Salary Negotiating Tips

Paralegals, like many others, because they are intimidated or unprepared, often fear salary negotiations and will end up accepting less than full value from their employer for their professional services. Or a lack of negotiating finesse in dealing with their supervising attorney will leave them in a disappointing and embarrassing position, damaging a professional image they have established with their supervising attorney.

However, quite to the contrary, most self-confident supervising attorneys will be proud and pleased to realize he or she has employed the services of a paralegal sufficiently confident and competent to undertake and engage in compensation negotiation on their own behalf.  Think about it … doing this presents you with an opportunity to demonstrate useful and valuable skills to your supervising attorney!  You just need to approach it like you would a client research assignment.  Preparation will foster confidence in your position the same way research supports your position when writing a brief.

Each party, paralegal and attorney, often operates with presumptions: the attorney’s job is to be miserly, saving his or the firm’s precious bucks; the paralegal or prospective paralegal’s task is to grab as much dough as possible. These roles frequently play out so predictably that a game has been established. You know rule #1: “He who specifies a number first, loses”.  The dog-eared script mandates the attorney’s first offer will be too low and the paralegal’s initial figure will be more than he or the firm is willing to pay. The object is to gracefully meet at a mutually acceptable financial middle ground. These precepts create a framework to facilitate each party’s successful navigation through the process, enabling both sides to win. But add the negotiating skill of an experienced attorney to the cast and the plot immediately becomes far too simplistic. However, a skilled negotiator understands the complexities involved and begins work setting the stage long before the scene in which a discussion or face-to-face encounter occurs.

What do you as a paralegal need for most of your professional duties?  Facts. You need facts before you can determine the legal research necessary for a brief or memorandum of law. You need facts before you can prepare a deposition outline. You need facts before you can draft a complaint or an answer. Your need for facts is the reason you prepare most discovery. Think about it and you’ll realize how much of your professional purpose is accurately and completely ascertaining facts.  Guess what, you need the facts relevant to the subject matter under discussion or negotiation to be successful in any negotiation. You must ascertain, or develop, the relevant facts as the foundation of preparation.

Preparation for your own annual review should begin the minute you’re employed, or your current year’s review is complete. Document your professional paralegal progress and accomplishments throughout the year with facts. Keep records that measure parameters your supervising attorney values, as well as creative dimensions he or she may not consider but you may demonstrate are valid and beneficial.

Your first concern should be to determine and document with facts how your work impacts the firm’s profitability; summarize your billable hours for an undeniable and objective comparison to your payroll cost. But also prepare to discuss and demonstrate your subjective value using facts. You can do this by keeping an itemization of specific things you do, or have done, that contribute to building, or unifying, a professional legal services team. You also should note contributions to client satisfaction by achieving client objectives or desired results. Did your legal research, writing, or other work significantly contribute to winning a huge case, successful defense of a catastrophic claim, the closing of a watershed deal, or getting an impossible transaction closed? Any lawyer who has worked on a major piece of litigation can tell you that a good paralegal can be more valuable than a junior associate. These are all milestones you should compile as facts throughout the interim to revisit and highlight during the review with your supervising attorney.

Track completion of continuing education training courses and professional certifications that enhance your skills and increase the services you are able to provide for clients which in turn broaden your firm’s marketability.

You’re not finished when you have developed and summarized the facts demonstrating the year’s professional accomplishments. You must conduct up-to-date salary research. Research local pay levels as well as national and regional comparisons. Keep in mind that your general salary research and your specific accomplishments provide a solid foundation for your discussions; however, they don’t give you the inside scoop about policies, procedures, and politics that may govern negotiations regarding salaries and raises within the law firm where you work.  Therefore, research your firm’s published policies and procedures on compensation. Ask about them when you’re initially hired and during the interview process each year.  Informal discussions with colleagues probably provide the best insight, but be careful your conversations don’t digress into gossip or divulge confidential information.

At this point, 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.  You should determine the minimum amount you consider acceptable, but keep it to yourself. In addition, prepare a high-end figure to use as your opening position.

Know your own value as a professional paralegal and be prepared to ask for what you’re worth, but let your supervising attorney make the first offer. You shouldn’t get emotional; it’s not personal.  Any employer wants to keep people with demonstrated track records. When the negotiation process is complete, thank your supervising attorney, regardless of the ultimate outcome of your discussion.

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