What is a fringe benefit? Merriam-Webster defines this in two parts: first, as a benefit provided by an employer that has a monetary value beyond your actual salary; second, as an additional benefit. Most law firms provide a host of benefits that fall into this former category for their junior attorneys including, but not limited to, paid holidays, insurance (health, disability, etc.), paid vacation, relocation and moving expenses, bar expenses, and clerkship bonuses. These are standard among the American Lawyer’s A-List and part of their talent attraction and retention practices. As a recruiter who has worked and counseled attorneys for the past 15 years, I would define a fringe benefit as the latter category, namely anything above and beyond the law firm’s standard benefits. Over the years, I have observed and negotiated additional benefits such as part-time work schedules, remote work options, signing bonuses, etc. for seasoned, highly valued attorneys. I have seen attorneys create very nice situations for themselves within their firms, but knowing when and at what stage of your career to ask for these additional benefits is truly the key.
At the beginning of your career, so much of who you are professionally is still unformed. The biggest gift that law school provides is the opportunity to enter the legal profession. But this is pretty much the extent of that gift. Soon after you commence practice, you will find that much of the reading, critical thinking, and writing you did in law school does not fit the demands, assignments, and expectations of your law firm life. You will be relearning each of these skills in a real-world setting so that you may efficiently and effectively counsel and advise clients.
It may come as a shock that when you graduate, you really don’t know anything about the practice of law and that a legal education, in and of itself, does not actually provide you any practical professional experience to make you valuable on the legal market. This makes any negotiating position tenuous. From the market’s vantage, it is not until you have three or more years of legal experience that the firm begins to recoup their investment in your training and high salary, and it is also when you start to receive lots of recruiter calls. This is when you know that you finally have gained something that the market may want. Your negotiating position has officially changed.
I provide this context not as a giant bummer to give you a clear picture of where you, as a new attorney, truly stand as an economic cog in the dynamic flow of the law firm-as-business. As a junior lawyer, you are dispensable and as there is a strong supply of talent flowing yearly out of law schools with limited demand from law firms, there are many people standing in line for your coveted spot. Unless and until you have a clear understanding of your value to a business, you cannot effectively negotiate and plan for what you want.
Law firms are funny places. Lawyers are funny people. Law school teaches us not to take anything at face value. The practice of law teaches us how to be skeptical—a perspective that only sharpens as you ripen into a partner. Law firm partners may be one of the most skeptical groups in the world, which is part of what makes them strong lawyers, but it is also part of what makes the constant hazing aspect of law firm environments so tough. As a new associate, you will get labeled. Sometimes the label is fair, sometimes not. As a junior associate, if you are asking for a benefit that is over and above what is offered by the firm, you risk being labeled as asking for something you have not yet earned. This may have negative consequences for your brand and career at that firm. Just the ask will fly in the face of all the partners who feel they have earned through time, patience, and many missed vacations—the label will stick, as lawyers, like elephants, have very long memories.
Entering the legal profession is a long game—it is a career that will take you into your old age. Remember, every year your leverage will improve as you gain experience and as you forge relationships and earn the trust of your supervisors. As an external vendor, I’ve observed that the attorneys who could truly negotiate fringe benefits came in as junior attorneys with no expectations and worked hard to become indispensable and invaluable members of the team. They took on projects that were difficult and asked for more. They billed above and beyond what was required. They made sacrifices—Friday nights, weekends, vacations may have suffered, and friend’s weddings missed. In short, they made the firm money. It may sound bleak, but through these efforts, they found that they became sought-after commodities resulting in being staffed on top projects; they received rave reviews without a nasty surprise in their yearly performance meetings; they were taken to client meetings and pitches; they were shown the inside track and amazing opportunities flowed to them from their relationships and valued skill set. They assiduously built their skills and experience. And when they had children or something in their life situations changed, they could ask for the world or the law-firm equivalent. Graduating from law school does not make you valuable to a law firm—gaining specific, strong practice experience does.