Julie Q. Brush, Solutus founding partner. Julie Q. Brush, Solutus founding partner.

The topic of compensation in a job interview process has always been a bit of a fearmonger for legal professionals. From negotiating an offer to timing the comp ask, candidates in today’s market still feel anxious when it comes to the money. One frequent predicament that arises is how to handle the “What are your compensation expectations?” question. Whether raised by employers at the beginning, middle or end of the process, this inquiry often asks candidates to move their first pawn in a vacuum—without much, if any information. And candidate reactions are similar:

  • “Am I required to give them a compensation expectation range?
  • “I don’t have a specific range in mind so how am I supposed to give one?”
  • “I’m worried about coming in too low.”
  • “I’m worried about pricing myself out of the role.”
  • “I’ll lose my leverage if I go first.”
  • “I don’t want to provide an answer, but I’m worried that if I don’t, my candidacy will be rejected.”
  • “How am I supposed to know what my expectations are when I don’t know the comp range for the role?”
  • “How should I respond without compromising my candidacy?”

So how should you manage such a situation? Before I provide your narrative options, a few points to convey:

First, an increasing number of employers/HR professionals ask candidates their compensation expectations before disclosing their own numbers for the open reqs. For some, it’s an approach in response to the new equal pay laws prohibiting employers from asking candidates about their current/past compensation numbers. While asking for a candidate’s compensation is illegal in these locations, asking for one’s compensation expectations is fair game. For others, it’s simply a way to determine compensation alignment without showing their cards first.

Second, if you have not been provided any information about the compensation range for the role for which you are applying, it is perfectly reasonable not to provide your salary expectations until you receive more information. With this said, I recommend addressing the topic of compensation sooner rather than later in an interview process (too many candidacies fall apart over money at the finish line) … but only when both parties feel they have sufficient information to start the dialogue.

Third, if you do not want to answer this question at this juncture, there are ways to successfully manage this situation so you don’t jeopardize your candidacy. Your words and your tone will be crucial to communicating your message effectively. So think through your narrative, write it down and practice. If you are corresponding via email, create a first draft and review/edit at least three times before sending.

Now that you have a bit more context, below are a few sample narratives you can use:

  • “Hi Sarah, thank you for raising the topic of compensation. At this point, I don’t have a set range that I’m targeting. Given that companies/firms vary when it comes to compensation, it would be helpful to know where the hiring managers have targeted the role. Do you have that information?”
  • “Thanks Ron, my compensation expectations will depend on the role and overall opportunity so I really can’t pinpoint a number yet. I’d also like to get a sense of the range you have targeted for the position so I can determine whether we’re in the ballpark. What is the target at this time?”
  • “Jon, I appreciate the discussion around compensation expectations. My goal is to earn a salary that reflects the value I bring to an organization. I don’t want to be an outlier either so in order to provide you with the best guidance, I’d love to have a better understanding of the target compensation range for this role.”
  • Compensation range provided: “Hi Luis, the compensation range you provided currently works for me, but I would like to be at the highest end of each range.”
  • Compensation range provided: “Thank you for the information Mary. The salary range is somewhat lower than what I envisioned for my next role. With this said, I’m valuing several factors and am willing to be flexible, but it would be important that I bring home at least $X as an all-in number. Do you think that would be doable on your end if things went well in the rest of the process?”
  • Compensation range provided: “Hi Chris, many thanks for the compensation numbers for the role. Unfortunately, that is quite a bit below what I’m currently earning so I will have to take a pass. Let me know if the numbers change—as I think it is a wonderful opportunity and I could add a lot of value to the organization.“

The topic of money in a job interview typically invokes feelings of dread and anxiety for lawyers as opposed to the warm and fuzzies. And when asked to declare salary expectations, it can be challenging to manage the conversation to an optimal outcome. Understanding the context of the situation as well as your feelings will provide a solid starting point to address your questions in this dynamic when it arises. From there, use the sample narratives above to serve as a guide to communicate a high-quality response that is most comfortable for you … and one that will meet everyone’s expectations.

Julie Q. Brush is the founder and author of The Lawyer Whisperer (www.thelawyerwhisperer.com), a career advice column for legal professionals, also found on LinkedIn. She is co-founder of Solutus Legal Search, a legal search/consulting boutique firm, serving as a strategic adviser to lawyers, law firms and corporations.