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You’re a successful lawyer who has negotiated thousands of times on behalf of your clients and have won hundreds of cases in court. It would therefore make sense that you also be the person who negotiates your own salary when you’re interviewing at your potential new law firm or in-house job, right? Wrong � it’s actually one of the times where you steer clear of this wrangling. To some degree, this is akin to the old saying that a lawyer who represents herself has a fool for a client. Playing hardball with your future boss or company is not the same as being relentless on behalf of your client. This is not just a business deal � it’s one of the most important decisions of your life, and the lawyers on the other side may be colleagues for many years. If you treat this as just another tough negotiation, you may wind up joining a group of suspicious or jealous peers. In my eight-year career as an executive recruiter with the McCormick Group Inc., my partners and I have placed thousands of lawyers in law firms, corporations, consulting firms, and other organizations, and have negotiated almost as many salaries on behalf of these individuals. Salary negotiations, of course, are not quantum physics. Rather, the job is more like a piano that needs tuning � it’s a sensitive process where little missteps can keep the whole symphony from sounding right. First, you need to decide if you are the type of individual who would benefit from using a headhunter. For instance, if you are a brand-new attorney right out of law school, using a headhunter makes no sense, except for some general advice. A law firm will not pay a fee for an unproven (so to speak) commodity. Associates who are fairly well-credentialed and have practiced for a couple of years, either with some key government agencies or at well-known firms, may be in a better position to use a recruiter. Associates who are a little more senior, approximately four to six years out, may also benefit from a headhunter. Those even more senior, especially those without any business they’ve personally developed, are going to have a tougher time using a headhunter. The problem with the more senior attorney (for instance, one who is more than seven years out of school with no portable practice) is that firms may be concerned that these individuals may dilute a firm’s profits. If an individual brings an important specialty to the firm, he or she may have a better shot. However, if a person’s expertise is not on the top of a firm’s wish list, and the person is relatively senior, it might be a better idea to pursue jobs through friends or networking. Of course, another group who could benefit from using headhunters would be partner candidates with portable business. They may think they are precisely the ones who do not need to use a headhunter. But headhunters can save an attorney the time and effort of making the initial contacts at firms or companies and deciding whether this is a viable job opportunity. Even if you happen to know everyone in your practice area from the American Bar Association committee or old law school classmates, a headhunter can help you determine whether the interview is worth pursuing or whether your contact is interviewing you just to be nice. People who may not find much luck with headhunters are those who did not do particularly well in school and those who work at small, suburban firms working on matters like personal injury, matrimonial law, or blue-collar crime. In general, law firms will not pay a headhunting fee for this type of attorney. Often, the problem that an attorney faces when finding a job on her own is that she can’t go digging into the company to determine where she fits within the salary spectrum. Although looking up partner profit information in some of the legal magazines or researching Securities and Exchange Commission filings to determine salaries of chief company officers may be a starting point, it’s not necessarily relevant to any individual’s salary determination. Each firm or company has its own specifications, and they can be based on many factors � profitability or revenues, origination billings, managed billings, class year, title, or other criteria. An experienced insider can help you position yourself when you are interviewing for a new job and negotiating a salary. For instance, it makes no sense to go out on an interview when it’s clear at the outset that you and the company are a hundred thousand dollars or more apart on compensation. And it’s the proverbial interview faux pas to bring up compensation while setting up the interview or during the first interview. And here is another problem: When it comes to law firm partner compensation, not all firms pay alike. For example, we know of one major, national law firm which doesn’t include individual partner client originations in their compensation scheme at all, and, in fact, doesn’t even keep those records. If a lateral partner candidate sets up compensation demands based on portable business alone, she or he would be starting off on the wrong foot. Another common mistake is relying on friends who are partners at the firm to give them the inside scoop on compensation. The problem with this model is that many times their friends are not necessarily privy to the intricacies of the compensation process. We’ve also seen people coming out of their last position, whether it is the government, industry, or a firm, who have an inflated sense of self worth. No offense, but not everyone is a superstar. And certain high-level government positions, for instance, have not always led to private success. Having an unbiased observer giving advice is probably the best thing a job seeker can do. A former candidate who is now a partner at a large, international law firm puts it this way: “Working with a headhunter worked out very well because it took me out of the middle of salary negotiations. The problem I’ve seen is that people come in with unrealistic salary demands.” And when they do, he points out, it’s difficult to get them to understand why they are best slotted at a particular level. The last thing an employee wants is to come into a new environment where her colleagues feel that she’s squeezed them for every last penny. In a world where practicing law and developing business is tough enough, the last thing you want to do is add undue pressure on yourself at a new job. There are three possibilities when you negotiate your own salary. Number one is that you aim too high and potentially take yourself out of the running early by being unrealistic. Number two, you aim too low and leave dollars on the table when the firm was prepared to offer you a bigger salary. And, number three, you are dead on with your salary demands, which in my experience is pretty hard to accomplish. When you are ready to take the steps to find a new job, an industry insider can act as a go-between for you and potential employers. Stacey L. Russin is a principal at the McCormick Group Inc., an executive search firm in Arlington, Va. Steve Nelson, managing principal of the law and government affairs group at the McCormick Group Inc., contributed to this article.

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