In many law firms, compensation reviews are like Chicago weather - unpredictable and often unpleasant. There can be an uncertainty about when is the appropriate time to ask for a raise, causing hard feelings on both sides. As a one-time Associate and Partner of a law firm, I’ve been on both sides of the fence when it comes to raises and it can be for all parties involved if the process isn’t handled professionally. Here are my top tips for anyone asking for a raise:
I hear complaints from employers about repeated requests throughout the year from employees for compensation increases. In one such situation, an otherwise good employment relationship was deteriorating rapidly as the partner felt he couldn’t walk to the washroom without hearing the employee ask for more money.
In order to avoid repeated requests, an employer should set a date for compensation reviews. In the firms I know that adhere to this model, it is made very clear that no discussion of a raise will occur outside of this previously set date and time.
If you are the associate and compensation/performance reviews are not discussed during your final interview, I recommend addressing them as part of your overall package. By providing all parties involved with a clear time frame, an employee is saved the anxiety of the unknown and for the partner it prevents random requests for compensation at a time that is usually less than ideal, if not downright inappropriate.
Side note: I have heard some less savvy employers say that they prefer to ‘surprise’ employees with random raises and bonuses, as opposed to providing a set structure like the one I have described above. Although I agree that many employees would be delighted to have a random increase in compensation, this should occur in addition to and not in lieu of a real meeting where the employee is able to prepare and present themselves for feedback. It just isn’t fair to keep your employees guessing.
Make sure you prepare answers to the following: Why do you deserve a raise? What positive impact have you demonstrated? What qualities do you have that will serve the firm in the future (meaning you are worth the investment)?
Traditionally women receive raises for accomplishments and men receive raises and promotions based on perceived future qualities. Keeping this in mind, list out the qualities you have now that will benefit your employers in the future and give concrete examples.
Have some hard financial data on your performance. Keep in mind that employees are expensive and every dollar you ask for is an increase in taxes and the bottom line for your boss. Your boss has to have a really good reason to increase that so give it to him or her!
Several years ago, an associate in my firm attended her compensation review with only one factor in mind that - apparently, she was due an obligatory one-year salary increase. She had no idea what positive or negative impact she brought to the company nor did she seem to care. She wanted a raise because she was entitled to one. On a side note, this first year associate had taken 17 days of vacation - not including ‘half’ days. Although her raise request was done with a straight face, it was hard to avoid a look of disbelief on mine.
A work anniversary is a great reminder that it’s time for a performance review but it is not justification for a raise. The asker should be prepared to demonstrate, objectively and subjectively why they deserve an increase in pay. This could include outstanding billable hours, favorable client reviews and significant settlement of cases. Once you know what you bring to the table, you’ll be confident in your request for additional funds.
A successful request for a raise will depend a lot on timing, even if the meeting is scheduled. Look at the circumstances going on at your office: Did your law firm just lose a huge trial or a big client? Are you hearing about budget cuts? It might be good to delay the meeting for a few weeks. Doing so shows your boss that you appreciate what is going on around you and are mature enough to recognize when it is not the best time to ask for more money. On the flip side, it’s a huge disadvantage to the asker to ask for a raise in this type of climate - better to wait a few weeks than another year.
Look at the circumstances going on in your life: Did you just get back from a lengthy vacation or receive a reprimand? The answer to these questions will dictate how the meeting goes, even if everything else is in your favor. If you’re still tanned from vacation and ask for a significant raise from your boss who was in the office the past two weeks, your request might not be well received. Once again, postpone the meeting if the facts and circumstances show that a slight delay would be more beneficial to your bottom line.
When asking for a raise it is easy (and fun) to get caught up in why you deserve one - you rock, right? Every yin has its yang, so in order to be realistic you need to evaluate why you might not deserve to receive a raise. Have you made any serious errors that would have justified termination? Are you getting in late and leaving early when there is work to be done? There are many reasons why you might not be an ideal candidate for a raise and the best thing you can do is hear these out, improve upon them and try again. If you are denied a raise based on some performance issues, commit to your employer that this is going to change and ask for a six-month performance review. Then, improve. And ask again when you really deserve it.
Appearing hot and defensive when you ask for a raise won’t go well. You have to be an advocate for yourself while remaining level headed - not an easy thing to do. Be in a good place before this discussion by trying to schedule it at a time when you are not rushed, hungry or totally stressed out. Visualize the success of the meeting on a regular basis as much as possible before it happens and, if you are into this sort of thing (I am!), mediate beforehand. Calm, cool and collected are three huge assets any employer would want to celebrate.
Cash flow is a problem in most businesses. If your employer informs you that you deserve a raise but money is too tight, be prepared with a creative solution. An idea from my business (plaintiff’s personal injury and wrongful death), would be asking for a percentage of the cases you work on as you resolve them or an increased percentage of business you bring in to the firm. Other ideas are amenities: gym or club memberships, increased vacation days and a flexible schedule. Try to think about all of the possible ways you can get what you want, without breaking your employer’s bank to get it.
Ask for what you want, plus a little more. This is a negotiation. You want room to move. If you’re granted your first demand that’s wonderful, but the odds are strongly in favor of a counter which is less than your wildest dreams. If you build in room to move in your request, you can have real dialogue that also makes you look even more reasonable.
Chicago-based attorney, Lyndsay Markley (visit her website and Twitter profile) has dedicated her legal practice to fighting on behalf of persons who suffered injuries or death as the result of the wrongful or careless conduct of others. Her 2015 accolades include 10 Best Personal Injury Attorney for Client Satisfaction status from the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys, Premier 100 Trial Attorney status from the American Academy of Trial Attorneys and Illinois’ Rising Star status from Super Lawyers.