Every good lawyer knows you don’t accept the first offer, yet so many lateral associates do just that when moving firms. Big firms generally pay market compensation, so many assume there is no room for negotiations—but that isn’t remotely true. Sure, you’re unlikely to get a Vault 10 firm to move on an associate base salary, but there are plenty of things in the offer letter that are not set in stone. First, let’s talk about ways to make sure you have as much leverage to negotiate as possible. Then we’ll look at all the places you can negotiate.
Before you can begin to negotiate, you have to make sure you have as much leverage as possible. If you are in a high-demand practice area or have impeccable credentials, you may have an advantage. But the single greatest way to gain leverage in negotiating is to have multiple offers. If you interview with multiple firms at the same time, you can use one offer to gain another, and you can use the terms of one offer—or the implied threat to take that offer—to gain better terms from the firm you really would prefer to join. Be open to exploring multiple offers, even if you have one from your target firm.
Your starting salary may be negotiable at smaller firms, but if you are in BigLaw, you can still negotiate for more pay. First, you should look to be made whole on your annual bonus. It’s pretty common for BigLaw firms to guarantee a lateral candidate a full bonus or at least a full bonus if that associate hits a pro-rated hours requirement. But firms will often not offer that out the gate—offer letters will often include only a prorated bonus. Especially if you are moving in the first 6-8 months of the year, a full bonus will often be an attainable goal.
If you have a lot of leverage, you may be able to negotiate an additional signing or retention bonus (generally paid after one year of employment). If a firm knows you have multiple offers (or are interviewing with multiple firms) they are more likely to offer you a signing bonus off the bat. But even if they don’t, you can certainly ask them to meet/beat a signing bonus another firm has offered.
Acceptance and Start date
Offer letters generally contain a date at which time the offer expires and a date by which the associate must start. These are easily negotiated terms. If you need more time to see another interview process through, you can simply ask for an extension to think about it some more (though you want to be mindful and not abuse this privilege). The start date is also generally flexible. Even after you accept, you’ll want a minimum of a week or two to clear conflicts, then two weeks for notice, and possibly a week or two in between jobs to recharge. Firms are very used to this sort of timetable, so do not hesitate to ask for a start date that is four to six weeks after you accept—or even longer if you are moving markets.
Vacation and Other Policies
At large firms, vacation days and other perks/similar benefits are generally not negotiable. If your firm offers reduced vacation for the first year, you could possibly ask to get the full amount, but generally firms do not like to budge on their standard perks.
While there are many terms in an offer that are up for negotiation, it can be still be difficult or awkward to negotiate them on your own, especially where you are leveraging another firm’s offer to your benefit. It’s helpful to work with a legal recruiter to have someone else doing the “dirty work” for you, allowing you to stay above the fray and join the firm on great terms without any difficult negotiations to muddy the waters.