Excuse Me… Did I hear you right?  You’re offering me how much???

You’ve gone through the grueling attorney job interview stage, written the painstaking thank you notes, and made every possible effort to land your dream job as a lawyer.  The offer letter with your lawyer salary arrives and now your dream is about to come true… that is, until you open the letter.  Your heart sinks and your anger level rises.  The firm has offered you a “low ball salary.”  They knew your lawyer salary expectations and now you’ve wasted your precious time and energy on something that is not in the cards. You decide you have two choices:

  1. You can decline the offer and walk back to your old job, with your pride bruised and your tail between your legs…
  2. Or you can negotiate a higher lawyer salary, which seems completely unattainable based upon their original offer… or is it?  

Lawyer Salary Negotiation

First, let me give you a reality check.  A low ball salary offer is not an insult or a value of your self worth; it’s simply a low ball offer.  And it’s likely that it’s just a starting point in which you can begin your negotiation for a larger salary.  They’ve already determined that they want to hire you.  They value your talent, but they may not know what you are worth or possibly out of tune with what the lateral market demands.  The salary negotiation stage gives you that opportunity.  As a legal recruiter, I have seen employers and candidates negotiate packages that in the end benefited the candidate by $25,000 or more.  

It is possible to negotiate a better salary, but you need to be prepared to make your case.  

There are several factors to weigh when it comes to negotiating compensation. Before you have that conversation with a potential employer, you should have an understanding about the law firm’s compensation structure. Does the firm have a lock step compensation structure (which is often the case for junior and mid-level associates)? If so, you may have very little opportunity to negotiate the base salary successfully. You should consider asking for a signing bonus instead.

Other factors to consider are the bonus structure and benefits. Will you be eligible for a bonus your first year with the firm and if so, what is the criteria that you must meet in order to earn that bonus. Is the bonus based solely on billable hours or are discretionary factors that come into play. Discretionary factors may be negotiable.

Are there other benefits that are important to you? An additional week of vacation, relocation reimbursement, and lower billable hour requirements are all factors when assessing your overall offer package. Once you’ve fully understood the compensation structure, you will be in a much better position to negotiate.

If you feel there is some flexibility on compensation, determine what skills or clients will you bring to the table that will be an immediate benefit to the firm’s profit margin. Lead the conversation with your enthusiasm to work for the firm and appreciation for the offer. Be clear, confident, and forthright in your negotiation, backing it with your reasons for a bump to your base salary.

If you feel there is resistance to the counter offer or you believe the firm has a lockstep structure, suggest an alternative compensation structure. I have seen some cases where partners have agreed to bring X amount of business into the firm by a specific date and they’re base salary is significantly increased. In other cases, firms will pay more to your base salary, but delay your bonus eligibility.

You’re beginning what is hopefully a long-term relationship, so keep your focus on your ultimate career goal, the conversation professional, and your approach nimble, as a lawyer salary negotiation is a reflection on your ability to be a strong team player and getting the deals done.

Why low-ball an attorney’s salary?

All organizations have budgets and these days those budgets are much slimmer than in years past.  Your salary is part of a bigger picture, which include department budgets and salaries of existing employees.  There are several reasons that an employer may offer a low salary.  All companies, to remain competitive, are seeking the best bargain.  In some cases, a low ball offer is simply a way for companies to see if they can get the talent they want for less.  Obviously it’s a risky move that may result in losing a candidate.  Depending on the position, some employers are willing to take that risk.   Another possible scenario is, they have not hired in a while and their salary information is out of date.  Or there may have been a breakdown in communication between the department chair and Human Resource department in determining your salary.  As with most things in life, there are two sides to every story.  It is very important to keep an open mind and a calm attitude when discussing your lawyer salary.  

Do not believe everything you read about an attorney salary

News flash:  What you read on the internet is not necessarily true.  If you are relocating to a new city and have done your cost of living analysis on the internet, keep in mind that there is a lot of misinformation regarding salaries and cost of living.  So, how do you find out accurate information on salaries?  This is where a qualified recruiter will come in handy.  Expert recruiters that work frequently in that market should be able to provide insider information and help you gather the information that you need leverage your salary expectations.


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