Negotiating Your Salary - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Cara Mitnick

As a new attorney or law student, you put substantial time and energy into searching for the right position. Your search likely involved a good deal of research, marketing and strategy. Despite all this work and preparation, however, many applicants fail to adequately consider one of the most important steps in the hiring process -- salary negotiations. Here are ten tips to help secure the best bargaining position when negotiating your salary:

  1. There are jobs for which it would be inappropriate to attempt to negotiate your salary. For example, entry-level government lawyer positions are set by “Grade and Step” (“GS”) schedules in a geographic region at the federal level or by local or state government or hiring entities for everyone in an “entering class” of new lawyers. As one increases in seniority in the government or attempts to move to the government as a lateral attorney, there may be room to negotiate with supervisors or hiring attorneys to improve your GS level or compensation level based on your experience. In the public interest sector, grant and fellowship compensation levels are generally set and non-negotiable. Finally, entry level or junior associate level salaries at large national law firms are often very high and fixed by a compensation committee or similar entity; therefore, a new attorney attempting salary negotiations may be perceived as lacking knowledge of the firm’s business model.
  2. Don’t be the first party to bring up “salary.” For other types of legal employers, salary negotiations are often desirable and expected. However, unless you are asked about salary during a first interview, it is rarely appropriate to bring it up at this stage. As a general rule, you should wait until an offer is made. Bringing up the topic of money during an initial interview can send the wrong message, implying that you are solely motivated by compensation rather than passion for the firm’s work, clients and purpose. Moreover, compensation driven employees often lack firm loyalty, jumping ship to a new, higher paying firm at the first opportunity.
  3. Try to avoid being the first party to throw out a salary figure. Once you’ve analyzed your situation and determined it is the right time for negotiations, keep in mind that as a general rule, it is best to let your potential employer anchor the negotiations with the first figure. This will prevent you from giving a number that is too high, putting you out of contention, or too low, causing you to sell yourself short working for substantially less than you could have negotiated. 
  4. You need relevant market salary information to evaluate the fairness of your offer. Each year, your law school’s Career Services office surveys its most recent graduating class regarding employment, including salary. The figures for your school are generally on its website. Graduates from schools outside San Diego can use the statistics of local schools to gather useful salary data. If your school’s information is not posted, you should contact the Office of Career Services to obtain this information. For new lawyers, these statistics are a good place to start when deciding what range to consider during negotiations. Be aware, however, that the numbers reflected on these surveys are indicative only of salary, and do not account for benefits, bonuses, etc. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) provides information on salaries and legal recruiter Robert Half Legal publishes a free online salary guide, determined by region.

    NALP made headlines in the law blogosphere last year with its depiction of a double bell curve for full time national salaries for 2006 graduates. According to NALP, what the double bell curve “image makes visually manifest is the two very different legal employment markets. While 16% of starting salaries were $160,000, far more, 38%, were $55,000 or less. The first peak in the graph reflects salaries of $40,000 to $60,000, with salaries of $40,000 and $50,000 each accounting for about 10% of salaries. Collectively, salaries in the $40,000 - $60,000 range (approximately the total area reflected under the left peak) accounted for 42% of salaries. Salaries reflected under the right peak, including the smaller bulge over $145,000, accounted for 22% of salaries. This bimodal distribution of starting salaries for law school graduates was not always the case however. As recently as 1999, starting salaries for law school graduates assumed a much more normal bell shaped curve with a single peak.” While the current market has, unfortunately, placed downward pressure on all salaries, compounded by fewer graduates going to law firms paying top dollar, there remains a “salary trough” where only a small number of new graduates earn a given salary. Thus, the size, type of work (business firms generally pay more than criminal defense firms) and geographic market all play into salary. It would, of course, be a mistake to try to command $160,000 if you are negotiating with a 15 attorney firm or a public interest agency.
  5. Your potential employer (unless he is your family member) is not concerned with what you “need” or what your “bottom line” may be in terms of your budget, student loans or rent payments. When the economy is tight, as it is now, and fewer jobs are available, and/or you really like everything about the job except the salary, you may need to consider whether to accept a position that pays less than what you had budgeted for and supplement your income (legally) somehow. This is especially true when you factor in a lack of income as a result of being unemployed for many months until another job opportunity presents itself.
  6. In a “down market” such as the current one, new lawyers or recent grads, generally, have less leverage to negotiate than in an up market. Thus, it is beneficial to make sure the employer knows you want the job first for what it can offer and that you appreciate the offer and are pleased to consider it. As mentioned above, I have seen a downward wage trend for salaries in the last two years, and employers feel more confident in such offerings and in their negotiations because of the high number of applications they receive for a single open position. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t negotiate; it does mean that your negotiation strategy should be well informed, realistic, respectful and polite.
  7. Despite the market, where appropriate, it is positive to engage salary negotiations so your future colleagues believe you think you are worthwhile and that you will be a good advocate/negotiator for your clients. Making an informed, deferential, reasonable pitch to an employer about your value to a firm is perfectly appropriate. In fact, some employers may be testing your mettle a bit.
  8. While prior careers may help you obtain or succeed in an interview, as a general matter, they may not cause your attorney salary figure to increase. While having been an electrical engineer, tax accountant or other professional specialist prior to law school may help get you in the door, and may sometimes influence salary discussions, oftentimes, your prior career will not weigh heavily in your negotiations. The practicing attorneys with whom you’re negotiating most often believe law practice is different than anything you have likely done before professionally.
  9. Give a salary range, rather than a number on which an employer can get fixed and use benefits to increase your yield. If asked to provide a salary figure, you can respond with something along the lines of “what do you typically pay for this type of position.” If they put it back on you, you will need to provide some figures. The range of numbers you provide should be large enough to provide both parties room to move – perhaps a $10,000-$15,000 range. The employer may try and lock you into the low end of the range. 

    You must then utilize the strong points of your resume to move up the figure, i.e., experience or success in a practice area, law journal or other writing experience or oral advocacy experience, you would show you need less training and thus command a higher salary. Additionally, you can use benefits provided or not provided by an employer to negotiate an increase or decrease. Alternatively, if an employer will not budge on salary, you can try to negotiate additional vacation weeks, bar or parking or similar fees or other benefits.

No matter how long ago you graduated, or from which school you graduated, your law school’s Career Services office will have a specialist who will be able to help you prepare for salary negotiations. Be sure to take advantage!

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