Some people might say that junior lawyers should accept and be happy with whatever salary they are first offered. Some people might say that first-year lawyers especially should take what they get (I was told that by a few people). My response would be lawyers (of any vintage) should always be grateful for a job offer. But being a first-year lawyer does not mean salary negotiation is off the table.
Negotiating salary can be daunting as a first year lawyer. On the one hand, you are excited to have been offered a job, you want to get off on the right foot with your new employer, and you certainly don’t want to lose this job opportunity when you have come so far. On the other hand, you have bills to pay, crushing student debt, and genuinely hope to be appreciated for the work you will be putting in.
Let me start by saying that I have been in those shoes. Let me also say that I negotiated my salary as a first-year lawyer. Was it uncomfortable? Yes. Was it nerve-wracking? Yes. Am I glad I did it? Definitely. Based on my experience, below is how I would recommend any nervous first-year lawyer approach salary talks with their future employer.
Determine the Appropriate Salary Range
The first step in determining fair compensation is finding out what the salary range is for a first year call at the firm you are interviewing with or a comparable firm. First year salary ranges might be different depending on what area of law you will be practicing too. Both are important to keep in mind.
Perhaps you have already heard formally or through the grape vine what a first-year lawyer makes at the firm you are interested in. If not, a good starting point is ZSA’s salary guide and legal forums like canlawforum.com to get a sense of what might be a fair salary. You can also talk to junior lawyers or recruiters you already know about salary expectations. Your ability to say you looked at X website, talked to Y person, and e-mailed with Z recruiter before coming up with your idea of an appropriate salary will make you more persuasive.
Determine What Your Strengths Are
After figuring out what an appropriate salary range might be, it is time to think about what assets or value you bring to the firm. As a first-year lawyer, you might think your lack of experience prevents you from making a strong case about your value to the firm. However, that’s simply not true.
Some factors to consider when making your case as a junior lawyer are:
1. Did you summer or article with the firm? Your familiarity with how the firm operates (from intake to docketing to drafting) is an advantage. Prior experience at the firm means you don’t need to be trained or introduced. You have the advantage of seamlessly continuing to work at the firm.
2. Do you have specialized experience? Maybe you specialized in something during law school. Maybe before interviewing at this firm, your worked in a niche area of law that the firm is hiring in. In either case, you have a strength that other junior lawyers applying to the position might not have and you should highlight it.
3. Can you bring a strong reference letter? Getting a partner from your previous firm (especially if the partner or firm is known to your potential new employer) might help push your salary negotiations along. Referring to the recommendation that someone reputable and respected gave for you is one way to argue you should be receiving a salary at the higher end of the appropriate salary range
4. Is the firm hiring urgently? If the firm is in need of a junior lawyer to step in, they may be more willing to negotiate with you once you have gotten to the offer stage to ensure that you come on board (especially if your ask is reasonable and within the demonstrably appropriate range).
5. Is anyone at the firm leaving soon? Perhaps the firm you are interviewing with is hiring with a view towards transitioning duties. Maybe someone at the firm is leaving or going on maternity leave. Whatever the case, knowing why the firm is hiring can be also an advantage in your negotiations.
6. Do you have other offers or opportunities on the table? We all know that rarity increases a commodity’s value. If you truly are considering other options or have another offer on the table, you can leverage this fact in your negotiations.
In addition to the above, there may be other factors unique to you and your situation that will help negotiations along. My point is that lack of experience, alone, does not and should not discredit any first-year lawyer from negotiating a higher salary that is justified.
Determine What You Are and Are Not Willing to Accept
As you enter into salary negotiations, the above should help you get a clear idea about what you are and are not willing to accept. Having a clear idea will help make you more confident in your negotiation and assessment of the offer given to you.
Also consider whether you are willing to accept a lower salary that comes with other perks. Consider negotiating vacation days, performance bonuses, continued learning costs, billable targets, working hours, office space, etc.
Now that you know what the appropriate salary range is, what strengths you bring to the table, and what you are willing to accept, it’s time to go to bat. If you are still lacking confidence, try imagining yourself as your own client and advocate! After all, advocating is what being a lawyer is all about right? In its own strange way, job seeking and salary negotiations are an opportunity to showcase to your future employer a taste of your advocacy skills. Your pitch should be one that’s based on research, analysis, and persuasiveness. Any firm that is worth working for (even if they do not end up giving you your desired salary) will appreciate your efforts.
Author: Grace Tran
Grace is currently a lawyer at a boutique litigation firm in Toronto with a focus in construction litigation, fraud, and insurance defence. Grace also has a continuing interest in international arbitration. Grace’s passion for advocacy grew as a law student, where she competed in and was named the Best Advocate at two international moot competitions. Grace is also passionate about mentoring law students and writes a blog for that purpose: lifelivewithgrace.com.