What Am I Worth? How to negotiate your salary after a career break

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“Please state your candidate’s salary expectations.”

That’s one of the inevitable questions facing us when we upload a candidate’s CV to a law firm’s recruitment portal.

It’s not always easy to answer, particularly when we ask the same question of candidates and receive a blank look in return.

Where do you start if, for example, you were a senior associate at a magic circle firm, billing 2000+ hours a year and are now applying for a more flexible role in a smaller firm, hoping to do quality work without sacrificing family life.

Headlines don’t help

Yes, newly qualified lawyers are commanding eye watering salaries, but let’s think about what is expected in return.  Are you willing to sign up to consistently working late nights, weekends and sacrificing your holidays? If so, crack on.  If not, look away now.

As an alternative, we propose a three step process:

1. What’s Your Line

In other words, what are you selling.  This is a market.  What expertise are you offering to provide, for how long and under what conditions?

For example, you might be a magic circle banking and finance lawyer, with ten years PQE returning after an eight year career break and looking to do similar work but going back in at a mid level so that you have capacity to get back up to speed technically.  You may be looking for a role where hybrid working is the norm and, happy to work full time but preferably in a firm where the hours are more manageable.   Your target firms are probably not magic circle.

Alternatively, you may be the same lawyer but looking for a four day a week role, where evenings and weekends are protected.  You could be exploring the potential to take on a non-fee earning position which is not linked to transactions but which draws on the wealth of your experience and provide future opportunities for learning and growth.

The key is to be clear:  what expertise are you bringing; what is the level of work that you’d be comfortable performing; what sort of hours are you looking for; how much flexibility do you need?  What are your priorities and in what order?

When thinking about the level of work you’d be comfortable doing, there is a balancing act.  Set it too high and you may put undue pressure on yourself in the first few months.  (In our experience, lawyers are very good at setting very high expectations and putting pressure on themselves).  At the same time, set it too low and you could find that the work you’re given isn’t stretching enough and your return doesn’t provide the opportunities you are looking for to learn and grow.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to agree a review point at, say, the six month mark.

2. What’s the Going Rate

If all job ads showed the salary on offer, this would be easy. Sadly, they don’t.  Never fear.  There are alternatives.

  • Most law firms have their own clear salary bands and so if you’re being offered a position at, say, 4 PQE they will be able to  tell you what the band is for that level.  Remember, think about the level of work you’re going to be doing, not the PQE you were when you left.
  • Different organisations do salary surveys of the legal market from time to time.  This one, by Noble Legal compares salaries for different PQE levels at US, City, West End, mid-market and in-house roles.  It was last updated September 2021 and we have found it to be reasonably accurate.
  • Ask around.  The likelihood is that you know plenty of people who work in the legal sector. Without asking them what they are personally taking home (it seems to be a British thing not to talk about this), it’s fair enough to ask for advice on their experience of salaries generally.

As a rule of thumb, expect lower salaries outside of London and lower salaries when you move into non-fee earning roles.  Though do note, this isn’t always the case – PSLs and Knowledge lawyers, for example, are relied on for their technical proficiency and in some firms are on the same salary bands as fee earners.

Do not, however, take a double hit for “going part time”.  If you are going to work four days a week, your salary should be 80% of the salary that would be paid to someone doing the same role, at the same level, on a full time basis.

3.  Evaluate the Package

When you receive an offer, it’s crucial to evaluate it in the round.  Consider all aspects, not simply the headline salary figure.  Think about:

  • What’s the hourly rate?  Someone earning £150,000 a year who is expected to be billing 2000 hours and to sacrifice weekends and holidays is probably on about the same £ per hour as someone on £80,000 who does a regular 37.5 hour week.  Get an honest and realistic view as to the hours you’ll be expected to work
  • What about bonuses?  Some firms pay a firm-wide and individual bonus. What’s the level, how does it work and what has been paid in the past?
  • Holidays, pension contributions, other benefits, include them in the equation.

Over and above the money, what about the people?  Could you imagine yourself working with them? What is the culture like?  For many of our candidates, this is the most important part of the equation.

Finally, how will this role help you to learn and grow.  What development is on offer, including formal training, provision of a coach and/or mentor and, most importantly, access to high quality work.

Be Prepared to Negotiate

This could be the subject of a whole new article so I’ll keep this brief.  Be clear on your priorities – what’s most important, the salary, the hours you want to work, the level of flexibility – and what is the bottom line for each?  Where are you prepared to give?

Understand where the firm is coming from.  Listen.  An employer with a vacancy is someone with a problem.  How can you make yourself the solution to the problem.

Make sure this feels like a win win.

Play your cards right and that awful question “Please state your candidate’s salary expectations” should just be the start of an interesting, productive and profitable conversation.


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Reignite Academy Summer Roadshow

We are excited to announce that the Reignite Academy will be on the road in May, offering you the chance to join us in person to explore ways to relaunch or pivot your legal career.

The Reignite Academy team will be joined by other women who have successfully returned to law after a career hiatus. They will share their stories, experience and advice.

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