Timing is Everything

Timing is Everything

Timing and the question of who goes first are important aspects of negotiating the compensation component of an offer for new employment.  Generally speaking, the job seeker should not offer compensation numbers and should put off discussing that information as long as possible in the interviewing process.  Information is power, so each party to the negotiations wants to get the other to lay their cards on the table before disclosing their own hand.

You do not want to be the first to ask about compensation because you want the potential employer to think that you are much more interested in the opportunity they offer than the money.  More importantly, however, you want to avoid being put in a position of 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, non-profit, or teaching position where compensation typically is less than in private practice.

Conversely, you do not want to 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 want to make sure that they are not wasting your or their time 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 that 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 potential for long term resentment and dissatisfaction.

In some situations, most often with 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 that you would be better served 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.

At any point in the job search process, do not 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.  Also, there is enough public compensation information available within the small legal community that savvy recruiters or hiring partners will know if you have fudged your answer.  If you feel that you have been underpaid in your current or previous position, state the truth with the qualification that you believe you were underpaid and why you are worth more.

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

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

  • You can say, with a smile, “I’m not used to discussing money before an offer, are you making me an offer?”
  • 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”.

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.
  • Or, you can answer that you expect a fair and competitive compensation and you are sure that salary won’t be a problem.You might add that you expect to be paid at the level equivalent to similarly situated attorneys in their firm.

If there seems to be no way to tactfully avoid the issue:

  • You can state your current compensation package. Then mention that you were not contemplating a lateral move and hope to get some increase.  If you believe that you have been underpaid, calmly add that, based on your research, your current compensation is approximately $X below market for a candidate with your skills and experience.  Do not be defensive.

Remember that when you are asked to disclose numbers for either your compensation history or current expectations, be sure to include your entire compensation package.  Before you begin your job search, be prepared with the total value of your current package.  This encompasses not only your base salary, 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.


Valerie Fontaine
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