salary for outstanding job performance, and the opportunity for growth and rewards as you progress in your career.

To stay on track, know your bottom line before entering into any salary negotiation. The rest will follow.

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