How to Successfully Negotiate Your Salary (Perspective)

June 23, 2017, 5:59 PM

Many lawyers spend their careers negotiating deals on behalf of clients, taking pains to prepare in advance so that they can reach an agreement that leaves both parties feeling whole. These negotiation skills are honed throughout their careers and further developed at home, with spouses, children, parents and friends. But lawyers, like many other professionals, are rarely taught how to negotiate their salaries effectively. In fact, even the most seasoned negotiators can find salary discussions daunting.

Too many people enter negotiations blindly, either relying on intuition and deal-making skills at the expense of research and self-reflection, or accepting an offer as written. For such a high-stakes negotiation, it’s a shame that preparation can be an afterthought.

Here are important considerations to help candidates approach compensation negotiations in the right way and leave the conversation feeling happy and fulfilled.

What to consider before you enter salary negotiations

Before jumping into negotiations, it’s important to take the time to self-reflect. Understand what motivates you and what you want out of your compensation. Most importantly, know your needs. How much money to you need to make? What benefits are most important to you? How do you prioritize them? Is location important to you, or are you willing to be flexible? All of these factors will contribute to your bottom line.

Beyond understanding your needs, it’s important to do a self-assessment to understand what you bring to the table. The more you can articulate what you will contribute to the position, the more leverage you’ll have at the negotiation table. Identify your strengths and be honest with yourself about the gaps in your skill set and your areas of growth. Document your past successes and be able to articulate when and how you took on new challenges.

Finally, compensation negotiations should be framed within a larger development goal. Many lawyers will enter multiple compensation negotiations throughout the course of their careers – each one serving as a stepping stone to their ultimate goal. Recognize how this opportunity fits into that larger context, and be realistic about where it will get you. After all, compensation satisfaction is not just numbers-driven. There are many other factors that contribute to overall job performance and satisfaction.

Once you’ve been honest with yourself about where you stand, do your homework. Research what your peers are generally paid. Reference available benchmarking materials, such as Major, Lindsey & Africa’s compensation surveys for law firm partners and in-house counsel. Once you understand compensation norms in your industry, research the compensation ranges in a specific vertical and get to know how compensation structures work at the particular company. For example, you may find that in some organizations, the cash compensation is lower but the benefits are above average. Others may value firm culture and enjoy lower turnover and attrition because of it. In some instances, a company may be in evolution and need talented professionals to build new structure. For all circumstances, you’ll find that the time you put in to do proper research will pay off when it comes time to start negotiating.

How to approach a compensation conversation with a potential employer

There’s nothing that can derail compensation negotiations faster than the wrong mindset. Rather than approaching conversations with a win/lose mentality, negotiations should be framed as mutually beneficial. If you enter negotiations with the mindset that it’s about the value you bring to an organization, rather than how much you can squeeze out of them, there’s a better chance that both parties will emerge satisfied.

In order to enter negotiations in good faith, don’t be afraid to be forthcoming about your compensation goals. Your conversations about compensation can include a range of what you’re looking for today and a range of what you’re looking for as you move forward in your career. If they ask about your salary expectations, indicate that you want to be fairly compensated within the framework of their compensation structure. Be honest about your compensation history if they inquire. We find that opening negotiations with an honest assessment of where you’ve been and where you want to be make a positive difference in the outcome. However, note that in some states, it is illegal for employers to ask about compensation history.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s okay to ask for directional guidance on the company’s compensation structure. The more knowledge you have, the better off you’ll be. Recruiters can also be helpful resources for guidance on compensation overall, as well as at a given company.

How to prevent that offer from slipping away

All too often, people enter compensation discussions with the idea that they need to squeeze as much money as they can out of an offer, sometimes to the distaste of the person on the other side of the table. While it’s important to get compensated fairly, take care to avoid this common mistake.

How you handle negotiations sends a lot of signals to a potential employer, so it’s important to set the right tone from the start. Communicate that you’re willing to work with an employer, and that you’re only seeking to be compensated fairly. After all, hard-nose negotiations may get you more money, but they could damage your reputation and create institutional mistrust.

Always remember, an offer letter isn’t the end of the road for salary negotiations. If some of your terms aren’t met, ask for an agreement in writing to address any open issues at a later date, for instance, during a six-month performance review. It’s a great way to demonstrate that you’re eager to be successful.

While all negotiations should be approached in good faith, salary negotiations can weigh heavily on future success. The candidates that approach discussions with the thought, care and transparency they deserve will be successful in the end. After all, compensation is a long game – the more candidates are honest and open with themselves and their employers, the more fulfilled and happy they will be.

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