Lawyer Transitions: Talking About Compensation

Lawyer Transitions: Talking About Compensation

Valerie Fontaine and Roberta Kass
Special to
August 30, 2010

Timing and the question of who goes first are important aspects of negotiating the compensation component of an offer for new employment. Information is power, so each party to the negotiations wants the other to lay their cards on the table before disclosing their own hand.

As a job seeker, you should put off discussing compensation as long as possible in the interviewing process. You want to gather as much information about the job as you can. You also want the potential employer to think you are much more interested in the opportunity itself, rather than the money.


It can be dangerous for a candidate to discuss a compensation figure before the prospective employer does so. You might be negotiating against yourself by naming a number lower than what the employer has in mind. Often, potential employers use your current salary as a starting point for formulating an offer, when the budget for the position actually may be higher. Furthermore, a candidate with very low salary expectations may be signaling a lack of the requisite level of training and experience or self-esteem, except in unusual circumstances such as if you are coming from a government, nonprofit or teaching position where compensation typically is less than in private practice.

Conversely, you do not want to name too high a compensation figure and price yourself out of the market. Potential employers often ask for salary expectations up front in an attempt to screen out candidates who are way above their contemplated salary range. They do not want to waste your or time or theirs when it is unlikely that you will be able to come to terms. Candidates sometimes are willing to take a pay cut to make a move they believe presents long-term career benefits, however. In many instances, even despite the candidate's protests to the contrary, employers refuse to hire candidates at a significant salary cut because of the perceived potential for long-term resentment and dissatisfaction.


In some situations, most often in online or newspaper job listings, prospective employers ask for your salary information along with your resume and cover letter. You can simply ignore the request, but you run the risk of having your application rejected before having an opportunity for even an initial interview. If you believe you need to provide some compensation information, either state your current compensation and/or your expected range in a new position. In cases where you suspect that your current compensation may be higher than the range contemplated by the prospective employer, but you wish to pursue the opportunity anyway because of its career growth potential, state in your cover letter that you are willing to be flexible regarding compensation.

Don't lie or inflate your compensation figures as that often can be discovered. Some potential employers ask for tax returns, especially for candidates at the partnership level. In addition, there is enough public compensation information available within the legal community that savvy recruiters or hiring partners will know if you have fudged your answer. If you feel you were underpaid in your current or previous position, truthfully disclose your compensation with the qualification that you believe you were underpaid and state why you believe you are worth more.


The optimal time for a candidate to discuss compensation is after the potential employer has indicated a desire to extend an offer. At that point, they have decided that you are the best candidate for them and they want to entice you to join their organization.

If, however, you are requested to provide salary information before the offer stage, there are several ways you can try to postpone the issue gracefully:

• You can try to sidestep the question by saying something like, "While compensation is important to me, it isn't my primary consideration. I'm most interested in finding the right fit -- a challenging position that will best utilize my skills and with a long-term opportunity for growth. I'm open to discussing the issue, but I'm sure that we will be able to come to an agreement once we determine that I am the right person for the job".

• You can say, with a smile, "I'm not used to discussing money before an offer, are your making me an offer?"

If pressed, you can handle it one of several ways:

• You can put the ball back in their court by saying something like, "Before I answer that, I'd like to make sure that I'm even in your ballpark. What is the salary range for this position?" or "For an attorney with the skills and experience you are seeking, I'd expect the position would not pay less than $X, right?"

• Rather than name a number for the salary you are seeking, you can say that you are looking within a range. If you have done your research properly, you should be able to postulate a range that is within your target employer's budget for someone like you.

• Alternatively, you can answer that you expect a fair and competitive compensation and you are sure that salary won't be a problem. If appropriate, you might add that you expect to be paid at the level equivalent to similarly situated attorneys in their organization.

If there seems to be no way to avoid the issue tactfully, you can state your current compensation package. Then, if appropriate, mention that you were not contemplating a lateral move and hope to get some increase. If you believe that you are underpaid, calmly add that, based on your research, your current compensation is approximately $X below market for a candidate with your skills and experience. If you are moving to a different geographical location where salaries are lower than your current level, you might want to mention that you are aware of the regional salary differential.


Remember that when you are asked about either your compensation history or current expectations, you should know the value of your entire compensation package. Before you begin your job search, determine the elements of your package and their individual worth. This encompasses not only your base salary and the timing and amount of your next expected increase, but also the value of each of its components, including various bonuses and profit sharing, benefits such as all types of insurance and retirement plans, and any perks such as car, computers, extra vacation time and the like. This will not only assist potential employers in preparing an offer you are likely to accept, it will also allow you to accurately evaluate all offers you may receive.


Read articles in the "Lawyer Transitions" series:

  1. Lawyer Transitions: Money Isn't Everything
  2. Lawyer Transitions: The Art of Negotiation
  3. Lawyer Transitions: Talking About Compensation
  4. Lawyer Transitions: What's on the Negotiating Table?
  5. Lawyer Transitions: Figuring Out Multiple Offers
  6. Lawyer Transitions: Giving Notice Without Burning Bridges
  7. Lawyer Transitions: Encountering Counteroffers
  8. Lawyer Transitions: It's Time to Go
  9. Lawyer Transitions: How to Succeed in Your New Job