Law Practice Today | August 2013 | Young Lawyers Survival Guide (Part II)
August 2013 | Young Lawyers Survival Guide (Part II)
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How To Negotiate Your Salary Well

By Katy Goshtasbi

Do you recall the last thing for which you negotiated?  Was it a successful negotiation?  What did you do well?  What could you have done better?  When was the last time you stopped and thought of these questions and their answers?

Most of us get plenty of negotiating experience, even if not within our practice area.  We negotiate all day long - with our spouses/significant others, children, siblings, parents and colleagues. We are not necessarily talking about a formal process.

Many of you may be thinking that a “successful” negotiation means that you walk out of the negotiation as the “winner” and the other party as the “loser.”   This definition may be bolstered because society, in general, believes all lawyers are excellent negotiators.  

As someone who formally negotiated hundreds of agreements with opposing counsel during my 15-year career as a securities lawyer, I found this mentality unhelpful in any successful negotiation.   In fact, at one point in my career, a female attorney to whom I reported had a very different take on negotiation than I did.  She never liked to negotiate any of our corporate deals,  so I had that honor and pleasure instead.  Her words of advice to me were always along the lines of, “go be really mean to opposing counsel and give them heck.”  That was her frame of reference for successful negotiations. From experience, I can tell you that never worked out for her, mainly because she tried to negotiate my starting salary that way when she hired me.

Consider an alternative definition of negotiation that I like to use in personal brand management. What if you looked at negotiation as a process of working side-by-side with another party to reach a mutually beneficial agreement?  Now the focus shifts to one of collaboration, where you and your “opposition” are both satisfied, and leave the table feeling happy and whole instead of used and abused.

Any negotiation can impact your personal brand, for better or worse.  Your ability to negotiate and hold your boundary well reflects your self-confidence and ability to confront a situation.  Strong personal brands negotiate positively, leaving nothing on the table yet ensuring both parties are content.

Salary negotiations are an area where I see much struggle and angst by male and female lawyers.   Men generally tend to generally be better negotiators because, as a gender, men are more competitive and can verbalize their value better. Women generally are more collaborative.  This trait often leaves us with weaker negotiation techniques. 

Gender issues aside, this inability to negotiate well has been exacerbated by the legal economic landscape.  It all comes down to self-confidence in the end.  How much do you think you are worth? What is your value?  What is your unique selling proposition, and what can you bring to your job that no one else can? 

In answering these questions, please don’t start listing the obvious that any (or at least most) lawyers can say, too.  These wrong answers would include: your educational institution, how smart you are, how long you’ve been in practice and your practice area.  Given the large numbers of lawyers who can compete with you for a job (and thus a salary), these factors are not always “good enough” negotiation tools.

Instead, look at it differently.  Start by looking at the entire salary negotiation from the end result you want.  In other words, what is the minimum salary you would accept?  That’s a fair deal breaker for some.  However, most of us don’t ever establish this number for ourselves. The result is that when it is time for our review or time to get that new job, we go into the salary/raise and review discussion unsettled and desperate to keep/get the job.  We are lacking control, our self-confidence is low, and we walk out feeling used and hurt.  These feelings lead us to be less than ideal employees.

Before you go in to negotiate salary, take some serious time and think about WHY you are practicing law and WHAT you really have to offer.  Are you happy?  What would make you truly happy?  What would make you an excellent employee, lawyer and contribution to the legal field?  In other words, do some soul-searching so that you are confident about who you are, why you are worth your employer’s time and money, and what you bring to the table.  Then, consider these factors:

  • What kind of work environment do you want?  Is your current work environment making you happy?  If not, what needs to change? If you are interviewing for a new job, make sure you get a good feel for the firm and other lawyers.  Stop and look around.  Does your employer express appreciation somehow for your work?  You have no idea how many of my clients have this as a major issue in their legal careers.
  • What other benefits do you need aside from money?  What do you need or require to not just be a good lawyer, but an outstanding, joyful lawyer that attracts business and serves as a quality employee with whom others want to work?  Ask other lawyers what benefits they have, as a reference source. 

Lastly, be open to outcomes you never expected when negotiating a salary.  If you are not open, you may just miss the perfect salary and benefit package negotiation.


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About the Author

Katy Goshtasbi is an attorney and CEO of Puris Image, a personal brand consulting firm. She can be reached at

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