for, | November 18, 2021

Why Won’t Anyone Tell Me How Much I Should Be Getting Paid?

Recruiters get weird when I ask.

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Dear Pay Dirt,

How do I figure out my market value? I am a lawyer who received bar admission during the last recession and spent a few years doing temp work and doc review before landing a traditional associate position. I currently earn a low to moderate six-figure salary. I have been on more interviews than before in the past year, but it always seems to end with a hang up around pay. I generally state my salary requirement is above $150,000 but below $200,000. I have had potential employers tell me that they think I am worth that much but did not plan on that salary range for the role in question, and I was not offered the position. (These are often small- to medium-sized local law firms with one office.)

I have tried asking recruiters what they think I am worth based on my experience, and they always hem and haw and refuse to give an answer while saying something like “We depend on you to let us know what you want.” Is there a chance I am already being offered a fair market salary? Are there ways to get this info out of recruiters?

—In the Dark

Dear In the Dark,

I think if you’re not getting good salary data from recruiters, you’re talking to the wrong recruiters. They have every incentive to tell you what they think you can make. I’m not sure how many of these you’ve tried, but keep casting your net until you find somebody who’s willing to be specific.

That said, salary levels vary based on size and type of law firm. Large corporate firms will generally pay better than small local firms, and the type of law you practice matters, too. Where you’re located matters as well; salaries are often adjusted for cost of living. You should ask potential employers about salary ranges, which most firms try to peg to market. If employers keep telling you your ask is above their planned salary range, your ask may, indeed, be too high.

You can also ask people who’ve worked at these firms previously what they think is reasonable. If you talk to enough people, you’ll get a decent sense of what you should be asking for.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My late husband and I owned a vacation home in a small coastal town, where we spent many wonderful summers and took our nieces on trips I’ll always remember fondly. But I just can’t bear to go back now that he’s gone—everything in the house and around town is a reminder of him. I’d prefer for the house to stay in the family and have a new occupant who will use it often (as opposed to it staying empty for years and possibly being sold). Since my son didn’t want it, I decided to offer it to my niece, “Katie,” for less than half of its original value. She lives just a couple hours away and has two little girls, and said she’d be delighted to give them the happy summers that she and her sister spent with my husband and me.

But when her sister, “Rochelle,” found out about it, she was furious that I hadn’t offered her the house as well, and has hinted that I should “make it up to her” financially (presumably in my will). Rochelle has said many times that she doesn’t want children, and currently lives across the country, working a time-consuming job. I thought that since she has so often said that she can’t spare time for “frivolous time off” and doesn’t plan on having kids, it wouldn’t make sense to offer her the beach house, since I want it to stay in the family and be used frequently. Was I really wrong to pass Rochelle over? And if I messed up here, how should I make it up to her?

—Beach House Blues

Dear Blues,

I don’t think you were obligated to offer anyone the beach house, so I think Rochelle is out of line here, but I also understand why she may feel like she’s being left out. Her sister is getting a house to vacation in, and to make new memories in; she’s also getting an asset that has market value, if you look at it from a more mercenary, less sentimental point of view. But you are under no obligation to make anything up to her, and I think you should make that clear to her, lest she spend the rest of your days fuming about what she’s “owed.”

That said, I think you should have a conversation with Rochelle about why you offered the house to her sister at a cut rate, and emphasize that you did not want the house to be sold—that you see this house not as money, but as a family legacy, and it just turned out that Katie was the one who could carry on the tradition. If you feel like you need to offer something—right now, or in your will—to Rochelle for parity reasons, and to help her feel like she’s not being overlooked, there’s nothing wrong with doing that, either. But again—you don’t owe it to her.

Dear Pay Dirt,

I graduated in the middle of the pandemic and got my first real job working remotely, only recently getting to the office as people started getting vaccinated. It was the first time I had to interact with my co-workers face to face. Generally, it’s pretty good, but I have two particular co-workers, “Todd” and “Evan,” and I’m not sure how to deal with them.

Todd believes some weird conspiracy about soybeans. Yeah, the plant. Apparently, they’re part of some 3,000-year-old plan from China to take over the world through the power of phytoestrogens or some nonsense. It’s crazy, but at least Todd has enough self-awareness to not bring it up unless someone shows interest. Unfortunately, Evan has quickly realized he can bait Todd pretty easily and asks about this almost every day. It drives me nuts overhearing them in the cube farm, but I’m not really sure if it’s worth raising it with management and possibly getting one or both in trouble. Can you help me with some perspective?

—Not Into Soybean Conspiracies

Dear No Soybeans,

This is what noise-cancelling headphones are for. I’m afraid there’s not much you can do here, other than lobby Evan to stop baiting Todd because it’s driving you nuts. This isn’t the kind of thing that’s technically inappropriate workplace behavior, so I’m not sure you have any grounds to bring it up with management. (What are you going to say? My co-worker is weird and annoying? You say this is your first real job, so I’ll just go ahead and warn you: A few weird and annoying co-workers come with every job.)

At any rate, you’re probably not going to talk Todd out of his conspiracy. If you have a decent relationship with Evan, maybe you can diplomatically ask him to knock it off. Otherwise, take your next paycheck and budget for earplugs.

Dear Pay Dirt,

My husband and I are planning for the next phases in our lives, and I need some perspective. Hubby is separating from the military in just under six months and, through his military connections, seems poised to enter into a lucrative career. We’re also preparing for our first child (I’m not pregnant yet, because it takes some medical intervention on my side to make this happen, but the procedure is soon).

What I’m debating is whether it would be totally detrimental to my career to be a stay-at-home mom for a few years. I’m 25, and currently wrapping up a bachelor’s degree while working full-time. The plan would be to do an extended grad school program while I’m at home with baby, and to have two kids anywhere from two to four years apart in that time frame. Ideally, I’d stay home until the kids were each old enough for a preschool environment. So I’d be out of the workforce for five to seven years.

Would that totally kill my career? Would it be better if I worked part-time? Would anyone even hire me if I tried this? I don’t want to completely lose my independence to have children, but I also want to enjoy having my kids home while they’re little, since we’re very lucky to be able to do so. Hubby has said he’ll support me in whatever I decide to do.

—Paying the Mommy Tax

Dear Mommy Tax,

I don’t think being out of the workforce for five to seven years would kill your career, but it would affect it. The extent of that is sort of a function of what industry you plan to enter and what you plan to do.

You mention that you want to do a grad school program while you’re home with the baby, which is ambitious and labor-intensive, and probably akin to having a full-time job. I’d think about what that means for you in terms of the reasons why you want to stay home. If you don’t have childcare, doing anything school-related along with having a baby in the first year is going to be like juggling a job on top of being a stay-at-home mom.

Which is not to say that you can’t do it; I’m sure you can! But I think you have to decide what you want to get out of your children’s first few years. Depending on your field, you may be able to work part-time from home—and you may discover that you want to do that after a few months of around-the-clock renditions of Baby Shark. Ditto for doing that grad school program.

But my advice is to take a wait-and-see approach, because no one knows how they’re really going to feel about going back to work until they actually have a child. I have friends who thought they wanted to be stay-at-home moms, and discovered they missed work and needed some adult engagement that didn’t revolve around their kids. I also have friends who decided to extend maternity leave to five or six years because they realized they wanted to be home with their children, and felt that whatever potential cost they incurred to their careers was completely worth it.

I don’t think you’re going to fully know what you want, or how much you can handle on top of caring for your children, until your first baby is here. So my advice is to have a plan for all of these possible situations. Start researching part-time work in your field, and if you do decide to stay home full time, prepare to at least keep in touch with people in your industry, and keep yourself informed until you want to enter the workforce again.

The mommy tax is real, but there are ways to mitigate it.From a resume standpoint, it’s probably better that you work a little if you can (part time, remotely), if only to demonstrate that your career is important to you and you continued to develop professionally during that time. But it may not be an option for you, and that’s fine. And there’s no wrong choice here; there’s only what’s best for you.

More Advice from Slate

When I first met my husband, he made it clear that he never wanted children. I know it was wrong of me, but I wore him down: Seven years ago he became a very reluctant father, and we had another child three years later. It’s obvious now that we made a terrible mistake. Is there any way my marriage can be saved? Or have I screwed everything up completely?