Negotiating Raises and Salary
By Dorothy M. Pritchett
March/April 2001 Issue
(a pseudonym) thought she was prepared for an important meeting with her employer about a
On the day of the meeting, Donna had difficulty with her
young daughter and was late for work. When she arrived, the meeting had been rescheduled
and was due to start any minute. When she presented her argument in support of a raise,
rather than responding as she anticipated, her employer remained silent. Caught up in the
moment, she blurted out the lowest amount she would accept and was stuck with the result.
While few of us have such dramatic tales about
negotiating salaries and raises, nearly everyone experiences anxiety about the process.
From one vantage point, these occasions could be opportunities to celebrate success and
revel in your professional achievements. In reality, these moments are fraught with fear
because each of us believes we deserve more than we will be offered.
Intimidated or unprepared, we are afraid we may settle
for less than we are worth or that lack of finesse will force us into a disappointing
A recent survey posted on the career section of the Web
site, http://careers.altavista.com, validates
this point. Readers were asked how competent they felt at salary negotiations. Only 26
percent of those responding by Jan. 10, 2001, said they felt “very competent.”
The remainder indicated they felt “somewhat” or
“not at all” competent during negotiations, with the majority falling into the
There are valid reasons for apprehension. Each side often
operates with presumptions: the manager’s job is to be miserly, saving the
organization’s precious bucks; the employee or prospective employee’s task is to
grab as much dough as possible. These roles play out so frequently that a game has been
established. You know the rules. He who specifies a number first, loses. The
employer’s first offer will be too low and your initial figure will be more than the
firm or company is willing to pay. The object is to meet at an acceptable financial middle
These precepts do create a framework to successfully
navigate through the process, enabling both sides to win. But they are far too simplistic.
A skillful negotiator understands the complexities involved and begins work long before a
discussion or face-to-face encounter occurs.
Going The Distance
Job seekers expect to position themselves for success. A
candidate’s primary purpose is to go the distance in proving his or her value to the
hiring organization, essentially providing a license to boast about capabilities.
Unfortunately, paralegals seeking raises rarely approach the process that way. They expect
others to notice their accomplishments, even if the person responsible for calculating
increases, such as a partner or human resources manager, is far removed from their daily
activities. If intimidation is part of the attorney-paralegal relationship, a paralegal
may be reluctant to become vulnerable to verbal attacks that are predictable if the
paralegal asserts the fairness of a raise. You need the facts. Preparing for an annual
review is a year-long process. It begins the moment you are employed or the second your
last review is complete.
Document your progress throughout the year. Keep records
that measure parameters your employer values, as well as dimensions they may not consider.
Your first concern should be to determine how your work impacts the bottom line and the
organization’s financial success. Obviously, if you work at a law firm, you want to
summarize your billable hours. But you also should note efforts contributing to successful
client outcomes. Were you part of a team that won a huge case? Consider, too, methods you
used to enhance or expand client relationships. Also worthy: Did you enact any cost-saving
measures or improve the efficiency of processes?
One paralegal working for a corporation was promised a
raise after he had been employed for a specific period of time. The date arrived, and he
was told he was not yet eligible. In addition to tactfully reminding the employer about
the promise, he provided justification, pointing out he had saved the company $20,000 by
tackling assignments formerly sent to an outside law firm. As a result, his employer
rewarded him not only with a raise that surpassed his expectations, but also offered him a
You also should track personal achievements. Education,
completion of training courses and professional certifications enhance your skills and
increase your marketability. If you have mastered a new software program, such as
Concordance, you have ratcheted up your capabilities, as well as your firm’s, by
enabling attorneys to have computer access to documents needed in court.
With achievements such as professional certifications,
you may need to point out the benefit to your employer. Certainly it provides a marketing
advantage to be able to tell clients a firm’s paralegals are CLA (Certified Legal
Assistant)-certified through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or have
attained RP (Registered Paralegal) status by successful completion of the National
Federation of Paralegal Associations’ (NFPA) Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam
(PACE). Your superiors may not know only 40 percent of candidates taking the rigorous
CLA-test pass all seven sections of the exam on the first try. Between 1976 and 1998 the
total pass rate was approximately 48 percent. Those achieving certification are worthy of
Negotiating higher compensation may require educating
Steve Richards, career services coordinator for the
National Center for Paralegal Training, the oldest such school in the country, said he
feels education is crucial to obtain promotions and career success. “Get as much
education in the field as you can,” he urged. With new skills, “your employer
can give you more responsibility and you can expand your role,” he explained.
“It increases your value to the firm.”
Getting To The Starting Line
Once you have developed a résumé or prepared a
summation of your annual professional accomplishments, an additional assignment awaits.
You must conduct salary research.
A book published nearly two decades ago contains advice
pertinent even in today’s Internet Age. Steve Kravette, author of “Get a Job in
60 Seconds” (Para Research Inc., Rockport, Mass.), recommended determining the
following three variables:
- What does the job pay on an industry-wide and regional
- What is a reasonable salary increase in your field?
- What is your own value to the industry, using strictly
The Internet simplifies this task. Among the numerous Web
sites with available with salary information are www.jobstar.org,
www.wageweb.com and www.jobweb.org.
For current national salary survey information, see page
48 of this issue for Legal Assistant Today’s 2000 Salary Survey. You also can review
NALA’s Web site, www.nala.org, which contains a
salary compensation study published during June 2000.
Similar information is available through NFPA at www.paralegal.org. NFPA publishes a salary survey only
every other odd year, therefore information available on the site at press time was for
Legal Assistant Today’s 2000 Salary Survey found
paralegals earned an average of $38,010 nationally with average bonuses of $2,624.
According to NALA’s survey, average compensation for
legal assistants across the United States, including bonuses was $40,474. Bonuses during
2000 averaged about 6.5 percent of average salary.
NFPA’s 1999 findings revealed paralegals were
earning approximately $38,085 with an average bonus for that year of $2,225.
Paralegals specializing in securities and antitrust led
their colleagues, averaging $43,916 in salaries and bonuses; those in the worker’s
compensation came in at the low end of the range with $36,544, according to NALA’s
Legal Assistant Today found paralegals working in the
field of mergers and acquisitions led in earning power with an average of $49,073
excluding bonuses. Legal assistants working in the area of family law bottomed out the
list with an average of $31,445, excluding bonuses.
Similar comparative information from NFPA’s survey
was not available at press time.
The Far West region is the most lucrative area of the
country according to both the Legal Assistant Today and NALA surveys. NALA found the
compensation average in that region to be approximately $54,335, including bonuses. Legal
Assistant Today’s figures demonstrated an average salary for legal assistants in the
Western region to be approximately $40,372, excluding annual bonuses.
This information is extremely valuable, but be cautious
in its application. Don’t let averages entice you to set your expectations too high
or too low. Conduct local research as well. Salaries in metropolitan areas are usually
higher than rural locations, and experienced paralegals with skills in demand — such
as mergers and acquisitions — are writing their own tickets because firms are
charging premium billing rates for these specialties.
In Atlanta, for example, those new to the profession can
expect to start their careers working for about $30,000. Those legal assistants with 20
years of experience with a specialty in intellectual property can attain in excess of
The other component of salary negotiations involves
benefits. Sometimes, these can be used when discussing raises. Among the benefits to
- Signing bonuses
- Stock options
- Profit sharing
- Tuition reimbursement, training and education
- Job title
- Dues for membership in professional associations
- Corporate credit card
- Assignment to special projects
- Use of equipment
- Use of company facilities.
The Inside Track
While general information about compensation and your
accomplishments provide a solid foundation for your discussions, they don’t give you
the inside scoop about the policies, procedures and politics that may govern negotiations
regarding salaries and raises at your place of business. Recruiters often can be
instrumental in providing detailed information to job candidates, particularly if the
prospect feels uncomfortable asking certain questions of a potential employer. Once at a
firm, personal reconnaissance may be difficult because in most environments, employers
discourage employees from discussing salary specifics.
Start with published policies and procedures. In fact,
request these during the interview process or once a job offer is extended.
These guidelines may spell out, for example, caps on
salaries by job grade, timing of annual performance reviews, ranges for raises by
percentages or opportunities for promotions. Your immediate supervisor also is often an
excellent resource of information, as well as representatives from the human resources
Informal discussions with colleagues will probably
provide the greatest insight. However, be careful these conversations don’t lapse
into gossip or divulge confidential information.
The size of your organization may play a significant role
in your negotiation process. Larger companies or firms have more structure to ensure
balance and equity exist for all employees. Unfortunately, this also imposes more limits
on managers and inhibits their negotiating flexibility. Small firms may have fewer rules,
but possibly less wealth to distribute and politics may become a more significant factor.
Gina Farley, a paralegal currently employed at The
Weatherly Law Firm in Atlanta, explained how these factors impacted her in a previous job.
“Paralegals did not have any power to negotiate a raise because of the firm’s
structure,” she said.
“In fact, I’m not sure whether raises had any
correlation to merit. There was a lump sum in the pot to be divided among the paralegals.
An individual attorney may have wanted to give [a] paralegal a raise, but since the
partnership voted on raises and certain partners were more powerful, raises were subject
to the ‘powers that be,’ rather than to individual accomplishments. Who you
worked for was more important than any other factor,” she said.
Former New York attorney Mark Hallett, who currently
works as a legal recruitment specialist for Lucas Group, confirmed this scenario is
frequently true for legal assistants and other legal professionals.
“Attorneys often have the viewpoint that the only
important assets a firm possesses are the attorneys themselves,” he said. “They
don’t always recognize the contribution of other members of the team. Yet any lawyer
who has worked on a major piece of litigation can tell you that a good [legal assistant]
can be more valuable than a junior associate.”
Worse than this attitude, he said, is getting caught
between a firm’s political and economic factions. Even if you have an attorney acting
as your champion, one individual may not be able to sway a vote in your favor.
A more serious problem occurs when your department
doesn’t pull its own economic weight. If you are attached to an unprofitable segment
of the business or firm structure, raises or bonuses, which are ultimately based on
financial performance, are likely to suffer as a result of overall performance.
“There is very little you can do about this type of
situation,” Hallett explained. “Sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Don’t expect a higher authority to overcome the problem for you. In cases like this,
if more money is important, your opportunity lies in another area of practice or at
another firm. I strongly suggest considering another firm. There’s always [a] hidden
cost to switching allegiances within a firm.”
The Final Lap
All roads lead to the negotiating table. At this point in
the salary race, you have documented the reasons you should be hired or offered a generous
raise, researched salary information and have the scoop regarding internal policies,
procedures and politics. You understand the limitations and opportunities. You have one
more assignment to complete. Like Donna in the opening anecdote, you should determine the
minimum acceptable offer, but keep it to yourself. In addition, prepare a high-end figure
to use as your opening position.
If you are seeking a job, be ready to walk away if your
low figure can’t be met.
According to Richards, the best opportunity you have to
boost your income on a long-term basis occurs when you accept a new job. “Don’t
make a switch for less than 10 percent. That’s an industry standard.”
A salary increase, however, isn’t always the determining factor in accepting a new
position. You may take less than a 10 percent increase because you have the opportunity to
learn a new area of the law that will increase your future income. A shorter commute may
be cost effective, and the savings in gas and parking may balance the lower salary.
Benefits are negotiable and factor them into your plan. These days, employers frequently
use stock options, flex-time and other enticements to seal a deal. Be careful about what
you ask for; you just may get it.
During her job negotiation, Jamie Bocci, a paralegal at a
Southeastern software company, was intrigued by the opportunity to work for a new company
as a contracts administrator. Previously employed as a paralegal at a large law firm, she
took an $8,000 cut in salary to accept the position, supplemented by generous stock
options. The company expects to undergo an initial public offering, but Bocci’s
opinion about the value of stock options changed. During her first job review, she
received an increase amounting to approximately $1,200 annually.
“I was not happy, to say the least,” Bocci
said. “I proceeded to gather very specific information from previous jobs, placement
agencies and job postings in various industries. I presented this information to my
supervisor, who then presented it to our human resources department. I recently received
an additional increase of $1,500 per year. I think most people take and accept what is
given to them at the time of their reviews and don’t realize that they should at
least attempt to get more of an increase. However, be prepared to do some research.”
Candidates considering job offers sit in the
driver’s seat. They are in an ideal position to negotiate because they know the
organization wants them. The pivotal factor guiding the negotiating process is the
company’s desire to hire the prospect. If the offer falls through, they lose their
leading candidate and have to settle for a replacement. On the other hand, paralegals
seeking raises have different challenges. Unless you are threatening to leave (this is
definitely not a recommended tactic) or have another job offer, there is diminished reason
to use money as a lure. In addition, raises are more likely to be restricted by
organizational guidelines. Your primary negotiating tool is that if you are a good
performer, the company wants to keep you and maintain your job satisfaction.
It’s expensive to replace a skilled paralegal —
financially, and in terms of lost knowledge and expertise. Hallett explained
self-confidence is paramount to obtain the raise you desire.
“Know your own value and be prepared to ask for what
you’re worth, but let them make the first offer. You shouldn’t get emotional;
it’s not personal,” Hallett said, “A business wants to keep people with
demonstrated track records. They don’t want to lose time and money on retraining or
hiring and its attendant acquisition costs.” Equally important, however, is
understanding the limitations faced by the negotiator. “If the firm is not doing as
well as it would like,” he said, “it may not be worth doing the negotiation
Once an offer is on the table, pause to thoughtfully
consider it. Then, it’s your turn to speak. Most experts recommend you refrain from
immediately committing to a positive or negative response. Instead, be prepared to deliver
a brief and enthusiastic summation about why you are interested in the job — or why
you enjoy working there —and recap the value you bring or will bring to the company.
Then, transition to the offer.
“In light of my experience, contributions and
comparable salaries,” you might say, “the amount of (name your high figure)
seems reasonable.” Be prepared for back-and-forth discussion, and don’t be
tempted to fold if an awkward silence should occur.
Such silences are usually either a time for reflection or
a ploy to encourage you to become nervous and begin talking your own offer down to meet
When the negotiation process is complete, thank the other
party, regardless of the ultimate outcome of your discussion. You never know when and if a
similar opportunity will come along, and people usually remember first impressions.
If you didn’t obtain a raise as high as you wanted,
open the door to future discussions before another year passes. Donna, the paralegal who
got short-changed during negotiations due to a distracted performance, revisited the issue
shortly after her initial conversation. Happily, she managed to increase her salary by
The lesson? “Next time,” she said,
“I’ll be better prepared.”