I Need a Raise or I'll Starve

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

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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