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Five things you should know about negotiating your salary

Career Path
|Written By Danya Cohen
Five things you should know about negotiating your salary

What am I worth? It’s a tough question — one that is better answered by a sober assessment of your skills rather than the sentimental opinion of your mother. Although the prospect of equating your value with money seems icky, it is a calculation most of us will have to make at some point in our careers. When you also factor in our general malaise for talking about money, the conversation can become as crawl-out-of-your-skin uncomfortable as watching actors become recording artists. And negotiating your salary is not the kind of thing you want to walk into with distaste and fear. If you can’t talk about money, chances are you won’t be making lots of it.

Too often our fear of appearing superficial, entitled and all things unsavoury gets in the way of negotiating a competitive salary. Just as often, though, our arrogance and ignorance get in the way of making good decisions. So where do we find the balance between not being greedy and not being a chump? It’s a tough line to walk but in every case you should approach the conversation with logic, confidence, as well as humility. In case these are not qualities you can count on, here are five things you should know about negotiating your salary.

1. Know thy market

Aside from bribes some misguided parents offer as a scholastic incentive, this will be the first time you can legitimately make some money from doing your homework. Coming to the negotiating table equipped with market research is the strongest bet you can make in obtaining your ideal salary. If you can show an employer that similarly situated lawyers are paid at a certain level, it will be harder (but not impossible) for them to offer you considerably less. Of course, great delicacy is required in presenting this information. It should not be shoved down the employer’s throat with sibling-like “if he gets this, then I should too” entitlement.

If you are moving between law firms and are beyond years of lockstep salaries, find out what the range is for your year of call at the firm you are negotiating with, as well as similar firms. In some cases, lawyers moving between firms have started out at the bottom of a range with a promise to move to the top if certain performance criteria are met. After all, trading up firms may be the only time you have any leverage to request a higher salary.

If you are moving into an in-house role, salaries will be much more wide-ranging. Still, it is always a good idea to research in-house salaries for comparable seniority at comparable organizations and come up with a reasonable range. The figures you bring up may be news to your prospective employer. They may be hiring a lawyer for the first time, and unlike the celebrity of private practice salaries, in-house salaries tend to be more arcane. Even where you are being hired by another lawyer, consider that they may be long removed from the job market.

On the other hand, research is equally important in terms of keeping your expectations in check. If the firm or organization you are interviewing with is not known as a top compensator or the industry is known to be chronically frugal, it is better to have this information before throwing numbers out. Consider proposing the going rate at a private hedge fund in negotiations with a media company and watch the jaws grow slack.  

In the end, employers often will not meet your market numbers, but in most cases the exercise will give you a better read on things like: how the company values the legal department, whether the company is undeniably cheap on all fronts, whether they are right where they should be, how appealing non-monetary aspects of the job are to you, and most importantly, how effective you are as a negotiator.

2. Know thyself

Once you have looked outwards to get some relevant market intelligence, next comes the uncomfortable part. This is not to suggest undertaking the kind of introspection that can prompt a crisis. The real question you should be answering is: what is my value to this organization? The difficulty is remaining objective and not letting your insecurities or hubris get in the way.

It is important to acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses as it pertains to the particular role you are being offered. In order to do that, you must have a more than superficial understanding of the role. Often the job advertisement will not provide a great deal of substance, so asking for further details about the responsibilities of the role and/or obtaining a job description early on is a great idea.

Next, make an honest determination regarding where you fall with respect to the skills and experience level the employer is seeking. After all, your future employer may resort to the same checklist to justify a lower salary. It is always better to know where your potential bargaining pitfalls lay.  

With respect to in-house jobs that call for a more diverse skill set, keep in mind that very few candidates, if any, will fall squarely within the criteria set out in an ad or job description. If you received an offer, you likely came close, so do not dock yourself too much for an overly ambitious wish list.

You may also want to judiciously factor in any unique skills you possess that may not be contemplated in the ad/job description but will clearly benefit the company. And I’m thinking about things like a background in politics that will assist the company’s lobbying efforts, not the fact that you took some acting classes and are really good at fooling people.   

The exercise will either boost your confidence to ask for the salary you want, or it will make what initially seemed like a paltry salary feel like a windfall. If it’s the latter, just smile and say thank you.

3. Strategy is king

Money is one of those power-charged things like war and love. Those who venture into it without a strategy end up dead or heartbroken, or in this case, poor. Like any battle, the inevitable question of who should make the first move is king. While self-preservation and ego may dictate first moves in war and love, when it comes to money it is typically wise to wait for the employer to throw out the first number.

Often, the firm or company will not make any mention of salary until it’s written in an offer letter. That may mean there is no room for negotiating and a discussion would have been moot. It may also just be a tactic. Some people are intimidated by the finality of ink. If the initial number is given verbally rather in writing, this can mean that the employer is feeling you out which may mean there is some wiggle room.

In any event, do not react right away — even if the initial figure insults your schoolyard sense of fairness. Express your gratitude for the offer and let them know you would like to think about it. Always provide a reasonable response time because if you don’t, they may impose a shorter one on you (after all, their number two may be waiting in the wings). This is your opportunity to do your homework if you have not already, speak to your family and assess whether the offer meets your needs.  

If you are asked by the employer to throw out a figure first, this is where a lifetime of being over-prepared will pay off. If you’ve got market research to back up your numbers, you will appear confident and strengthen you bargaining position. More importantly, if you are totally off the mark, your figures can be blamed on your research instead of your own delusion and arrogance. Finally, always provide a range, making sure that the bottom end is slightly above your walk away.  

Some people call negotiating an art — there is definitely some dancing involved but there are also games of chicken, bluffing, leveraging, lowballs and highballs, ultimatums, final offers, intimidation, and power plays. While negotiating should always be professional, anything that is associated with these many tactics should never be misconstrued as benignly as an opportunity to express oneself. Come prepared.

4. The (not so) obvious point

Although a bevy of tactics can be employed in negotiating, lying should never be one of them. It is true that some job seekers get away with embellishing or remaining vague about details in order to strengthen their bargaining position. But despite the popularity of these ethically dubious tactics, an outright lie — especially about something as precise and easily uncovered as numbers — is never a good bet.

Still, well-intentioned and otherwise morally replete job seekers will sometimes spin a lie when asked about their current salary by a prospective employer. The motivation is clear — those who feel they are underpaid and undervalued in their current role fear that their current salary will prejudice future negotiations.

If you think you are taking the moral high ground by being evasive about your salary instead of lying, be warned that the only thing this accomplishes is creating a perception that you have something to hide and that you are likely worth a meager salary.

Many job seekers are surprised to find out that employers will not hesitate to ask about current salary early on in the interview process, if not at the offer stage. For those who offer a lie and inflate their salary, bear in mind that it is fairly easy to confirm this information at the point of doing a reference check in which case lying could prompt the employer to rescind its offer.

The only honourable (not to mention strategically sound) way to manage a sluggish salary is to make clear that one of the main reasons you are looking for a new role is that you are seeking to take a step up in compensation.

Finally, when you provide your current salary, be sure to include your base plus any bonus as well as non-monetary perks so the prospective employer has a fulsome sense of what you earn.

5. To negotiate or not to negotiate

Are there any instances where it is decidedly gauche to negotiate your salary? As a lawyer you may balk at the suggestion, but there are many situations where trying to bargain may not work in your favour.

If the offered salary proves to be generous or even competitive based on your research, then asking for more may be construed badly — especially if the employer is well aware that they’ve come out at the top end of the market. If you are within the confines of lockstep salary or the employer has been explicit that they have made their best offer, it may also turn the employer off if you try to negotiate. Apart from these instances, and any others that your common sense will hopefully dictate, most people won’t begrudge you for a healthy attempt at asking for more. This is especially true if the firm or company has not given you any indication of what the salary might look like prior to making a formal offer.

Firms and companies are almost always operating within a salary range. Keep in mind, of course, that the range is usually in place to accommodate different seniority levels in the experience range that the employer has set out in an ad. The firm or company may also be confined by having to maintain parity with other members of the group. That being said, a range means the employer has contemplated different salary levels. It also means it is not likely to come in at the top of its range right out of the gate.

Another important point to consider is what items to negotiate on. Where there may be a bottom line on the base, often salaries (especially in-house salaries) can be comprised of much more. Consider the real value of different perks like a car allowance, stock options, benefits, and pension plans and see if there is any room for negotiation on amounts or vesting periods.

Though it is not what you want to hear, whether to negotiate really depends on a range of things such as: who you are negotiating with and how much authority they have, what the tone of the offer is as well as the economic climate. Reading the cues as to when it is appropriate to negotiate is where your common sense will hopefully make an appearance. I know you hate the case-by-case approach, but you are a lawyer, you should be used to this non-answer by now.

Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with RainMaker Group. She can be reached at