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What Are Realistic Salary Expectations, Part II

Oct. 28, 2013

I received a number of questions and comments regarding the "What Are Realistic Salary Expectations" post from two weeks ago, and thought it warranted more discussion.

One of the questions that came up was, "what should be my bottom line" or "what is a reasonable/unreasonable salary offer?" First of all, everyone's bottom line is going to be different. If you are single and weighing an offer in Midland, your bottom line is going to be very different from someone married with a kid in downtown Dallas. So you really need to figure out what your expenses are and identify what the minimum you're able to make is.

Keep in mind your bottom line will often be different than the employer's bottom line. This is because your bottom line is based upon you and your situation, and the employer's is based upon the market. You can and should research comparable employers and figure out what salaries they are paying for similar positions. Our office can help as I try to ask each employer I meet with what they are paying entry level associates (the larger firms obviously publish their salaries through the NALP Directory). You can use that information to develop a market range, which hopefully your bottom line falls into. If it doesn't (i.e. your bottom line is above market), understand you may not be able to take the type of job you're looking at, or you need to lower expenses so you can. (Caveat: if and offer comes in at/above your bottom line number but well below the market range, you shouldn't necessarily accept just because you can. Employer's should be prepared to pay a market rate.)

So what do you do when an employer asks you what the minimum salary you can accept is? This question really should only be coming from an employer after you've been negotiating for a while, you're not that far apart and they're trying to close the deal. If it is coming as an initial offer or at the very beginning of the offer process, I would take that as a "yellow flag". It makes me wonder things like: 1) Do they really have enough work to afford taking on another attorney, and 2) Do they operate their entire practice on the cheap and how will that impact my ability to succeed? Notice I said yellow and not red flag. The employer could be great and a fantastic place to work, but I would pause to consider those and other related questions.

The initial offer really should be coming from the employer, so one way to answer the question would be to simply say you're open to considering any offer they might make. If that doesn't prompt an offer and they want more specific guidance from you, I think a good thing to do is provide the employer the market range (or a subset of the range) based on your research, and say you're open to considering offers within that range. If you still feel as though you have to give them a specific number, I would stay away from giving your bottom line. By punting the initial offer over to you they've essentially invited you to make the first offer, so do so on your terms. Pick a number that is 1) more than your bottom line amount and 2) within the market range. This is reasonable and gives the employer room to make a counter offer that is lower but that stays within the market range.

Something else to keep in mind: bonuses, benefits and other perks may bring offers closer to the market (or to other offers you're considering) than you may have originally thought. A $50k salary may not look reasonable if the range based upon your research says the minimum should be $60k, but if that firm typically bonuses out $10k based upon typical billing requirements, the offer may be entirely reasonable. Similarly, a $60k base salary may not look quite as good if there's little to no health insurance, no funds available for travel or CLE conferences, etc. Be sure to get all the information of the offer(s) and try to compare them apples to apples with each other and the market before making any decisions.

Each offer, employer and negotiation is very different, so please don't rely only on these general principles when deciding how to proceed in your particular situation. My hope is this just gives you some things to think about as you weigh your options and handle the next job offer that comes your way. Our office is always willing to walk through your specific situation with you.

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