Test Case: Show Me The Money! I Speak On A Panel About Salary Negotiation For Women
I started practicing law a couple of months before the bottom dropped out of the economy ten years ago. But pre-recession, people still weren’t climbing over themselves to hire young women right out of law school, especially the ones without connections. I suspect we were perceived as high risk: Emotional and fertile, taking our fashion cues from Legally Blonde.
So my post-graduation salary negotiation strategy was pretty much as follows: Take the job or don’t take the job. My value was unproven both to myself and the potential employer—the very fact that someone was willing to pay me to actually practice law felt like sufficient compensation. (This fits in with the general understanding that women tend to underestimate their worth when negotiating salaries.)
When I accepted a position at my current firm a few years into my career, I also didn’t negotiate salary. The job market at the time resembled the current Seattle real estate market — a bunch of frantic people willing to do anything to get picked for a tiny handful of opportunities that mostly didn’t sound that great. And I was just over the moon to get a job at a firm where there was growth potential and an opportunity for training. (My first job was a “throw the young attorney to the wolves” sort of situation.)
But when I was asked to serve on a panel about tips for women negotiating salaries last month, I agreed to participate since now I am a law partner involved in employment negotiations in my office. I was also curious to see how the panel would be tailored to provide advice specifically targeted to women.
Historically, women entered the workforce with the understanding that we just needed enough money to get by until we were rescued by some dude with a steady job whose kids we would later pop out. Indeed, when my grandma wanted to get a job in the 70s after the task of raising her kids was pretty much complete, the prevailing attitude was that she was going to be taking money out of a man’s pocket he needed to support his family.
Times have, of course, have changed. For example, in Seattle where I live, many dual-income families still can’t afford to buy a home in the city. But I still think there is this perception of the male as the “provider,” and I do question whether it has a lingering impact on compensation offers to women — even though these days we often fully support ourselves or serve as the household’s primary breadwinner.
It is also generally understood that male employment candidates are judged more for their potential, whereas women are evaluated more on their track record. And I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that I feel like my career has involved running on a treadmill of proving myself. (“Yes, I’m a lawyer, not my co-worker’s legal secretary.” “Yes, I am capable of aggressively prosecuting your case even though I am a woman.”)
Against this backdrop, women my age and younger grew up believing that, professionally, we could do anything the guys could do. We don’t need sympathy or special treatment. The playing field was equal, and we had the same opportunity to suit up as anyone else. This latest Presidential election sort of popped that Pollyanna bubble for me, though I know we’ve got a lot of people out there who see men as the oppressed sex. (If you look back in time, maybe they are correct, what with the having had to give birth in caves and not getting to vote until more than a century ago. Oh right, that’s still women.)
I prepared for the panel by reviewing a list of questions they planned to ask us. A lot of them related to timing: When is the best time to ask for more money? Others related to salary ranges for the different sizes of law firms and types of legal positions. They all seemed presumptuous to me, having finally crawled out of the recession trenches after an entire career lurking down there. But maybe I also am becoming one of those curmudgeonly old people who think the greedy youths just need to climb up the compensation ladder rung by rung like the rest of us.
In the classroom where we would be speaking, I met my co-panelists: A partner at a big law firm, an in-house lawyer at a big accounting firm, and a non-lawyer who worked for the city promoting diversity in the workplace. I felt like a little fish in my clearance-rack Banana Republic Factory Store blazer. But I didn’t care that much because I thought I could win people over with my funny negotiation anecdotes. (Who needs useful information when this speaker in the cheap coat can make me laugh? Right? Right?)
My female co-panelists and I all urged restraint when negotiating compensation as a newer lawyer: Wait until you have proved yourself before seeking a raise. Document your accomplishments. Seek constructive feedback and make changes to show how you can be responsive to criticism. Instead of going after the cash, see if you can push for some non-salary perks like transportation reimbursement, or a gym membership, or more vacation time. “Read the room”: Make a reasonable assessment about how your request for more money would be received before getting aggressive.
I worried that we were just enforcing the stereotype of the woman as the timid salary negotiator, though these tips seemed to apply to all legal newbies. I tried to make it clear that there is a time and place to act as a shameless self-promoter pushing for what you are owed-slash-can-get. I have a girlfriend who used ledgers showing all the money she earned her firm, along with information about what other associates were earning at competitor firms in the same practice area, as evidence that she deserved a raise. A staff member at my office used an offer from another employer as leverage for a raise and a promotion at our firm. When determining whether to add my name to the firm name, I told my partners (half-jokingly-but-really-not) “I want whatever the [expletive] I can get.” (See, anecdotes are the best!)
I don’t think women are necessarily bad at negotiating salary. I think we might just feel more confident and comfortable having solid ground on which to build our case. And perhaps we are more realistic that you have to start somewhere: As our value increases over time, so will our compensation. (That has been my experience: Today Allison is a much better and efficient lawyer than 10-Years-Younger Allison, and she makes a lot more too.)
We also talked about how there are other components of an employment package that are worth considering — it’s not just about the money. For example, schedule flexibility is a great benefit to women who have kids or want to start a family. Also, working in an office full of assholes may not be worth the money. But I have to admit that one of my primary life goals has been making sure that I make enough money to financially support myself: I don’t want to feel like I have to be in a relationship to feel financially secure, though Seattle’s skyrocketing cost of living is challenging the sustainability of that objective.
I walked away from the panel session feeling like the experience had provided me with more questions than I had given answers.
Allison Peryea is a shareholder attorney at Leahy Fjelstad Peryea, a boutique law firm in downtown Seattle that primarily serves community association clients. Her practice focuses on covenant enforcement and dispute resolution. She is a longtime humor writer with a background in journalism and cat ownership. You can reach her by email at Allison.Peryea@leahyps.com.
Published at Fri, 03 Mar 2017 23:30:12 +0000
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