My early career was an attorney in large corporate law firms. As is the case now, back in the 1990s, associate salaries (as well as bonuses) were lock-step and market-driven. So, it wasn’t until I decided to make a career change 11 years after graduating from law school that I faced the annoying persistence of the gender wage gap.
Last year, not taking into account age, race or intersectionality, women earned just 82 percent of what men earned. Disappointing, but a definite improvement from the 64 cents on the dollar women earned back in the 1980s — about the time I was applying for part-time retail jobs and saving up for college.
Click to read more about a study done on the lack of women in high-paying jobs.
Fast-forward to 2002, when I stepped off the partner track and away from the decent six-figure salary I was earning, to pursue a brand new role on the management side of a law firm. I was fully aware before making this particular career leap that, as I was shifting professional direction (all the while remaining in the legal profession), I’d be taking (at least initially) a significant salary cut. What I was not prepared for was the ongoing effort it took me to incrementally move the needle on my own paycheck.
A portion of my low starting salary as a new manager could be attributable to my lack of specific work experience in management roles. As a lawyer, I’d managed transactions, supervised junior attorneys and run the occasional continuing legal education program (a reasonable starting point for the training and professional development role I was seeking), but I most definitely was not a seasoned manager. Prior to 2004, I had never been responsible for budgets, staffing or annual performance reviews. While I had done my best to fill in the identified gaps in my résumé by taking evening courses and volunteering, even I recognized that these efforts could not replace real on-the-job expertise.
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After 18 months of career transition interviews and network building, I jumped at the first real job offer I received. It never crossed my mind to negotiate my starting salary or to question the pay levels in a field that is actually overwhelmingly dominated by women.
By the time I’d moved on from various legal management roles, 5 1/2 years later, not only had I recruited and built a team to run the national (and global) programs the department was responsible for, I’d also maneuvered my salary closer to the level of my colleagues in competitor firms. Let me save you some sweat and agony: Here’s what I learned from this past job experience that you can put to use to improve your own paycheck starting today.
Maintain Strong Relationships With Recruiters
During my job search, I connected with a recruiter who initially was not able to recommend me as a candidate to her clients, as I lacked job experience. We kept in touch with an annual lunch each January and in the months between, she’d pass along industry updates ranging from job openings to departmental budgets, as well as salaries at competitor firms.
Understand Your Department’s Organizational Chart and Budgeting Process
I was fortunate to report to a director who was absolutely transparent as to what was (or was not) possible in the realm of hiring and pay, based on the firm’s organizational structure. I knew what discretion he could exercise to wrangle additional resources on a project-specific basis and when it was hopeless to even ask.
Interview for Jobs, Even When You’re Not Looking for One
A year or so into management, I began to be approached for roles at other firms. My career strategy was to take every single interview, even though I had no intention of leaving the role I was in. Why? Information is powerful. I gained a lot of clarity around what I found meaningful in the role I was in (and what I needed to be successful) during those interviews. A bigger paycheck is not always the answer to finding a more fulfilling career.
Maintain Strong Relationships With Your Colleagues in the Industry
The professional development network I cultivated when I was making my career transition is the peer network I turned to when I faced challenges as a rookie manager. There was nothing I was facing that these seasoned managers hadn’t already faced, including salary negotiations. Having colleagues who will take your call is truly priceless.
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Your Next Role Will Likely Get You the Recognition You Deserve
I knew in my gut that I’d initially have to accept a lower base salary to break into the legal management profession. I was also acutely aware that I needed to be visible and maintain a strong profile, as a “head down, doing good work” strategy was not going to change my paycheck. And I was right. External recognition, both in the industry and outside of my functional area, would turn out to be the catalyst for my upward career momentum.
Click through to read more about ways to support women without spending a dime.