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Salary negotiations begin with market knowledge

|Written By Vawn Himmelsbach

While most major law firms have set salaries for new associates, that''s not the case for hundreds of lawyers working at smaller firms. Most have an idea of what they should get paid, but don''t know how to negotiate to get the best rate possible.

Most large Bay Street firms and public sector organizations have set salary grids for associates who've been offered a job after they've articled and been called to the bar, but many smaller firms have room for negotiation -- and salaries can vary dramatically.
Rates will vary from city to city, to type of firm, to type of law, but there's no single source of information, so new associates need to do their homework.
When you're freshly called to the bar, you might think you're not valuable and take the first job that's thrown at you, says Emily Lee, a senior consultant with ZSA Legal Recruitment Ltd. in Toronto. But new associates have skills to bring to the table, so they need to be able to market themselves -- and realize that 95 per cent of the job is personality and fit and willingness to work.
"[Firms] are not looking to pay x amount of money, they're looking for the right person," she says.
Avoid talking about salary as long as possible, she says, as it's a much better topic to come up in a second or third interview when there's interest involved. If you have salary discussions up front, then you have no leverage.
"You've got to be able to say, 'I'm open to a fair market salary and I think it's a conversation better left [for] when we both have an idea that this is of interest.'"
If you start selling yourself as more than $75,000 and find out a job offers the type of lifestyle you want, then you don't want to price yourself out of it if the firm is going to be paying less, she says. On the other hand, you don't want to undervalue yourself if a firm is able to pay you $90,000. Also consider your career trajectory, in which case salary may not be the most important factor.
New associates should do their field research well in advance of getting an offer, says Lianne Krakauer, assistant dean of career services with the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law. During interviews, it's common to be thrown a figure, which can take interviewees by surprise -- especially when they're new to the job market. "So it's really important that they've done some digging around," she says.
Find out what the going rate is for a particular type of firm in a particular sector. For first-year lawyers, salaries can go as low as $30,000 at a small one- or two-person firm, to more than $70,000 at a larger firm.
Keep in mind that different areas of law are going to pay differently, says Lee. For example, intellectual property or tax law may have a higher salary bracket because those lawyers are more in demand, whereas insurance law may have a lower salary bracket because insurance companies are pressuring firms to keep their salaries low.
But there's no one place out there to look for information about salaries. Searching the Web is an option; there are a number of surveys available, including ones from Canadian Lawyer magazine (www.canadianlawyer  and ZSA. The QuickLaw national articling database sometimes has information on what first-year associates are paid. Talking to friends or a counsellor at universities' career development offices are other options.
"But truthfully if they're looking around at smaller firms that may not have articling programs, that may not publish their information, they have to get out and talk to people," says Krakauer, adding this may be uncomfortable, but necessary.
Smaller firms may face budgetary constraints, she says, but it's important not to make assumptions about employers based on lack of objective information. In some cases, smaller boutique firms are very competitive with Bay Street salaries, she adds.
"Because we are a small boutique firm, we always have our eyes and ears open for good potential candidates," says Robert Nadeau, principal at Bowley Kerr Nadeau in Ottawa, which specializes in technology, intellectual property, and business law. The firm receives unsolicited resumes and even oral referrals, but doesn't actively pursue candidates. As a small boutique firm, finding a person with the right fit is high on its list of priorities.
"We don't have a fixed salary in mind," says Nadeau. "Being a small firm with a loyal client base, we will hire somebody only if there's a demand and that's typically when we've got more work than we can handle."
Even if a position isn't available, the firm will interview someone to find out if there's a fit. If and when a job becomes available, salary would be negotiated at that point.
For the firm, it's relevant to know what salary range the interviewee expects. "Our philosophy is we would like to pay a new lawyer at the higher end of the range to get the quality, skills and experience we're looking for," says Nadeau.
While mid-size firm Torkin Manes Cohen Arbus LLP has a set salary for new associates, it's important for those looking at firms without a set salary to know what those going rates are, says Michael Simaan, director of student recruitment with Torkin Manes in Toronto.
If you feel the rate is too low, ask for a review within four to six months, he says. The firm will review the work you're doing and whether you're being remunerated in the appropriate way.
"That's enough time for the firm to assess you," he says. "You've also got more power at that time because the firm has invested in you and, assuming that it's working out and they want you to stay, that would be the appropriate time to get a bump in your salary."
Once they've invested in you, he adds, they don't want to go through the hiring process again.
For new associates staying on at a big firm with a set salary, find out if there's a bonus, says Lee. Even if there's no wiggle-room with your salary, there may be other perks, so it's worth checking out the history of the firm paying out a bonus.
"If salary is your biggest concern, it's a lot harder," she says. "If you're flexible and you're able to look at the whole package, you've got a better bargaining chip on your side."
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