The Lawyer’s No Sweat Guide to Answering “What Are Your Salary Expectations?”

Harrison Barnes

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Summary: Salary may be one of the most important aspects of the job interview process. For the attorney, it can not only be costly, it can affect their entire legal career.

  • Many lawyers, especially new associates, are reluctant to negotiate for a better deal in their law firm interviews.
  • Not negotiating will cost you, in both money and reputation; as a lawyer, it can make your interviewer doubt your legal skills.
  • Learn the best practices for how to answer salary questions during the interview process.
  • See a description of the criteria you should use for justifying your counteroffer.

What is your worth, worth?

Who decides your market value: you or the law firm?

Unless you’re a rainmaker or superstar with the directory of clients to rival Heidi Fleiss, and a book of business big enough to float a law firm, most likely that decision will be well beyond your pay grade. For those just out of law school, negotiation may not be the best tactic. For everyone else, you can have a significant role to play in what that number can eventually be. It pays to negotiate.

The salary expectation question: Not negotiating is not an option

No matter who you are and where you are in your career, you should be negotiating. When it comes to haggling a salary, only 37% say they always do and 18% say they never do; 44% say they’ve never broached the subject of a raise even during their performance reviews.

Women are even more unlikely to do so. Only 7% attempted to negotiate their first salary while 57% of men did. (Those who negotiated got an average of a 7% increase.) Interesting to note that women outperform men when negotiating for someone else.

Why are so many not negotiating?

Fear.

“Master negotiator” and Stanford professor Margaret A. Neale offers some incentive.

What you have to lose for not speaking up: Say your salary is $100,000. Your colleague in the same job negotiates their salary for $107,000. You decide that going to the mat for that extra $7,000 isn’t worth risking your job and reputation. If the two of you are treated identically from then on—same incremental raises, bonuses, and so on—and this difference is compounded over your careers, you’ll have to work eight years longer to equal the wealth of your negotiator workmate.

According to a survey from the staffing firm Robert Half, 46% believed they were underpaid, including 37% of those earning salaries of more than $100,000.

Even the Bible says, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”

So, we know why negotiating is important. But how do you do it? What do you say when the salary interview question is asked?

How to answer “the question”

“What are your salary requirements?”

There’s no good answer to that question: Your response will likely be either too high or too low. The law firm may have a wealth of candidates to choose from, and this question is a chance to thin out the herd. A too high number could make the firm apprehensive about your expectations and by offering too low of a number, you’ll only be cheating yourself of your best possible salary.

What’s the expert consensus on how to answer that question? Don’t. (Caveats offered below.)

In not giving an answer, you keep the employer guessing on all fronts—and maybe they’ll find the mystery intriguing. By not offering up specific numbers, you keep yourself from being limited to a particular price bracket.

What does your ego have to say?

What you feel you deserve is not unimportant. Not feeling respected or recognized can be a shortcut to resentment—for your job, your work, your employer, and even your co-workers. And salary can buy a lot of respect—or at least the perception of it. Resentment, on the other hand, leads to disengagement and this in turn leads to poor productivity and low performance. Nearly 40% say they work harder when they’re happier in their job roles. And being happier will keep you from hitting up the job boards again in a couple of years—and salary, while not everything, is a very important part of that. It’s also important that your next job be the right one: Attorneys only get so many “firm hops” in their career before employers see it as a stain.

If you are ready to make a lateral move, let HiringPartner be your hiring partner.

Coaching tips

  • Career coach Melissa Llarena advises potential negotiators to be confident but flexible. The ultimate goal is to arrive at the place where an offer is made; don’t disqualify yourself by setting salary expectations too hard and high before that happens. First, the interviewer needs to be of the mindset that you’re the candidate. Once there, and you’re at the stage where an offer is made, you can counter with your own.
  • This from Alison Green in US News: “If your interviewer keeps pushing you to name a number and you keep refusing, you risk coming across as obnoxious or simply getting cut from the running.” Gauge your feedback. You can tell if your interviewer isn’t going let you off that easily. If so, then go ahead and give them a singular number, and not a range, that you can be comfortable with.

Here’s what your answer tells the interviewer

A direct answer with an actual number has you running the risk of presenting yourself in these ways:

  • You appear to think too highly of your skills; or you’ve given the law firm the impression that you’re out of their reach
  • You appear to think not highly enough of yourself and who wants to hire an unconfident lawyer? You may be seen as cheap labor and advertising yourself as not a very good lawyer.
  • You’re not nearly as strategic or capable as you’ve otherwise been trying to present yourself in your legal interview—not a good move for an attorney.
  • A poorly chosen number or range may give the law firm interviewer the idea that you didn’t do your due diligence on the financial situation beforehand.
  • Never lie in a negotiation: Any lies told about previous salaries or work experience that are later discovered could be grounds for termination.

What you should know

Do a thorough salary research—check the internet, call people, talk to other associates in similar situations if you can, and get a clear idea what an accurate range for the position is. Only then should you feel comfortable talking about salary requirements.

When you get to the interview stage, you may feel more pressure to be more committal. Don’t be surprised: If you feel that to not give them something makes you appear impertinent, have an answer prepared.

From there you can go one of two ways:

  • “My salary is negotiable. I’d have to consider the other benefits you’re offering and what your firm thinks is a reasonable start.”
  • Choose a range that will leave you plenty of room for salary negotiation.

How to come up with a number

  • Get an understanding of how competitive the market is for your skills, in your geographic area, and let that inform the number you come up with. A saturated market won’t give you so much leverage. How in-demand are your skills and what does compensation in your practice area look like?
  • Take note of what your current salary is and what is the typical salary progression for the legal path you’re on. This may help you to better understand if you should aim higher or lower.
  • Before you begin, have in mind an absolute bottom or “walk away” salary number and go 10%-15% higher. This way you’ll know beforehand what your lowest threshold is.
  • If you’re going to create a salary range, make sure that you’re going to be comfortable in the basement end of such a range.

The bump promised for a later date pitch

An age-old technique firms, or any business, may use is the “Start-you-low-and-then-consider-a-raise-after-a-[probationary review or performance evaluation]” job offer. However sincere they may appear to be, unless you get that in writing, it’s meaningless. Verbal offers only serve the employer, never the employee.

If you do get your offer in writing, the criteria for the promised salary or raise must be:

  • Objective
  • Achievable
  • Measurable

Employers may provide a new hire with an offer letter. While this is a good start, and can often function as a contract, they may also include statements that can negate their contract value.

These statements may include:

  • …the terms of the offer letter are subject to change in the future…
  • …new employees agree to and are bound by the terms of our employee handbook…

Chances are a small or medium size firms may not have such a handbook. The value to the firm can be mixed. While they’re excellent for outlining a firm’s expectations, business practices, culture, etc., they can also define a firm’s liability. If you’re being bound by the terms of a handbook that you weren’t given at the time you received your offer, your innocence of those details could put you at a considerable disadvantage.

A handbook offers no protection from firing. Most labor codes allow for “firing at will.” This is another way of saying “at any time, for any reason.” While labor code allows for some protections—discrimination, whistleblowing, etc.—“at will” gives employers an encompassing range of discretion.

What you don’t want to do

  • Don’t get defensive or reactive: Not getting the answers you want can be triggering. Your heart rate will jump and emotions will enflame. Mind yourself: Don’t snap, take a deep breath and allow for silence. Slow the conversation down and be thoughtful.
  • Don’t give in too quickly: Prepare a response, don’t just counterpunch. Your interviewer and—and if all goes well—your future boss may hope you don’t push back on their offer. However, they shouldn’t be offended if you do. If they do, that could be a red flag. Restate your value and find a way to common ground. You can do this by putting yourself in their position. Are they asking a lot in their job requirements? Have they gone beyond standard expectations and performance? (Get them to nod here—common ground.) If so, those expectations merit a premium.
  • Don’t reach high enough: You don’t want to come across as greedy but you don’t want to start with a low ball either. Do that and you’re doing their work for them. Focus on the facts, your value and deliverables and aim high.

Answering the salary question: The Go-Big-or-Go-Home approach

This is a variant on the traditional “you first” strategy. It requires some finesse. You could start by saying “My salary requirements are flexible” and then follow with something as banal as “make me an offer.” However, as most will tell you, this approach may most likely not get you one.

A better possible scenario:

Interviewer: What are your salary expectations?

Interviewee: I’ll assume the firm already has a certain amount in mind budgeted for the role. Given that, does it matter what my expectations are? Why don’t we discuss what you’re prepared to offer?

It’s a bold position to take. You’ll need to deliver it with confidence—a kind of ice water in your veins strut. And even if it’s bold, it certainly isn’t dishonest. In a way you’re calling their bluff and you’re showing that you mean business. You’re not here to play. What you’ve done is not only evade the question, you’ve reversed it on them. You boomeranged with swag like a champion warrior and in the process shown yourself to be a highly skilled tactician—a vital skill for any great lawyer. They’d be damn lucky to have you.

At best, this could be where they tip their hand. You’ve shown them nothing because you never divulged your past worth. Here is where they could present you with a good offer. Take note: This is their first offer. It may not be their best—there may still be room to maneuver.

Thank them for showing their hand. Now give them what they’re asking for. You have to use your judgment here. Does it feel like they’re holding out? If so, you can thank them for letting you know and you can respond:

“That amount was close to my expected salary—which is…”

Here again, use your best judgment. Give them whatever number you think is reasonable. A number you’re basing on your market research and preparations you made for the interview. You can even bring that up:

“After my own careful research, it seems…[add mitigating factors—relocation, commute, other commitments]…makes that number problematic. I can’t accept the current offer.”

Mitigating factors could be:

  • Prior salary history
  • Previous work experience
  • Skills range or level
  • Cost of living

This gambit will require nerves of steel. There’s a chance, if you’re not reading the room right, that it could turn negotiations into a suicide mission. Or, you run the risk of completely scaring off the potential employer and you’ll need to do some serious tap dancing to recover—if you can.

But before you take this extreme step, take some deep breaths and consider some sagely advice:

  • “Fortune favors the bold.” – Latin proverb
  • “You can’t win unless you try to win, but you can lose by trying not to lose.” – Jack Campbell, author
  • “The second mouse gets the cheese!” Terry Pratchett, author

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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