Let's Talk Money: Tips for Conversations Around Compensation and Career Goals


by Katie Mastaler

Katie Mastaler is the newest member of the Lateral Hub team, as VP, Programming & Operations.  Before joining Lateral Hub, Katie served as the Director of Recruiting at Katten Muchin in Chicago and Crowell & Moring in DC, and most recently worked at Amazon managing outside counsel relationships.   Katie is a legal recruiting “lifer,” having joined the industry straight out of college.
As we approach the end of the year (hard to believe Thanksgiving is already next week), the annual performance evaluation processes are underway at many law firms across the country. Some firms complete the performance evaluation (i.e. annual review) process and the compensation review process at this same time of year (year-end). Others run them at separate times with the compensation review process coming later in the new year.
The thought of asking for a raise or promotion makes most people nervous. Whether your nerves stem from fear, not knowing when or what to say, or a lack of knowledge surrounding your market value, asking for more from your employer is uncomfortable — even when the odds are in your favor.
Whether you are looking to secure a salary increase, a promotion, a move to a different role within the firm, more flexibility, or something else that makes you feel valued at work — here are some tips for approaching a compensation-related conversation and thinking about your career goals more broadly.
1. Determine Your Goals.
Take the time to think clearly about what you want before jumping right in. Spend quiet time to write down your professional desires in order of priority. Do want a higher salary? A new title? More responsibility or substantive work? A change in reporting line? A bigger budget or team?
It’s also helpful to think about timing and other considerations. Are you flexible around the timing for these charges? Where can you compromise and where can you not?
2. Take Inventory of Your Accomplishments.
In addition to determining your own goals around compensation, take the time o write down your professional accomplishments, expertise, areas of responsibilities and contribution, stretch responsibilities you have taken on, and the value you bring to your team.
It is very important to be able to show specific examples and outcomes that you directly impacted, to your manager when having these types of conversation. For example, perhaps you led an initiative for on-campus recruiting that led to a specific number of applications or event attendees. Or maybe you researched, discovered, and/or implemented new associate training tools that your team now uses, saving x number of hours, reducing costs by y, or increasing associate engagement by z.
These data points will be invaluable in demonstrating your value and highlighting the tangible benefits your firm has gained and can continue to gain from your work.
3. Be Prepared.
Before approaching a compensation-related conversation, be prepared. Have talking points prepared regarding your accomplishments described above and why those justify a new role or higher compensation.
Take time to research what someone in your role is getting paid at other firms – we know this isn’t always easy, but it is helpful to the extent possible.  (If you are in a “pay transparency” jurisdiction like New York, California, or Washington, “good faith” salary ranges in job postings can provide some sense, although they can sometimes be too broad to be helpful.)
One important note regarding market research: it is key to understand where your firm is in the market. It may be true that your friend at another firm, in the same role, is making more money than you. But different firms, even within BigLaw, are different. Some firms have larger compensation budgets or just frankly have more money than others.  And some firms have an easier budget approval process, perhaps under the authority of the Chief or Director versus a partner committee.
Based on this research and preparation, be realistic and honest about whether your list meets your firm’s requirements for promotion, salary increase, or something else.
4. Communicate Clearly and Confidently.
Effective communication is crucial during salary-related conversations. Practice articulating your desires clearly and confidently, ensuring your message is delivered with professionalism and respect. Anticipate potential questions or objections from your manager, and prepare well-thought-out responses to address them. Be sure to share concrete examples of your recent accomplishments and growth, as mentioned above. And overall, be sure to focus the conversation on the value you bring to the organization, your commitment, and your dedication — positive and forward-thinking, not negative or complainant.
5. Timing is Key.
Timing is key in compensation-related conversations (especially when asking for more money or a promotion). It is usually not realistic to get a salary increase or promotion multiple times a year or within a short time of joining a new firm.
If your firm does not include compensation reviews as part of the annual performance review process, think about when to approach it with your manager. Generally, it it may be a good idea to approach it after your one-year anniversary (and annually thereafter) or at the completion of a notable project or outstanding results due to increase in responsibility.  If you work in the same office as your manager, finding time to raise this subject in person is almost always better than via Zoom, phone, or (gasp) email.

6. Consider Non-Financial Perks/Compensation.
Don’t forget that the base salary is not the only part of your total compensation. Benefits like vacation days, medical benefits, incentive programs, fitness/wellness reimbursements, meal and rideshare reimbursements for late nights, 401(k) plans, and other items are key – and can vary widely from firm to firm. And, of course, there are many non-financial benefits that should be considered in your overall career satisfaction equation.
Sometimes an immediate salary increase may not be feasible. In such cases, explore and lean in to other non-financial aspects that affect your professional development or career growth that may be more important in the long run. These might include a remote work policy (or, on the flipside, opportunity to learn and collaborate in person), the ability to propose new ideas and think out of the box, substantive responsibility, and the opportunity to lead new projects or teams (all factors that often drive employee satisfaction and retention more so than money).

Focusing only on base salary can make you view your job and career too narrowly, and assessing what your goals are from the outset will help put things into perspective and make for a more productive conversation around compensation and other job factors.
Of course, every individual situation is different.  But we hope these general insights are helpful for you as you think about your short-term and long-term goals surrounding compensation, career growth, and overall satisfaction.