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Salary Negotiation

Salary levels vary widely in accordance with local cost of living indexes, size of employer, and other competitive factors. Typically, large law firms and government salaries are clearly defined and leave little room for negotiation. The following approximations about Cornell alums' salaries over the past several years may be used as a general guide to what you can expect to earn in their settings:

  • Typical starting salaries in private employment (includes large law firms, business and industry): $115,000-$160,000
  • Typical starting salaries in public service employment (includes all levels and branches of government, judicial clerkships, and all positions with non-profit advocacy or cause-oriented organizations): $40,000 - $50,000

If, as might be the case with a small or medium-size law firm, you are asked to state the salary you would like to earn, you should suggest a range, based on some research of your own. Do not feel you have to respond immediately. Ask for some time to come up with a figure. You are possibly better equipped to name a figure than the isolated employer. Click here to conduct an easy cost-of-living comparison between cities in the U.S.

Know the market area by doing your homework.
NALP publishes an annual Employment and Salary Survey which gives starting salary ranges at law firms —low, average and high—in varied geographic localities. The Career Services Library has this survey. What does the federal government pay beginning lawyers? Look at GS (stands for "General Schedule") salary ranges on the United States Government Office of Personnel Management web site.

Know your true needs and what it will cost you to live.
The local chamber of commerce can provide information about the local cost of living index. Take time to draft a personal budget for the first few years of practice—housing needs, clothing, food, insurance, transportation, debt repayment, etc. If you are forced into the position of naming a salary, you must know that you will be requesting compensation that will at least meet your minimum needs.

Negotiate only one offer at a time.
If you try to negotiate several offers at a time, you are asking the employers to make commitments you yourself cannot honor.

Try not to put yourself in a situation where you will have to walk away from the table.
Say you will think a situation over, rather than “Unless you raise the salary $2,000, I can't accept your offer.” You may decide after the discussion that you want the job, and it will be difficult to back down if you’ve put yourself in a corner.

Question the employer's review period for raises.
Perhaps salary can be upgraded after a few months, based on your performance. Note, however, that as soon as you accept an offer, your bargaining power is reduced.