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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

May 26, 2016

I’m a law firm associate in final discussions with a big tech company. If I receive an offer, how do I know whether it’s at “market” level and whether to ask for more?

Julie Q. Brush

To a law firm associate, the in house world is just that: a different world. There are no billable hours, there is no lockstep advancement, there is no partnership status, there are no “internal” clients. Virtually everything looks and feels different…including compensation.

Astute law firm associates know that they will have to take the figurative compensation haircut when transitioning to a corporate legal department, but just how much of a clip can be – and often is a mystery. So when a law firm associate is presented with an offer to join the in house ranks, where can s/he turn for information to determine whether the offer is fair and reasonable – and whether to ask for more? It’s hard to know where to turn for the information you need. But there are resources that can help. Before I provide you with the best ones to tap, I will provide you with the current market compensation ranges for junior/midlevel in house lawyers so you can leverage the relevant information now. But compensation is not static and constantly evolves. So take note of the resources below to use in the future.

Current “Market” Compensation for Junior to Mid-Level In House Lawyers at a Big Tech Company (*Note, in some geographic regions, base compensation can be 10%-20% lower):

4 – 6 years experience:

  • Title: Typically Corporate Counsel. There are variations of this title including Commercial Counsel, IP Counsel, Trademark Counsel, Privacy Counsel etc.
  • Base Compensation: $165k – $185k
  • Target Bonus: 10%
  • Stock: Yes. Typically in the form of RSUs, but is sometimes a mix of options and RSUs. It will be a modest grant with a modest valuation. 3 year or 4 year vesting schedule, 1 year “cliff”. Note: stock grants can vary widely from company to company so I cannot give you a number for any level that can be universally applied.

6 – 8 years experience:

  • Title: Typically Corporate Counsel on the lower seniority range, Senior Corporate Counsel on the top end. There are also variations of this title including Commercial Counsel/Sr. Commercial Counsel etc.
  • Base Compensation: $185k – $200k
  • Target Bonus: 10% – 15%
  • Stock: Yes. Typically in the form of RSUs, but is sometimes a mix of options and RSUs. The grant will be higher, but still not very compelling. 3 year or 4 year vesting schedule, 1 year “cliff”.

9 – 12 years experience:

  • Title: As you start becoming more senior, title variations will increase. Some include: Senior Corporate Counsel, AGC, Director, Senior Director, Deputy General Counsel (Note: at a “big” technology company your options will likely be Corporate Counsel, Senior Corporate Counsel and Director)
  • Base Compensation: $215k – $250k
  • Target Bonus: 20% – 30%
  • Stock: Yes. Typically in the form of RSUs. Grant will be larger and value will increase (but the number varies from company to company) 3 year or 4 year vesting schedule, 1 year “cliff”.

These are the current market ranges for large technology companies. Of course, there are outliers, but these are the most typical ranges I’m seeing today. As time goes on, market compensation will change. So in the future, the following resources will be helpful as you seek the latest numbers:

Legal Recruiters Who Specialize in In House Permanent Placement Search For Lawyers.

Ok, that’s a mouthful. Butthis is exactly who will have their finger on the pulse of the in house legal compensation market – especially at your seniority level. Not executive recruiters. Not law firm recruiters. Not temp or project-based recruiters. Not legal admin recruiters. None of these constituencies will have the breadth and depth of understanding of the local in house compensation market like legal recruiters who specialize in in house permanent placement search for lawyers. Why? Because these specialty recruiters are partnering real time with companies for their permanent hiring needs and have first hand knowledge of the compensation ranges being offered. They are also working with scores of in house candidates who provide their compensation and expectations…making their institutional knowledge even more robust.

So this is your first stop (and possibly your last if you talk to a great recruiter) in your quest for the most reliable information and advice. Where to find these folks? A few suggestions include:

  • In House Job Boards. Sites like ACC.com and goinhouse.com have job boards for in house opportunities. Go to these sites and look at which search firms in your area are advertising. Those with critical mass should be included on your list to contact for help.
  • Law School Career Services. If you attended undergrad or law school in the area you are job hunting, contact the law school career services department for recommendations.
  • Law School/Law Firm Alumni Network. Many of these networks have email/LinkedIn groups where you can post questions and requests. Members are usually willing to help.
  • Legal Profession Colleagues. A lot of law firm associates have friends/colleagues who are law firm associates in other law firms. Tap this group as well. Chances are, they are working with in house recruiters to make the transition themselves.
  • Legal Newspaper and Beat Reporters. Check out your local legal newspaper and legal in house beat reporters. This group often contacts in house recruiters for scoop and quotes about the in house goings-on. Identify the journalists from their articles and contact them for recommendations.
  • Google. The tried and true for good sleuthing. Logical queries include “in house legal recruiter permanent placement [city]” or “Best/top corporate legal recruiter [city]” to name a few.

Now that you’ve made your list (which shouldn’t be longer than 3-5 firm names max unless you live in New York), email a recruiter at the firm and ask if s/he will assist you with obtaining the information you need. A truly high quality, A-Player legal recruiter will be happy to help. Here is a sample overture:

  • “Hi Julie, my name is Robert Smith and I’m a 3rd year corporate associate at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher in San Francisco. I am about to receive and offer from a large technology company (Company X) and I don’t have any idea as to what a reasonable in house compensation range would be for someone at my seniority level. You have a great reputation and are an expert in your field so I had hoped you might be willing to provide me with your opinion as to what I might expect. I know you are very busy, but it would be such a great help to me and I would sincerely appreciate it. Let me know if you’d have some time to help. Many thanks, Robert.”

In House Professional Organizations.

The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) is one of the largest organizations for in house lawyers. The group sports thousands of lawyers as its members and has chapters set up around the world. Identify who leads the charge in your geographic area and reach out for help.

In House Lawyers Who Are Friends and Former Colleagues.

Tap friends former law firm colleagues who are now in house. Confidentially reach out to them and ask for their input. Remember, companies are different so don’t apply their numbers as gospel for all companies: the comp answer you receive from a buddy at Google will be different than your pal at the Series B start-up Dingaling.com. A healthy sampling will give you a good idea on a reliable range.

Compensation Reports and Surveys.

Some search firms and legal profession websites will publish “Compensation Reports” and “Compensation Surveys” that you can either buy or access online. While these can be ok benchmarks, they tend to provide very wide comp ranges, which – at the end of the day – will not prove that helpful. I still recommend that you review to be thorough, but the other resources will provide tighter and better real time numbers.

For a law firm associate, the transition from a law firm to an in house environment can be akin to landing on the moon. It’s a new and different world that will require special skills and tools to survive and thrive. Understanding how compensation works within this world is also important – especially when assessing your first offer for entry. So leverage the data and resources above in order to negotiate intelligently. And not only will you take one small step for You, you will take one giant leap for your career.

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