Salary Reviews

Each year we have a lot of enquiries relating to salary reviews and what to expect from them. While we take pride in giving accurate and realistic assessments of market value for lawyers, we also take time to point out how to prepare for them and what to do to take away more value from the process than simply money. As well as an opportune time to demonstrate your value and be rewarded, this is also are one of the rare times you can have a more open dialogue with your supervisor and HRM. Paul Burgess, Director of Burgess Paluch Legal Recruitment, lends his insight into what's really going on in a review, as well as some straightforward advice on how to get the most out of the process.

Performance and salary reviews can be difficult to navigate and even stressful. Depending on what you are hoping to get from them they can also be frustrating. Having sat on both sides of the fence I can understand why. Ensuring that your review is a relative success is actually simple, as long as you understand the focus of your firm's review system, how your firm measures your performance and contribution, and how this fits in with the market and your firm's pay scales.

In short, a review is a meeting where you have the opportunity to present yourself and your work in context, discuss your billables, speak about how else you add value to the firm and hopefully receive a positive salary review. The better prepared you are for it and the more you understand what the firm is looking for in your performance the better you are likely to do in the review.

From an employer's perspective, the purpose of the review is to discuss the worth of your contribution to a business, and how both you and the firm can improve it for your mutual benefit. From the employer's perspective, they need to hear from you how you have been going and what they can do better for you. You also need to determine exactly what you want to get out of the review, in terms of moving your work onward and upward. Be open and honest about your ambitions and whether your current work is aligning well with them, but make sure you base this on realistic expectations and knowledge about what the firm can offer. Be honest, but not naive. If what you say is too far out of alignment with what the firm's expectations are then you may create significant issues.

Your performance needs to be measurable. The easiest way to do this is to keep regular records of those activities that correlate with the items on the firm's review sheet. Start a spreadsheet now for next year and keep it on your desktop, adding in items every few weeks which match up to the various areas in the review document. Keep a note of your extra-curricular work, the referrals you get, articles or seminars you contribute to and any mentoring you do etc.

Also, you may need to actively remind your supervisors during the year about particular accomplishments! While you don't want to be shouting them from the rooftops, if your partner doesn't know about your successes they aren't going to be in a position to recognise and reward you for them.

You will usually need to be able to quote your billables and non-billables off the top of your head. Again, a significant number of the lawyers we interview can't answer simple questions about their budget and relative performance against it. That always stands out to me – if you don't know how you contribute to the financial performance of your firm then you are probably missing the point – to be successful in your role you need to be able to understand how much you bill, bring in and/or supervise, because this should reflect directly how much you get paid. Remember that this is a business discussion and this is about the value you are bringing to the business.

While it can be useful to look at salary surveys I personally find them so vague, inaccurate and easily misunderstood that we don't publish them. It's far better to speak to someone like us about your particular situation to get more accurate advice. If you do look at salary surveys make sure that they are taken in context - with reference to your location, area of law, type of firm and achievement against budget. Also consider that some salary "surveys" can be skewed towards higher than average figures because they tend to be used as a recruitment marketing device for that recruiter.

You will need to know generally how the market is performing in your area of law and location, what the supply of lawyers is like into that market and whether there are any shortages of supply. If you are at a smaller firm and there is no formal budget, think about the ratio of your total salary versus yearly billables. It should be more than 3:1, and the bigger the firm the higher it will be, up to 5 to one at top tier level. Non-billable and extracurricular work is relevant as well, as is the quality and level of your work, compared to the average that might be expected at your level. Any bonus you receive is also relevant. Remember that salary decisions are based specifically on your position, with some context provided by the market, rather than what another person somewhere else may be earning or what you might need extra money for.

Finally, you need to be able to take this preparation and use it to handle the actual discussion well. Know all your selling points and emphasise that you are committed to your work and the firm. Keep the discussion positive. This means not bargaining with negatives like threats to leave. It also means dealing with any criticism appropriately. Rather than becoming defensive about your performance, listen to the feedback objectively and learn from it – if there are things you can do to improve, you want to know about them and act on them. You can also use this to ask questions and improve the interaction.

When the discussion moves on to salary, keep it general but relevant, following your preparation. The facts and figures are the basis of your salary expectations but don't just regurgitate them and hope this makes your case: you need to talk generally about the market and why you are performing well within it. In short, keep it related to your specific performance in the firm and why you are worth the money you are asking for.

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