I Need a Raise or I'll Starve

Ex-Bitter Advice from an Ex-Bitter, Columns, Lawyer 15 Comments

QLawyers Needing a Raise Low PayI’ve been an associate at a New York area law firm since September. It’s a small firm that uses per diem attorneys for a lot of stuff, and associates like me do the bulk of the prep work for trials or hearings. Anyway, I’m less than a year out, knew the job market sucked, so took whatever I could find that was in the legal profession. I’m making $32,000 per year but did get a bonus of $600 last Fall when I passed the bar. I actually like the work and the hours are pretty regular. In other words, I’m out of the office by six each day and have yet to work a weekend. I guess that’s the upside.

But I’m underwater financially, with more than $160,000 in student loans. I live with my parents, which keeps costs down, but still need to make more so I can at least start the long road of repaying my loans and becoming a responsible citizen.

My question: I want to ask for a raise. Should I do it now or wait? And what’s best, a percentage request or a specific dollar amount?

AMy God. Thirty-two thousand dollars? Is that every six months? I’m going to have to admit to something I don’t like to admit to: I’m way out of touch. I made almost $100,000 my first year out, and that was almost ten years ago now. But $32K for a full-time lawyer in an actual law firm? One that actually has clients? It’s theft. Or more like sharecropping with suits.

That quick bit of self-reflection and tirade aside, the answer is no. Don’t ask for a raise, at least not yet. You’ve been there less than a year. From what I can gather, not much has changed in your responsibilities, so I’m not sure what leverage you would have to request more money. That you can’t support yourself or that being paid less than a KFC manager sucks? Not a bad moral or emotional argument (and I’m with you on those) but if the market is so bad that the salaries are so low, you’ll probably just find yourself on the short list for being let go.

If I’m wrong about your responsibilities and you’ve suddenly been given trial-level or other higher brain functions, then maybe it’s time to ask for reassessment. Or, if you are not getting good solid work, maybe you should request greater responsibility first, work your ass off (but for $32K?), and make yourself more valuable. But, honestly, with the scenario and numbers you’ve given me, I just don’t see a boss who flatlines careers and salaries as someone willing to listen to reasonable requests, even reasonable requests to live and be paid like a normal lawyer.

Only if you really have nothing to lose, ask for a raise once your first year is up. And by nothing left to lose, it means you have no other options other than the option of being fired. I prefer percentage increases unless they sound ridiculous. In your case, it would sound ludicrous—getting to a laughably reasonable $50K would be nearly a 60 percent salary increase.

Finally, if you ask for a raise or reassessment, be as firm and confident as you can. No shuffling the feet, clearing your throat nervously, or being apologetic about having to do it, etc. Be firm or you’ll just seem weaker than you already are. Ask for it straight up, set a proposed amount, and don’t argue about the response. If the response isn’t what you wanted or expected, the only thing to do is live with it—or leave if you aren’t let go.

Good luck. Honestly. I still can’t get over earning $32K, which shows how out of touch us Ex-bitter lawyers are. Seriously, are full-time lawyers in law firms getting paid as little as $32,000 these days?

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  • Guano Dubango

    While the wage is low, at least the person has a legal position where she can gain experience and put this on the resume.

    I suggest that the person be tactful and be able to show why she wants more money — either to pay back loans, get an apartment with a friend, etc, etc.

    The person should also consider other options in her personal life. While young, she should consider whether to get married and have children, something I was remiss on.

    Good luck to her, whatever she does.

  • Mel

    Sadly, I think this is a very real occurrence in the current market. Especially for those of us in smaller cities, or suburbs that simply don’t have the start pay amounts as big metro areas do. The part that sucks is PD’s and County offices actually pay more than $32,000 per year right now and those jobs are highly coveted (minus the work-life balance previously stated.)

    As a recent grad (taking the bar in a few weeks), I am finding that almost every other field will pay more and has more room for growth than the legal sector right now. I don’t have the luxury of relocating for more prospects and I do want to think about my future and having the flexibility to start a family. Basically, that leaves me with similar opportunities as the woman above, or looking to go outside the legal field and utilize my JD in another way. Honestly, I’ll likely be choosing the latter so I can start making a dent in those loans and worry about finding legal work I “love” later on.

    It’s a harsh, harsh market right now. Misery loves company? Best of luck!

  • Chipper

    I made more as a paralegal, before attending law school. This kid just got ROBBED! I did see a craigslist posting recently wanting top credentials, law review, from a tier one school and was offering $2,700 a month. I actually snorted when I read it and thought about sending a nasty-gram, because I thought no self-respecting lawyer would work for that! How wrong was I?! Why hire paralegals anymore when associates are so cheap?

  • Legally Insignificant

    I’m literally sitting down with my boss to discuss increasing my salary in a few minutes. I’m the first one into the office and the last one out of the office. I handle cases from beginning to end, including trial. My starting salary in the Philadelphia area, doing personal injury, was $25k a year. Taking into account the hours I work, I’m making less than $10/hr. This article has actually given me the courage that will hopefully allow me to get a considerable raise. The percentage thing is a killer. On interviews I’ve gone on, whenever salary history comes up, I pretty much know that they’ll use the bargaining chip of “you want us to double your salary” right out of the gate.

  • Donna

    I live in Australia and here too, junior lawyers earn peanuts. Some start as low as AU$25k. Our dollars are pretty even right now, so that’s about the same in US$. Many of my uni friends started out in jobs like these and didn’t live with their parents to help. Many new grads nevr go to practice for this readon – I opted for the more lucrative government policy type jobs. I don’t know what it is like in the US, but here a law degree is good for more than just practice – you can do many many other, better paying jobs. Perhaps think about moving to something different? You can always go back to practice once you have some other experience under your belt. Cheers Donna.

    • Josh

      But do aussie law students take out 100k-250k in law school loans? Or is law school more affordable?

      • miscellaneouslawyer

        Law school in Australia is much more affordable, and you can take out a HECS loan from the Commonwealth Government. (Higher Education Contribution Scheme.) Those loans attract an instant 25% (I think) interest, but only increase by the CPI every year; they DO NOT attract any further interest. Further, you don’t start paying your HECS debt back until you earn over a certain amount. Finally, your employer pays your HECS debt by way of a deduction from your pay/extra contribution in your PAYG tax.

        I am a first year solicitor and I earn $41,600, which is $800 per week. I am not yet paying back my HECS.

        For a full-time solicitor, $41,600 is pretty low, even for a first-year, but as seems to be a common theme; I took what was available, and I am getting excellent court/client experience in many fields with great mentors. I made my billings targets several months in a row last financial year, and will be re-negotiating my salary after I make my targets for 4 months in a row.

  • Beav

    I started with a firm about 5 months ago as my first job out of law school. When they hired me, they admitted they were having difficulty financially and that the salary offered was not impressive. I expected it to be low, but they offered $24K/year, with a percentage of hours billed on “certain cases”. Both the firm and I knew the “certain cases” were not guaranteed, but we were thinking 1-2 of them per month, which would come out to about an extra $9,000 – $16,000(very high side) per year. I ended up accepting the gig (which nearly a 3 hour commute – round trip), cause there’s nothing else out there. It just sucks that bad right now. So far, I have seen 1 1/2 of these cases in 5 months, and am on track to make $27-28K this year.

    Long story short, I’m seeing a lot of trial and jury work at a very early time in my career. How long would you hold out on a) asking for a raise when you know the “certain cases” aren’t coming? and b) how long would you stay at this job before you jump ship – knowing you’re getting the courtroom experience few other young associates get?

  • Anne Roberts

    Where I come from, junior lawyers doesn’t earn much and you don’t demand a raise. It is given to you when you deserve it. But that doesn’t mean that it is right. It is your right as well to demand a raise. After all, this is the US.

  • Mean Partner

    If you are leaving at 6, you have no business asking for a raise, esp in this economy. I doubt you’ve acquired much in the way if indispensable skills in 6 months. Rather it seems you “want” a raise and “feel” your employer owes one to you. May I suggest that your local DMV or unionized post office might be more responsive to that view? If you want to stay where you are, get in earlier, stay later, take on more work, stop whining and raise the issue in another 6 months.

    • Hank

      If she is worth more they should give her more but she will have to ask. These days the sumbeeotches running things prefer to keep the extra snatch for themselves. Even where they have piped the associate, she can still get hosed.

  • Jennifer

    For that kind of money, just open your own firm. Work for yourself. There’s an awesome book I used to give me the courage to open my own firm–” How to go directly into solo law practice (without missing a meal),” by Gerald M. Singer, Esq. It was printed in 1976, but it’s still very relevant.

  • AngelaEsq

    This is the most depressing thread I have ever read in my life, and I’m a cancer suvivor that continually lurks on cancer forums….

    Good God. I realize now that I have a lot of ballz that I just asked for a 25 k raise and got 20… if these salaries are true move to Jersey!

  • #1LegalAssistant

    Wow. I made more during my FIRST legal assistant job in an EXTREMELY small legal community… You could always ask for a raise after your probation if you have one.

  • Long-term Associate

    This is an epidemic. I have been practicing law for almost 12 years (still an associate) and I have yet to break $60,000 per year. Now, I do not work in big city – I work in a rural area. My base pay at a small firm is $42,000 and then I can earn above that depending upon my billable hours. The more revenue I bring in, the more I make. That can be pretty tough for a mom of three who really can’t put in more than 40-45 hours/week, which is probably why I haven’t ever made more than $60,000. This is also why I never took more than 2 weeks maternity leave – I always needed to make more than the base salary. But with a mortgage payment, the cost of daycare, student loans (yes, I’m STILL paying for law school) and regular monthly expenses the pay is not commensurate with the costs of living these days. Since graduating from law school, I have been consistently working hard and I have always been struggling financially.

    Bottom line: I wish I had never decided to become a lawyer and strap myself with debt I would not even be close to paying off more than a decade later. The pay these days just isn’t good enough to justify it. DON’T GO TO LAW SCHOOL, KIDS. FIND A DIFFERENT CAREER.