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The 2005 Salary Game: Facts and Features for your Future

by Linda Green Pierce

Associates at law firms and attorneys in legal departments of corporations are asking if this is the year to finally pitch for a raise. The answer is a qualified "yes." The qualifier is the ammunition with which you will need to be prepared to get that raise.

Rather than approaching your employer with a vague idea that the time has finally arrived for salaries to increase (which it has), or that you've been a good person in remaining loyal to your employer and thus deserve an increase, your ammunition must be enhanced with facts and features to land true.

First, you'll need to gather as much information as possible on what others in a similar position are making. Websites, salary surveys, surfing of open positions detailing salary amounts, and talking to recruiters are some of the ways to keep current on salaries. Recruiters are often the first to know of new market or new year changes in salaries.

As the economy and industries rebound, law firms and corporate legal departments of all sizes are rebuilding and taking on new work. Our anticipation is that legal professional compensation is expected to jump by 3-4% on average in 2005. Indeed, a staffing director for a client company we met with this week indicated she anticipates her legal department attorneys will receive approximately a 5% salary increase.

Next, review your evaluations over the past several years, particularly these past one or two years where many attorneys have been without a salary increase. From this information, make an inventory of what you've contributed to your firm or company. Perhaps your formal evaluation isn't set up to acknowledge these kinds of contributions, in which case review your past calendar or non-billable time sheet entries to toll up such things as:

  • Marketing hours you've contributed by helping partners write articles or gain clients;
  • Research work you did for your firm on industry needs or on new Legislature;
  • Mentoring, training or hiring hours for your department or firm;
  • Preparing for or attending client initial "go sees".

Drill down into contributions like these to determine what feature or strength you brought to the party with your accomplishments. It's important to spend time analyzing along those lines. The results are your own personal brand. Bringing that brand -- that unique you, that differentiation from any other person in the company or firm -- is what makes your pitch for pay impenetrable.

Facts on the employers' side of the fence actually play in your favor now. Managers and partners able to make decisions on raises are under tight scrutiny to report reasoning for salary increases to higher ups. Your ability to design the reasons for a raise makes the decision of managers and partners easier. They can support their request with your facts.

The most important component of this project is your presentation when speaking to decision makers. Emotional “it’s about time” arguments are the wrong way to go and just result in stubborn responses. Clearly focus on your contribution and the business climate of the firm. Have your examples ready. Listen carefully and give the person time to digest what you are saying. This may take more than one meeting. Don’t force a decision; allow time to expand the dialogue if necessary.

Firms and legal departments have done so little hiring in the past two to three years that there is a strong pent-up demand for talent. From my personal experience in working with the legal profession for more than 25 years, I know that the Northwest tends to see employment recovery and practice area changes to the market a full nine to 12 months after, for example, larger east coast markets. Right now those markets in the east have been strong and active for essentially that nine to 12 month time period. So the time is now. We’re due.

I expect a dam burst of need in many practice areas over the next few months and expect hiring in the Northwest to jump 20% or more by mid-year.

The job market's long awaited turn around allows the opportunity to move to a juicier job or finally parlay a current, excellent position into increased compensation in 2005.