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Paralegal Salary Negotiating Tips
(Originally appeared in print as "Negotiating Raises and Salary")
Donna (a pseudonym), a paralegal thought she was prepared for an important meeting with her employer about a raise.
On the day of the meeting, Donna had difficulty with her young daughter and was late for work. When she arrived, the meeting had been rescheduled and was due to start any minute. When she presented her argument in support of a raise, rather than responding as she anticipated, her employer remained silent. Caught up in the moment, she blurted out the lowest amount she would accept and was stuck with the result.
While few of us have such dramatic tales about negotiating salaries and raises, nearly everyone experiences anxiety about the process. From one vantage point, these occasions could be opportunities to celebrate success and revel in your paralegal achievements. In reality, these moments are fraught with fear because each of us believes we deserve more than we will be offered.
Intimidated or unprepared, we are afraid we may settle for less than we are worth or that lack of finesse will force us into a disappointing corner.
A recent survey posted on the career section of the Web site, http://careers.altavista.com, validates this point. Readers were asked how competent they felt at salary negotiations. Only 26 percent of those responding by Jan. 10, 2001, said they felt very competent.
The remainder indicated they felt somewhat or not at all competent during negotiations, with the majority falling into the latter category.
There are valid reasons for apprehension. Each side often operates with presumptions: the managers job is to be miserly, saving the organizations precious bucks; the employee or prospective employees task is to grab as much dough as possible. These roles play out so frequently that a game has been established. You know the rules. He who specifies a number first, loses. The employers first offer will be too low and your initial figure will be more than the firm or company is willing to pay. The object is to meet at an acceptable financial middle ground.
These precepts do create a framework to successfully navigate through the process, enabling both sides to win. But they are far too simplistic. A skillful negotiator understands the complexities involved and begins work long before a discussion or face-to-face encounter occurs.
Going The Distance
Job seekers expect to position themselves for success. A candidates primary purpose is to go the distance in proving his or her value to the hiring organization, essentially providing a license to boast about capabilities. Unfortunately, paralegals seeking raises rarely approach the process that way. They expect others to notice their accomplishments, even if the person responsible for calculating increases, such as a partner or human resources manager, is far removed from their daily activities. If intimidation is part of the attorney-paralegal relationship, a paralegal may be reluctant to become vulnerable to verbal attacks that are predictable if the paralegal asserts the fairness of a raise. You need the facts. Preparing for an annual review is a year-long process. It begins the moment you are employed or the second your last review is complete.
Document your progress throughout the year. Keep records that measure parameters your employer values, as well as dimensions they may not consider. Your first concern should be to determine how your work impacts the bottom line and the organizations financial success. Obviously, if you work at a law firm, you want to summarize your billable hours. But you also should note efforts contributing to successful client outcomes. Were you part of a team that won a huge case? Consider, too, methods you used to enhance or expand client relationships. Also worthy: Did you enact any cost-saving measures or improve the efficiency of processes?
One paralegal working for a corporation was promised a raise after he had been employed for a specific period of time. The date arrived, and he was told he was not yet eligible. In addition to tactfully reminding the employer about the promise, he provided justification, pointing out he had saved the company $20,000 by tackling assignments formerly sent to an outside law firm. As a result, his employer rewarded him not only with a raise that surpassed his expectations, but also offered him a large bonus.
You also should track personal achievements. Education, completion of training courses and professional certifications enhance your skills and increase your marketability. If you have mastered a new software program, such as Concordance, you have ratcheted up your capabilities, as well as your firms, by enabling attorneys to have computer access to documents needed in court.
With achievements such as professional certifications, you may need to point out the benefit to your employer. Certainly it provides a marketing advantage to be able to tell clients a firms paralegals are CLA (Certified Legal Assistant)-certified through the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) or have attained RP (Registered Paralegal) status by successful completion of the National Federation of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) Paralegal Advanced Competency Exam (PACE). Your superiors may not know only 40 percent of candidates taking the rigorous CLA-test pass all seven sections of the exam on the first try. Between 1976 and 1998 the total pass rate was approximately 48 percent. Those achieving certification are worthy of the designation.
Negotiating higher compensation may require educating your employer.
Steve Richards, career services coordinator for the National Center for Paralegal Training, the oldest such school in the country, said he feels education is crucial to obtain promotions and career success. Get as much education in the field as you can, he urged. With new skills, your employer can give you more responsibility and you can expand your role, he explained. It increases your value to the firm.
Getting To The Starting Line
Once you have developed a résumé or prepared a summation of your annual professional accomplishments, an additional assignment awaits. You must conduct salary research.
A book published nearly two decades ago contains advice pertinent even in todays Internet Age. Steve Kravette, author of Get a Job in 60 Seconds (Para Research Inc., Rockport, Mass.), recommended determining the following three variables:
For current national salary survey information, see page 48 of this issue for Legal Assistant Todays 2000 Salary Survey. You also can review NALAs Web site, www.nala.org, which contains a salary compensation study published during June 2000.
Similar information is available through NFPA at www.paralegal.org. NFPA publishes a salary survey only every other odd year, therefore information available on the site at press time was for 1999 only.
Legal Assistant Todays 2000 Salary Survey found paralegals earned an average of $38,010 nationally with average bonuses of $2,624.
According to NALAs survey, average compensation for legal assistants across the United States, including bonuses was $40,474. Bonuses during 2000 averaged about 6.5 percent of average salary.
NFPAs 1999 findings revealed paralegals were earning approximately $38,085 with an average bonus for that year of $2,225.
Paralegals specializing in securities and antitrust led their colleagues, averaging $43,916 in salaries and bonuses; those in the workers compensation came in at the low end of the range with $36,544, according to NALAs recent survey.
Legal Assistant Today found paralegals working in the field of mergers and acquisitions led in earning power with an average of $49,073 excluding bonuses. Legal assistants working in the area of family law bottomed out the list with an average of $31,445, excluding bonuses.
Similar comparative information from NFPAs survey was not available at press time.
The Far West region is the most lucrative area of the country according to both the Legal Assistant Today and NALA surveys. NALA found the compensation average in that region to be approximately $54,335, including bonuses. Legal Assistant Todays figures demonstrated an average salary for legal assistants in the Western region to be approximately $40,372, excluding annual bonuses.
This information is extremely valuable, but be cautious in its application. Dont let averages entice you to set your expectations too high or too low. Conduct local research as well. Salaries in metropolitan areas are usually higher than rural locations, and experienced paralegals with skills in demand such as mergers and acquisitions are writing their own tickets because firms are charging premium billing rates for these specialties.
In Atlanta, for example, those new to the profession can expect to start their careers working for about $30,000. Those legal assistants with 20 years of experience with a specialty in intellectual property can attain in excess of $60,000.
The other component of salary negotiations involves benefits. Sometimes, these can be used when discussing raises. Among the benefits to consider:
The Inside Track
While general information about compensation and your accomplishments provide a solid foundation for your discussions, they dont give you the inside scoop about the policies, procedures and politics that may govern negotiations regarding salaries and raises at your place of business. Recruiters often can be instrumental in providing detailed information to job candidates, particularly if the prospect feels uncomfortable asking certain questions of a potential employer. Once at a firm, personal reconnaissance may be difficult because in most environments, employers discourage employees from discussing salary specifics.
Start with published policies and procedures. In fact, request these during the interview process or once a job offer is extended.
These guidelines may spell out, for example, caps on salaries by job grade, timing of annual performance reviews, ranges for raises by percentages or opportunities for promotions. Your immediate supervisor also is often an excellent resource of information, as well as representatives from the human resources department.
Informal discussions with colleagues will probably provide the greatest insight. However, be careful these conversations dont lapse into gossip or divulge confidential information.
The size of your organization may play a significant role in your negotiation process. Larger companies or firms have more structure to ensure balance and equity exist for all employees. Unfortunately, this also imposes more limits on managers and inhibits their negotiating flexibility. Small firms may have fewer rules, but possibly less wealth to distribute and politics may become a more significant factor.
Gina Farley, a paralegal currently employed at The Weatherly Law Firm in Atlanta, explained how these factors impacted her in a previous job. Paralegals did not have any power to negotiate a raise because of the firms structure, she said.
In fact, Im not sure whether raises had any correlation to merit. There was a lump sum in the pot to be divided among the paralegals. An individual attorney may have wanted to give [a] paralegal a raise, but since the partnership voted on raises and certain partners were more powerful, raises were subject to the powers that be, rather than to individual accomplishments. Who you worked for was more important than any other factor, she said.
Former New York attorney Mark Hallett, who currently works as a legal recruitment specialist for Lucas Group, confirmed this scenario is frequently true for legal assistants and other legal professionals.
Attorneys often have the viewpoint that the only important assets a firm possesses are the attorneys themselves, he said. They dont always recognize the contribution of other members of the team. Yet any lawyer who has worked on a major piece of litigation can tell you that a good [legal assistant] can be more valuable than a junior associate.
Worse than this attitude, he said, is getting caught between a firms political and economic factions. Even if you have an attorney acting as your champion, one individual may not be able to sway a vote in your favor.
A more serious problem occurs when your department doesnt pull its own economic weight. If you are attached to an unprofitable segment of the business or firm structure, raises or bonuses, which are ultimately based on financial performance, are likely to suffer as a result of overall performance.
There is very little you can do about this type of situation, Hallett explained. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Dont expect a higher authority to overcome the problem for you. In cases like this, if more money is important, your opportunity lies in another area of practice or at another firm. I strongly suggest considering another firm. Theres always [a] hidden cost to switching allegiances within a firm.
The Final Lap
All roads lead to the negotiating table. At this point in the salary race, 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. Like Donna in the opening anecdote, you should determine the minimum acceptable offer, but keep it to yourself. In addition, prepare a high-end figure to use as your opening position.
If you are seeking a job, be ready to walk away if your low figure cant be met.
According to Richards, the best opportunity you have to boost your income on a long-term basis occurs when you accept a new job. Dont make a switch for less than 10 percent. Thats an industry standard. A salary increase, however, isnt always the determining factor in accepting a new position. You may take less than a 10 percent increase because you have the opportunity to learn a new area of the law that will increase your future income. A shorter commute may be cost effective, and the savings in gas and parking may balance the lower salary. Benefits are negotiable and factor them into your plan. These days, employers frequently use stock options, flex-time and other enticements to seal a deal. Be careful about what you ask for; you just may get it.
During her job negotiation, Jamie Bocci, a paralegal at a Southeastern software company, was intrigued by the opportunity to work for a new company as a contracts administrator. Previously employed as a paralegal at a large law firm, she took an $8,000 cut in salary to accept the position, supplemented by generous stock options. The company expects to undergo an initial public offering, but Boccis opinion about the value of stock options changed. During her first job review, she received an increase amounting to approximately $1,200 annually.
I was not happy, to say the least, Bocci said. I proceeded to gather very specific information from previous jobs, placement agencies and job postings in various industries. I presented this information to my supervisor, who then presented it to our human resources department. I recently received an additional increase of $1,500 per year. I think most people take and accept what is given to them at the time of their reviews and dont realize that they should at least attempt to get more of an increase. However, be prepared to do some research.
Candidates considering job offers sit in the drivers seat. They are in an ideal position to negotiate because they know the organization wants them. The pivotal factor guiding the negotiating process is the companys desire to hire the prospect. If the offer falls through, they lose their leading candidate and have to settle for a replacement. On the other hand, paralegals seeking raises have different challenges. Unless you are threatening to leave (this is definitely not a recommended tactic) or have another job offer, there is diminished reason to use money as a lure. In addition, raises are more likely to be restricted by organizational guidelines. Your primary negotiating tool is that if you are a good performer, the company wants to keep you and maintain your job satisfaction.
Its expensive to replace a skilled paralegal financially, and in terms of lost knowledge and expertise. Hallett explained self-confidence is paramount to obtain the raise you desire.
Know your own value and be prepared to ask for what youre worth, but let them make the first offer. You shouldnt get emotional; its not personal, Hallett said, A business wants to keep people with demonstrated track records. They dont want to lose time and money on retraining or hiring and its attendant acquisition costs. Equally important, however, is understanding the limitations faced by the negotiator. If the firm is not doing as well as it would like, he said, it may not be worth doing the negotiation dance.
Once an offer is on the table, pause to thoughtfully consider it. Then, its your turn to speak. Most experts recommend you refrain from immediately committing to a positive or negative response. Instead, be prepared to deliver a brief and enthusiastic summation about why you are interested in the job or why you enjoy working there and recap the value you bring or will bring to the company. Then, transition to the offer.
In light of my experience, contributions and comparable salaries, you might say, the amount of (name your high figure) seems reasonable. Be prepared for back-and-forth discussion, and dont be tempted to fold if an awkward silence should occur.
Such silences are usually either a time for reflection or a ploy to encourage you to become nervous and begin talking your own offer down to meet perceived expectations.
When the negotiation process is complete, thank the other party, regardless of the ultimate outcome of your discussion. You never know when and if a similar opportunity will come along, and people usually remember first impressions.
If you didnt obtain a raise as high as you wanted, open the door to future discussions before another year passes. Donna, the paralegal who got short-changed during negotiations due to a distracted performance, revisited the issue shortly after her initial conversation. Happily, she managed to increase her salary by $2,000.
The lesson? Next time, she said, Ill be better prepared.
Dorothy M. Pritchett is the managing partner of the Legal Research Division for Lucas Group, a national recruitment firm specializing in executive, financial, legal and military searches. Pritchett has served as director of paralegal placement for Co-Counsel and for Briggs Legal Staffing in Atlanta. Before that, she worked 11 years as a paralegal in the areas of litigation, real estate, general corporate, trusts and estates and bankruptcy at law firms in Virginia. She is a member of the Georgia Association of Paralegals and a graduate of the University of Maryland.
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